Even in his lifetime, there’s something inexplicable about J Dilla, the Detroit-born hip-hop MC and producer. He is an open secret, an unacknowledged force and shaper of modern music. Followers spoke of him reverently and with enough exaggeration that he might find it difficult to reach uninformed listeners. In the 16 years since his death, the aura around him just developed.
Writer Dan Charnas conducted nearly 200 interviews to write “Dilla Time,” a 400-page biography that launched Tuesday that scrutinizes the hip-hop producer’s unconventional approach. But Charnas, author of the 2010 book “The Big Payback: The Business History of Hip-Hop,” can barely recall anything J Dilla, born James Dewitt Yancey, said during their one time together, in the summer of 1999.
He remembers Dilla crouching in front of his MPC3000 sampling drum machine in the basement studio of his family home in Detroit’s Conant Gardens. He remembers going to a barbecue in Mongolia with rappers Chino XL, Dilla, and Common, who were in town to work with Dilla on the album that would become his “Like Water for Chocolate.” But that’s about it.
“I am speaking rather than listening,” Charnas said in a recent video interview, “and so the big change for me was that I had to listen really, really carefully over the past four years to try to Try to tell this story. ”
Dilla, who is noted for his work with Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest and his own group the Slum Village, passed away in February 2006 recovered from complications of a rare blood disease three days after he turned 32. He was beloved by his contemporaries and a handful of fans for his terrifying beats – and he was not known for being a regular person. Talk to journalists regularly. (Charnas could only find 16 interviews.)
Common remembers seeing Pharrell Williams bow to Dilla when they met and recalls Kanye West excitedly showing everyone in the studio the album Dilla had given him to pull drum samples.
“I didn’t grow up listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I didn’t even grow up listening to Fela Kuti or Jimi Hendrix,” Common said in a phone interview. “I bring their music up because these artists and their work are timeless. And J Dilla is one of those individuals.”
Dilla’s career was rooted in seemingly contradictory ideas. He is known for combining quiet yet laid-back melodies with rough, shrill drums. He often works with artists who are seen as divine counterweights to the increasingly materialistic and hyperrealistic world of late ’90s hip-hop, but he himself is not a fan of jewelry, cars. bit expensive and strip club. As technological advancements made music production easier and the results more uniform, Dilla used those tools to find the possibility of imperfections.
Dilla’s ability to listen and influence has grown exponentially since his death. There are now annual Dilla Day events around the world, and his music has been hosted by organizations such as the Lincoln Center and the Detroit Institute of the Arts. His MPC3000 is on display behind glass at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Charnas teaches a course on Dilla, which is the source of the book, as deputy Professor at the Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music at New York University.
Over the years, there has been almost a deification of Dilla; Charnas’ book goes to great lengths to anthropomorphize him. Though he sympathizes with his subject’s struggles – especially unhappiness as an artist in the big label system and declining health – Charnas doesn’t shy away from describing her imperfections.
Dilla is short-tempered and can become jealous, those closest to him have told Charnas. When he is frustrated, his tranquility will be broken when he attacks them. But the same people who had told Charnas these unflattering stories continued to care for Dilla unconditionally.
Frank Nitt, Dilla’s best friend since high school, with whom he later produced music as part of the group Frank-n-Dank, said: “He was private, and still is. things I’m not talking about. “But on the other hand, who he is and how he’s seen by people at this point, there’s a lot of misconceptions.”
One of Dilla’s fundamental myths is how he got to his signature sound, where rhythms can feel off-kilter, different, or just wrong. Some say it’s a failure to quantify his compositions, a feature in digital recording that eliminates human error and puts the timing of the drum beat in the right place. they.
Charnas explains that Dilla’s process is more complicated, and that he took steps to bring out the sound effects of the bug on purpose. The result was a refreshing sense of rhythm that Charnas labeled as “Dilla time” – distinguishing it from straight time and swing time, two rhythmic patterns that define Western music. Dilla’s explanation for her renewal? He’ll just say that’s how he nods.
Charnas traces Dilla’s influence beyond hip-hop and soul, as it expands into pop, electronic, and jazz music. His imprint can be found in songs by artists such as Michael Jackson, Flying Lotus, 1975 and Robert Glasper. (“Dilla Time” reveals that Dilla blew the ability to work with ‘N Sync, twice.) Sometimes the effects of Dilla are continuous. He inspired young Los Angeles jazz musicians like Terrace Martin and Thundercat. Then Kendrick Lamar let those artists work and expanded the palette for his landmark 2015 album, “Let Pimp a Butterfly.”
Charnas also sheds light on the story surrounding “Donuts,” an instrumental album that Stones Throw Records released shortly before Dilla’s death, which has become an important destination for a new generation of fans. It is said that Dilla recorded “Donuts” in the hospital, embedding messages for loved ones in his compositions as he neared the end. In fact, “Donuts” was born from one of the many beat tapes he has made. It was largely edited and expanded by Jeff Jank, who worked at Stones Throw, and completed a few months before Dilla’s death.
Although he settled with J Dilla around 2001, he has been alternately credited under names including Jay Dee, Jaydee, JD and Jon Doe. For most of the time from the mid-90s to the early part of this century, he was part of two production collectives, Ummah and Soulquarians, along with more famous members.
In the book, Charnas recounts how in the process the creation of D’Angelo’s 2000 opus “Voodoo,” D’Angelo and Questlove refer to Dilla and Prince as their “two North Stars”. Dilla was present at several recording sessions at Electric Lady Studios in New York, but none of the songs he initiated were completed. When he finally received a copy of his file, he was disappointed to realize that his name was no longer in the liner notes.
“James’ main theme in this story is credit, being seen,” said Charnas, “and he’s struggling to be seen.” Even on Common’s “The Light,” The biggest hit Dilla ever made, he was listed as “Soulquarian’s Jay Dee for Ummah,” leaving him, as Charnas put it, “broken in brotherhood.”
Charnas’ main reason for writing the book was not only to make Dilla’s contributions to music known, but also to explain that the devotion from fans was justifiable. “In the end, I really say to all the people who love Dilla: ‘You weren’t wrong. Your affection was not misplaced,” he said. “He’s special, more special than many of you even know.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/01/arts/music/j-dilla-time-book.html J Dilla is a respected Rap producer. A new book deepens his legacy.