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J. Dilla Changed My Life

The Positive Side of Hip Hop

By Kevin Britton · July 19th, 2006 · The Ledge
C. Matthew Hamby

"I used to listen to records and actually ... look for mistakes. I try to do that in my music; (I) try to have that live feel ..."

-- J. Dilla

About a month ago I saw someone wearing one of those black "J. Dilla Changed My Life" T-shirts. I thought about how we (as in those of us who have a tendency to be trend-humpers) rarely miss an opportunity to jump on the various bandwagons that shape popular culture.

Remember "Vote For Pedro"?

But I also understood that these shirts were a little different. In fact, they were produced to pay homage to one of the greatest beatmaker/producers that Hip Hop will ever see.

It's been about five months since James "Jay Dee/J. Dilla" Yancy, commonly known as Dilla, passed away at the age of 32 as a result of an incurable blood disease. Since then, dozens of Web sites and a handful of foundations have been created to honor the man who quietly contributed to the Soul/Jazz renaissance sound in sample-based Hip Hop.

Dilla's contribution to the art of Hip Hop production was profound, if not unnoticed by the masses. Often mentioned in the same breath as studio giants MadLib, Pete Rock, Premier and 9th Wonder, the prototypical J. Dilla sound was the product of a marriage between Detroit's Motown Soul and a crash course in electronic sampling and looping courtesy of Neo Soul artist/producer Amp Fiddler.

Dilla would eventually become the man behind the success of a string of popular, sample-based Hip Hop singles such as Common's "The Light," De La Soul's "Stakes is High" and an under-the-radar track by Steve Spacek called "Dollar." Though each of the tracks appeared on separate albums by different artists -- Spacek, for instance, is a London-based Electronica artist -- each had a vintage authenticity that distinguished Dilla's work from most of the noise heard on commercial radio.

In an interview republished shortly after his death, Dilla conceded that his signature stuttered beat arrangements and harmonious loops were light years away from the uptempo, Kraftwerk-esque techno Hip Hop coming out of a pre-8 Mile Detroit in the late-'80s and early '90s. In fact, his earliest studio work took place at Metroplex, home to the legendary Juan Atkins/Cybotron sound (anyone old enough to remember "Clear" and "Cosmic Cars" will know what I'm referring to).

Heavily influenced by the breaks and hooks found in his parents' old record collection, Dilla formed Slum Village in the mid-'90s with high school friends T3 and Baatan. A cassette recording of their heavily bootlegged debut made its way into the hands of The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, arguably the first person who could say "J. Dilla Changed My Life" and truly mean it. (See "Life Lessons" in the June/July 2006 issue of Waxpoetics magazine.)

Students of break-beat science remain fascinated by Dilla's method of chopping miniscule samples of old recordings and looping them with other sounds to build complex beats and melodies. Over the course of the last 10 years, his signature sound contributed to the catalogs of Common, A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, Dwele, Erykah Badu, De La Soul, Janet Jackson, Lucy Pearl and others.

Ironically, Dilla's last commercially available CD, Donuts, was released a mere three days before his death (his posthumous release, The Shining, will drop next month). According to the now-legendary accounts, some of the tracks were produced using little more than a turntable and a sampler while he was in the hospital during one of his final bouts with his illness.

Outside of vocals that are part of original recordings, Donuts is more of a tightly sequenced, instrumental mixtape containing some of Dilla's most inspired work. A few tracks, such as the aptly named "One for Ghost" (as in Ghostface Killah), had already been earmarked and sold to other artists for their individual projects.

Dilla's fans have speculated -- given the severity of his illness -- that he had embedded hidden messages within the album's samples. With track titles like "Don't Cry," "Bye" and "Last Donut of the Night," it's certainly possible. Yet that seems a bit obvious for someone who appeared to enjoy the relative anonymity of life behind the mixing boards. Rather, I think he had already left his mark -- particularly for those crate diggers who get off on deciphering the puzzle of samples that comprised his music.

For me, listening to Dilla is kind of like playing a break-beat version of Name That Tune. Now I'm rediscovering original versions of those old dusty Soul and Funk classics and wondering whether a particular track might have been the source for one of his classic singles. Who else could have inspired me to run out and pick up a Very Best of The Meters comp?

Yeah, I guess you can say J. Dilla changed my life, too.

5 on theledge

· "Dollar" by Steve Spacek A filtered and looped Billy Paul sample and Dilla's intentionally choppy edits make this single a must-have for your collection.

· "Funky for You" by Common While standard fair for most of Com's later material, the bluesy extended outro of the track carries Dilla's unmistakable imprint.

· "Much More" by De La Soul featuring Yummy Dilla's thinly veiled use of LTD's "Love Ballad" hook propelled this single to "instant vintage" status.

· "Whip You With a Strap" by Ghostface Killah Tony Stark's reflection on a mother's tough love is enhanced by the haunting Luther Ingram vocal throughout the track.

· "It's Your World/Pop's Reprise" by Common featuring Bilal It's hard not to get misty-eyed when you hear little kids declare their dreams ("I wanna be the first African-American female president!") over obscure horn and string riffs by The Modulation.



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