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Artist Deep-Dive: J Dilla, Your Favorite Musician's Favorite Musician

Updated: Apr 21

Collage courtesy of u/asdfghjared

Just as MF DOOM is, "your favorite rapper's favorite rapper", J Dilla, or James Yancy, is most definitely "your favorite producer's favorite producer," "your favorite drummer's favorite drummer," and many more. Despite a relatively short career, Dilla's unique approach to music production has transcended time and genre, leading to legendary status amongst both fans and musicians alike. Born in eastside Detroit to musician parents, Yancy was digging in record crates from a young age. Years were spent locked away in his room deconstructing and sampling his ever-growing collection of records. His upbringing was fundamental in the type of musician that he would become.


As discussed in Dan Charnas' book Dilla Time, the basis of music is the subdivisions upon which it is divided. This is usually signified by the time signature, and it is most common for every subdivision to contain 3-4 notes, though the structure of these has not been rigid throughout music history. Classical musicians initially stretched and compressed the various subdivisions of their music, calling this "Rubato". Many others, especially jazz musicians, further played with the concept and stretched and squeezed these groupings in different ways. Yet what Dilla did when he started composing hip-hop beats was especially unique, even considering the prior innovation. He would escape this structure by separating every instrument and sound on a record, and then putting them back together but with some parts of the song playing like they are on a few-second delay, others may sound like they come in a millisecond early. This "Drunk Funk," as it would later be called, instantly became a hit around various nightclubs at the time, and captured the admiration of many outside of hip-hop as well. Even now, drummers try, and many fail, to play on "Dilla Time," including some of the greatest to ever pick up the drumsticks.

Questlove, one of the most talented drummers of recent times, described hearing Dilla's music for the first time and thinking it sounded like the drums were played by a "drunk three-year-old". Despite the seemingly negative description, this is exactly what made him, and many others, fall in love with Dilla's style. It prompted a moment of recollection and reconsideration of everything Quest had seen as proper when it came to drumming. He realized that what Dilla was doing was just "not giving a f***", or not trying to be something he wasn't. His style of producing was his and was not controlled by what was popular or what was seen as the "correct" way to do it.

"They let me hear a beat-tape and i just never heard someone not give a f***, and that to me was the most liberating moment."

Questlove is not the only musician who holds this deep reverence for Dilla, as many fellow hip-hop producers and performers have paid homage to him by attempting to emulate his techniques. The same can be said for a large number of modern jazz musicians, including influential names such as Robert Glasper, Karriem Riggins, and Atunde Aduja. In addition to all this adoration from his peers, he also collaborated with just as many musical luminaries. From R&B stars Erykah Badu and Janet Jackson to Rap Legends Common and Q-tip, Dilla's list of collaborations is extensive, to say the least. Paradoxically, this is what he is best known for while at the same time going unknown on many foundational hip-hop and R&B tracks. This, however, is made up for by the collaborations and groups of which he was a frontman, including his childhood group Slum Village and his partnership with Madlib as Jaylib.



His solo discography is just as impressive as his collaborative works as Dilla released three studio albums before his early death at the young age of 32, with six more being released posthumously. The same figures apply to his extended plays. Donuts (2006), though it was not his highest charting album, provides a number of his most iconic songs like Don't Cry and Time: The Donut of the Heart. A collection of short, yet jampacked, loops, Donuts also adds an aspect of tragedy to his story and persona. He produced the majority of the album in the hospital, before passing away from complications related to a rare genetic blood disease called TTP. Don't Cry, perhaps his most notable track, adds even more to this tragic narrative, as it was made for his brother to try to assuage him after his passing. Dilla's other albums, such as The Shining (2006), are just as iconic as Donuts and even have the producer double as an MC on some.

Dilla's impact on music has been monumental, whether most people know it or not. It is upsetting that many fundamental figures in various forms of art are only truly appreciated after they are gone, and sometimes they never are. While many in Dilla's life, like his mother 'Ma Dukes,' have worked tirelessly to preserve and amplify his legacy, it still feels like he is not given the proper respect he deserves. As his songs keep playing, and new musicians continue to gain inspiration from him and his style, his legacy continues to grow.

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