It’s a frightening prospect, writing about Jay Dee AKA J Dilla AKA James Dewitt Yancey. He’s a legend. And he’s gone. To say that he’s one of the most influential figures in hip-hop history is an understatement. He’s touched nearly every legendary record of the mid-’90s and early 2000s and basically did it all without even desiring credit for his work. For me, when you think about the best hip-hop there is, it starts around when Jay started making beats with an analog tape player in his Detroit basement. He wanted to be like Pete Rock (and ended up working with him later in his life, too). Well, he ended up being in Pete’s elite company; creative fathers of thoughtful hip-hop.
Name some others and chances are, Dilla had his hand in the pot (like these): Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia, Tribe’s Beats, Rhymes and Life AND The Love Movement, Busta’s When Disaster Strikes, De La Soul’s Stakes is High, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Q-Tip’s Amplified, The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Badu’s Mama’s Gun, and Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope (”Got ‘Til It’s Gone”). And that’s just a few of his production credits. He also blew people’s minds as a part of Slum Village, a humble threesome of friends who became tight in high school in Detroit who loved to battle rap.
They were a-little-too-quickly-for-Jay’s-liking pegged as a next Tribe. But while Tribe’s audience and following had a phrase to use to describe it, “backpack rap,” Dilla said he didn’t wear no backpack. He just liked making beats and hip-hop. And he was DAMN good at it. Born to musical parents, an opera singer mother and a jazz bassist father, his mom claimed he had an impeccable ear for harmony and syncopation at two months. And as he started ceaselessly collecting vinyl and spinning records whenever her could, he became obsessed.
Unfortunately, at the ripe age of 32 he succumbed to years of illness. He suffered from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood disease, and seemingly lupus as well. He’d started to lose weight and perform in a wheelchair as his health dwindled. And next week should be a unique and exciting way to channel his monstrous musicality and celebrate his outstanding catalogue. DJs Questlove, Rich Medina and Mike Nyce will spin some of THE MAN’s best; which means sophisticated breakbeats, refreshing percussion runs and danceable jazz. It’s $17 in advance and $20 at the door and a portion of the proceeds will go to the Lupus Foundation on behalf of J Dilla. Pretty awesome.
P.S. There’s a ton of Dilla on Spotify. Take yourself to school.