Music

New biography sheds light on J Dilla, the man who forever influenced the hip-hop world.

The late James Dewitt’s specific way of programming his MPC 3000 led him to invent a new way of producing beats, and become one of the most critical producers in hip-hop.

“Earl Sweatshirt couldn’t help but gush about J Dilla when asked about his musical influences during a recent interview with Apple Music. The rapper was in awe about discovering his work and how it changed his approach to making music. “I still can’t believe I’m even sitting here talking about him,” Earl said with a hint of admiration in his voice, “Dilla’s beats were like nothing else I had ever heard before, they just hit different.”

Born in 1974, James Dewitt Yance, better known as Jay Dee or J Dilla, was an American producer, rapper, songwriter and drummer. J Dilla collaborated with a diverse range of artists throughout his career, including A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, and Common, and he produced tracks for major labels such as MCA, Interscope, and Universal. With the recent release of the biography Dilla Time by Dan Charnas, we get a closer look at what made J Dilla unique, his influence and how his unique beat style works.

Yancey was a young musician growing up in Detroit, Michigan before becoming famous as J Dilla. However, he was originally going to work with airplanes as he had been selected for the Benjamin O. Davis Aerospace Technical High School where he would learn how to maintain airplanes and fly them. But he hated this place. His mother made a promise to him that if he stayed one year, he could move to Pershing High School 

This period of time was when Dilla met music producer Amp Fiddler. A mutual friend brought a bunch of people including Dilla to Amp’s studio in order to record some music but Amp was too busy making his own album. He told the group of teenagers that if one of them could help him by learning the equipment and making some beats, he could help them faster.

Amp Fiddler

By Rene Passet

The whole group pointed to Dilla. Amp told Dilla to bring samples and raw music that he wanted to loop up the day after. When Dilla returned the next day, Amp taught him how to use the MPC60 — a beat making machine. Dilla was hooked.

He would come to Amp’s studio every day after high school, and continue mastering the MPC60. 

One day in his third year at Davis High, Dilla let his mom know that he would be home late as he was going to be at Amp’s studio all night. Maureen frowned at Dilla for his lack of interest in school, but she knew that his son’s resolve was as strong as anyone she knew and that if she pushed him in school, she would push him away forever. She ultimately let her son leave Davis and change to Pershing High School. But Dilla only lasted on Pershing for a few months, before he decided to quit and focus on music fully. 

Dilla began his career as a member of the group Slum Village, where he quickly gained recognition for his distinct production style. He distinguished himself from other producers of the time through his use of samples, complex drum patterns, and layered melodies.

Later on, Dilla met the group named the Pharcyde thanks to his mentor and friend Amp. The group was amazed by Dilla’s level of production and paid him $9,000 for his work on three tracks. It was the most money he had ever gotten doing beats. He would next work with A Tribe Called Quest getting thousands of dollars per track, this is where Dilla achieved major success in his career. 

Part of what makes J Dilla so distinctive is the equipment. He used an MPC 3000 — the MPC is an acronym for Music Production Center. This machine allows for sampling and playing a sequence of commands to a computer in order to play a melody.

J Dilla’s MPC 3000

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture 

But it isn’t always about the piece of technology, it’s how he used it. What made Dilla stand out from the average producer was the effect he created by disabling quantization on his MPC 3000. Quantization consists of adjusting notes that are played too late in synchronization with the beat. Disabling this feature made the MPC feel more human as if someone was inside the machine playing the drums and not the computer.

“Music without quantization” 

Original Illustration -Drey Polblood

“Music with quantization” 

Original Illustration -Drey Polblood

The late Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest was amazed at how quickly J Dilla could work. Dilla, Phife Dawg says, could simply “pick the record he wanted to sample and make a beat in 10 minutes flat – it was crazy.”

Amp Fiddler said he could tell J Dilla had huge potential from the very beginning. “It was very inspiring to see a young kid with so much talent come into fruition by your teaching of technology. I already knew that he was going to be successful.”

Unfortunately his success was cut short when, in the bitter summer of 2005  he was bedridden in the hospital due to his lupus and TTP, with no direct cure or treatment available. 

Facing a death that he knew was coming for him, Dilla kept working. 

Armed with only a Boss SP-303 sampler, a portable turntable and some records, J Dilla spent his last days creating a final masterpiece “Donuts”

As time went by his condition worsened. He lost mobility in his hands and legs, so his mother would massage his fingertips in order for him to continue working. There were even moments in the hospital when he would wake up in the middle of the night and ask anyone that was there to move him close to his equipment. 

Kelley L. of the Carter of Detroit Free Press reported, “Dilla told his doctor he was proud of the work, and that all he wanted to do was to finish his album”. 3 days after releasing “Donuts,” J Dilla passed away. 

Famous rappers and producers today such as Kanye West, ThunderCat, Joey Bada$$, Madlib Q-Tip and many others describe J Dilla as a big influence on their work.  

Joey Bada$$ comments “Every time I hear a J Dilla beat it hits me right in my heart right in my soul.”

Described as his “musical cousin” by DJ and producer Madlib, he says “Every producer bows down to Dilla whether they like it or not.”

Jazz musicians also look up to J Dilla. People like Christian Scott, Chris Dave, and Karriem Riggins all imitate the way Dilla used to play the drums. Even to the point where composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson made a tribute orchestra video to one of his songs. 

Jazz drummer Karriem Riggins, who worked closely with Dilla says that Dilla belongs in the same category as “Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Miles Davis. He’s in the same category as me.”

Some of his legacy reaches outside producers and rappers, an example being Cartoon Network using many of Dilla’s songs as bumper music during the Adult Swim programming block. After Dilla’s death, Adult Swim made various tribute videos to the deceased producer. 

The importance of J Dilla to the hip-hop industry cannot be overstated. His innovative production style and soulful beats influenced many and his legacy continues to inspire new generations of musicians. Every year on “Dilla Day” people remember the man and his work.

1 comment on “New biography sheds light on J Dilla, the man who forever influenced the hip-hop world.

  1. Wow, very interesting

    Like

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