Artists We Love Vol. 1: J Dilla

For the inaugural Artists We Love post on the Musicseur Blog, I can think of no better way to christen this venture by paying tribute to one of the most influential and innovative producers and music artists of recent times, the late, great James Dewitt Yancey, better known to the world first as Jay Dee, and later J Dilla.  Dilla was born on February 7, 1974 to Maureen Yancey, who through her tireless and inspired efforts to maintain the legacy of her beloved son has come to be known to the world as "Ma Dukes".  Suffering from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (a rare blood disease), Dilla tragically passed on February 10, 2006, a day that hip hop music connoisseurs have taken to celebrating as "Dilla Day".  This post is our tribute to celebrate J Dilla, not only one of the greatest hip hop producers and sample based artists of all time, but also one of the people who embodied what it means to be a true Musicseur.

Much has been said and written about Dilla's phenomenal work with a wide assortment of legendary acts such as A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, Common, Mos Def, The Roots, De La Soul, The Pharcyde, Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson, Madlib, and his own group Slum Village among many others.  However, significantly less has been written about exactly what it was about his music and his artistry that made him so respected, loved and revered almost as much by his fellow musicians, ranging from sample based beatmakers to more traditional instrumentalists and composers, as he was by his many adoring fans.  What were the stylistic idiosyncrasies and apparent artistic philosophies that made Dilla's music just simply sound and feel so damn good?

J Dilla was a producers’ producer of the highest order, due to his brilliant usage and mastery of the techniques of classic hardware beat machines such as the EMU SP12 and SP1200, Akai MPC 3000, and later helping to popularize usage of one of the most ubiquitous hardware machines of recent times, the Roland SP303 (along with his musical brother, the mighty Madlib).  The wonderful sounds that Dilla was artfully able to extract from these machines on songs like The Pharcyde's "Runnin", De La Soul's "Stakes Is High" and Erykah Badu's "Didn't Cha Know" are what thrilled the everyday hip hop connoisseur.  But it was his brilliant use of the technique of chopping samples, filtering the samples to create his punchy basslines and other textures, as well as his non-regimented, often un-quantized drum programming, meant to mimic the rhythms of the funky drummers often sampled by crate diggers, that really stood as the inspiration to the legions of beatmakers and musicians that he counts as fans to this day, including myself.

It was also Dilla's versatility and many artistic layers that he could effortlessly demonstrate, which served as yet another signal of his greatness.  Dilla made some of the smoothest creations ever within the genre of Hip Hop and modern R&B/Soul, such as Common's "The Light", Slum Village's "Players" and the remix to superstar Janet Jackson's "Got Til Its Gone".  But he could also produce hardcore boom bap, with that signature Dilla bounce and experimental flair of course, as he showed on much of his later work, such as his Ruff Draft EP, his debut album Welcome 2 Detroit and his collaboration with Madlib, Jaylib. He could produce beats that could serve as the backdrop of the thoughtful poetics of Mos Def/ Yasiin Bey, the angelic crooning of Badu, or his own often extremely boastful braggadocious personality as an MC (shown on his verse on Slum Village's "Raise It Up") with great ease, and merge those worlds together seamlessly. Simply put, his music fit coffee houses, clubs, jeeps and Sunday afternoon chill sessions equally.

In my view, no piece of work that he created showed his versatility, his mastery of the craft or beatmaking, his musicianship, and that special sauce that the truly great artists have, that special artistic flair that often goes beyond description with mere words than the album that was to be his swan song, DonutsDonuts is an instrumental album that, legend has it, he created in his last days in the hospital where he was being treated for the disease that eventually took his life.  It was done mostly on a makeshift studio setup, much of it made on the portable SP303, with records sent and/or brought to him by his mother and his many friends. Although it was an instrumental album technically, it seems as though Dilla created this album with encrypted messages to everyone that he loved or cared about, people who impacted him and the many who he's impacted, through his use of vocal samples, his choice of songs that he sampled, and the overall feel of the music. It almost feels like one last journey into the artistic mind of Dilla, just as his mastery of the art of sample based beatmaking was maturing from something truly unique and special to otherworldly levels of rarely heard before brilliance within that art. It was released on his 32nd birthday, February 7th 2006. Dilla passed 3 days later.

 Although he is gone, he will never be forgotten by true Musicseurs of all stripes worldwide. LONG LIVE THE GREAT J DILLA.

Terrence "T Noize" Satchell


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