HotNewHipHop remembers the life and legacy of J Dilla.
James Dewitt Yancey, AKA Jay Dee, AKA J Dilla would have turned 41 today.
One of the most influential producers of modern hip-hop and soul, he was a musical genius, inspiring artists in all genres of music with his ability to make the most perfect beats.
Yancey grew up in the Conant Gardens neighborhood of Detroit, MI. His mother was a singer and his father played bass and piano. Together, they formed an acapella jazz group, so there was always singing and music in the house. He started making beats at just 11 years old, and by the time he was in his early 20s, he was making beats for A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, and others. His music perfectly embodied Detroit hip-hop, but artists around the world loved it, and wanted to use it.
Dilla was probably one of the few hip-hop artists to ever study cello. His background was so unique. He died of lupus on February 10, 2006, just days after his 32nd birthday. Even in death, his legacy lives on as one of the great producers of all time.
To celebrate his life, HotNewHipHop spoke with some of the artists that Dilla inspired most.
HNHH: How did Dilla inspire you to get into music and become a DJ?
DJ Rashad Hayes: I'm actually producing too now. He inspired me because of his work ethic and how prolific he was. He was always chasing greatness or perfection. He taught me to chase greatness and to never hold myself back. He taught me to always try and create. I was just really enamored with that lifestyle of waking up in the morning, going crate digging, record digging, getting some crazy breaks, crazy little playbacks, looping it up, making a beat, and rapping over it. As far as deejaying, there's nobody like me in New York's downtown scene. Whenever you come to any of my parties you're gonna hear a whole bunch of different types of music. Stuff you'll be able to dance to, vibe to… I attribute a lot of my success to what I've learned from J Dilla.
HNHH: What are some of your favorite Jay Dee beats?
DJ Rashad Hayes: My favorite Jay Dee beats… There are so many of them. The Pharcyde "She Said" remix. That beat is so crazy.
"Fall In Love." It's incredible. It's one of my favorites. It's like the quintessential, trademark Jay Dee beat. If I was gonna give someone one beat to listen to to understand the Jay Dee sound, it would be "Fall In Love."
Also "Beej N Dem" on theWelcome 2 Detroitalbum. That's one of my all-time favorite Jay Dee beats. There are so many of them.
HNHH: What are some of your favorite memories of J Dilla?
DJ Rashad Hayes:. One of the first Jay Dee beats I heard was "Runnin" by the Pharcyde in like '96. When I heard it, I was just like "What the hell is this?!" It was like one of the craziest beats I heard. I remember hearing it on the radio in Seattle and wondering who made that beat. I had never heard a beat like that before. I bought the album, LabCabInCalifornia, and checked the liner notes so I could see who produced it. I grew up in the 90s. Pete Rock was big, Primo. But I had never heard of Jay Dee. The next beat I heard was Busta Rhyme's "Still Shinin." That beat was fuckin ridiculous. And then "Quick Draw McGraw" on Busta's [When] Disaster Strikes album. Later on, I got to college in 2001, and that's when I heard "Climax" and got into Slum Village. It was one of the most beautiful songs I had ever heard in my life. And then there's also Common's Like Water For Chocolate album. I mean there's so many memories. Just like that Boom Bap sound, that soul sound. He's [Dilla] one of the greatest producers ever. He was able to make a drum machine sound like a band. Jay Dee was incredible.
Bowls: I first heard his stuff in '96. That was when Tribe's "1nce Again" was released and that was like the first single off Beats, Rhymes, and Life, and I was only like 11 years old at the time, so I was still about four years away from actually deejaying. But when I finally started deejaying and buying records and whatnot, buying stuff "produced by JayDee," that's when I noticed the programming. I was like "This isn't exactly like the others." Like a lot of the New York stuff I was playing. "This is different. Like the kick drums would come right before the snare or the pattern would never repeat. And through deejaying, I started to become aware of what Dilla was doing before I started to hear people on the internet talking about it.
He never stayed in one lane longer than like a year, two years. It seems like if you just look at the progression from what he was doing in '94 compared to '96 when he was already doing the "Still Shining" beat for Busta, which is just insane. That's that programming stuff to the Nth degree.
He was incorporating a lot of jazz groups. His sound continued to evolve. The '98 batch was insane. By 2000, he was in another lane. As soon as he started calling himself "J Dilla" I was like "What the hell is this?" I thought it sounded kinda weird at the time. But then he started fucking with all the rock samples like electronic joints. And that's just inspiring to me because the amount of music out there is endless. And it's just so popular if you're digging to just look for soul, funk, and jazz. And then to find out this dude's taken like three seconds out of a 15-minute crazy ass prog rock song and made a banger out of it. You could make anything funky. Or no. You can't. HE could.
HNHH: Like bagpipes. He made bagpipes sound funky!
Bowls: Bagpipes, kazoos… What he was doing with the electronic stuff is really nuts. Like I collect that stuff now. I wouldn't have even thought about buying a lot of that Tangerine Dream stuff. Klaus Schultze, like all that German craziness. But yeah. He could make anything funky. So that is inspiring to me. Big time.
HNHH: You kinda touched on this a little bit, but what are some of your favorite JayDee beats like to spin or just to listen to? Sometimes for people it can be a little different...
Bowls: It is, yeah. There's so many. I'm a big fan of the song "Take Notice" with Guilty rapping on it and the crazy Peter Baumann sample. That record… he flipped like four different joints off that Peter Baumann record. He's a member of Tangerine Dream, so it's just one of those weird electronic records. So that one… He was still "JayDee" at the time for Ruff Draft. That was like the last thing he did before becoming "Dilla."
The song "Get Down" on Vintage is dope. That guitar sample...
"Heroin Joint" is a rare one. House Shoes played that for me.
"As Serious As Your Life Remix" is one of my favorite favorite Dilla beats. Guilty Simpson, once again, is rapping on this.
I mean all the stuff he did with Pharcyde. "Something That Means Something" is a crazy beat.
Also, there's this beat off the 99 Batch. It's called "Saginaw." I guess after the city in Michigan. That shit is hardcore.
My favorite Dilla song to play in a club is "Pause" with Frank N Dank off Welcome 2 Detroit. The beat bangs so hard. it just crushes speakers. The chorus is just something that people can get into. That chorus goes over well with people who aren't as familiar with Dilla. They know that song when they hear it.
Another one I like to play at clubs is "Forth And Back." That's one of my favorite joints to play.
And also, "E=MC2" with Common. That crushes speakers as well. Like playing that loud it sounds fresh like every single time.
"Breathe And Stop" is nuts. That beat is insane. Some people prefer the version on the 1999 beat tape. I think I prefer the one that came out on Amplified. Polished up. It sounds awesome.
He always kept it interesting. Even before the whole Donutsera. You could notice that he was taking small pieces and weaving them together seamlessly with the drum programming stuff. You could listen to one of his beats and notice that he's got subtle changes that never repeat. It holds your attention. Waajeed has taken the same kind of approach. Slight changes every eight bars or so.
Check out Bowls' mixes of J Dilla's rock samples and jazz samples (below).
"That was just a ton of fun to make," Bowls says of The Token Jazz Hour. I had to drive to St. Louis to find some of the records for it. There are a ton of jazz records in St. Louis. "Part 2 will be out next year!"
DJ Jay Ski, New Jersey
HNHH: How has Dilla inspired you?
DJ Jay Ski: Dilla has inspired me in so many ways! He always came with 100% originality, and just as fast as other producers tried to mimic his trademark sound of unorthodox production, J Dilla would immediately change it up and throw an ill curve ball at us. His sound was so unpredictable it became impossible to know what he had up his sleeve next, the man was a pure genius! His mentality of always being a leader and not a follower inspires me to this day, both as a beatmaker as well as in my DJ work.
Even bigger than that however, his work ethic was unbelievable. When he was healthy, he was cranking out 10 or more beats per day. But even when Lupus was bearing down on him, he was still banging out masterpieces. Probably twice as many! The fact that he was making classics from his hospital bed, in his final days, knowing that his time on Earth was limited, inspires me more than anything else ever could.
HNHH: What are some of your favorite Jay Dee beats to play at gigs and at home? It can be different for people...
DJ Jay Ski: That's nearly impossible to narrow down! When I'm at home I run through his beat tapes all the time. I'll literally drop 100 or more Jay Dee beat tape joints onto a playlist and let it run the whole day. And I was blessed to get the files from my man Questlove from The Roots, who got them directly from Jay Dee, so they had Dilla specific names for each beat... such as "Rah Digs This Mess," or "Busta Bounce," which were obviously made with Rah Digga and Busta in mind.
As far as Jay Dee classics that were official releases, my main favorites are:
I could go on for days! But those are no-brainers when I rock a Dilla set.
HNHH: Any stories/memories you wanna share...
In Philly we had a legendary hip-hop club named "Fluid," right off of South Street (Philly's version of Bourbon St.). One night Peanut Butter Wolf and Madlib were spinning there. I was in the building, along with every other person in the tri-state area that knew anything about hip-hop. I was standing in front of the DJ booth, and Jay Dee walked right by me. At the time I didn't really know what he looked like, this was before the "Dilla" nickname was even launched. My man was like "Yo that's Jay Dee!!!" I never got a chance to shake his hand or say what up -- that haunts me to this day.
I was on tour from 2005-2007 with Busta Rhymes and The Roots. I had the honor of opening each night, and spinning in between acts. We rocked every major city in the USA. I was already a huge Dilla fanatic, and would always drop some Slum Village, Tribe, Q-Tip, anything Dilla produced throughout my sets. And of course, Busta would perform numerous Dilla produced classics during his show. That was when we still had J Dilla alive. Jay Dee passed away in the middle of the tour. Needless to say, Busta would stop his show every night to pay homage to the greatest producer to EVER do it. The Roots would do tribute sets every night as well. They would be doing a classic Roots song, and then the band would break into "Raise it Up" or another Dilla classic track, and the crowd would go crazy. Then, the tour came to Detroit, at what was once known as the "State Theatre," now known as "The Fillmore." Slum Village and The Pharcyde were on the bill also. Needless to say, the entire night turned into a J Dilla tribute show. It was so intense I was literally in tears at one point. And in 2015, J Dilla tracks still bring out many emotions, and I'm still hearing new tracks that I've never heard before! That's how amazing music can be, and how amazing Jay Dee truly was.
DJ Nu-Mark: For me, he was the drum king. For a long time I thought I was great at chopping drums until I heard Dilla. And it changed the way I thought about music. And it changed the way I thought about how to compress drums together and how to crumble up drums together. The combo that he was giving the listener was very unique. The way he moved drums around ended up being one of the most emulated things by producers. Everybody wanted to sound like Dilla. But not everyone could be Dilla. There was only one Dilla. He was very focused, and he didn't wanna be anybody but himself. And I think that's what made him stand out. He was very dedicated. He was just a true artist. I have nothing but respect for him. The biggest compliment I ever received in the music industry is that I heard that he sampled my snare drum. I mean, I don't know how true it is. I think I know which snare it is. He was just extremely gifted. It was a real loss for the hip-hop community when he passed. There was always something waiting around the corner in his drum machine. There was always something that he was gonna like smash over your head. It was like 'What the hell is this?!" It really hit me in my heart when he passed.
Nick Speed: He was so original. He just blew my mind. I had never heard anything like J Dilla. I remember when he was first coming out in Detroit. Somehow, someway I came across his music. There wasn't internet then, so I don't know how I really first heard him. But I knew heard him like real real early. I had no idea who he was. I don't really remember how I first heard him. But later on I found out about The Hip-Hop Shop. I was in high school and I had this assignment to write a news story on whatever my interest was. So I was thinking this would be an incredible opportunity to meet this guy Proof that I had been hearing on the radio. He was supposed to be like the next big thing out of Detroit or something. So I was thinking that maybe I could use this assignment as an excuse to meet him. So I called The Hip-Hop Shop and I set it up. So I interviewed Proof. And from there I would go to The Hip Hop Shop more and more and hear J Dilla music. I'd just buy whatever tapes they had of Detroit shit. I just couldn't believe how good Dilla sounded. And I was like "Omg. He's from Detroit!?" It was music I could relate to in a Detroit kinda way. It was really inspiring. On Fantastic Vol. 1 they did everything in like one take. Like all of them had one microphone and they were all rapping together. So when I got a karaoke machine, that's how me and my friends would record. So in a way I was almost mocking Slum Village because we would just do one take. We would just do the whole thing live. We learned that from Slum Village.
So I ended up meeting House Shoes when I was in high school. He worked at Street Corner Music, the record store. My dad knew the people at Street Corner. So I went up there and met Shoes and I was like "I heard of you. White Mike!" So he started putting me up on a lot of different Dilla music. That's his boy so he had stuff that nobody had. I was just in awe. I felt so fortunate to know Shoes and have the opportunity to listen to this music.
And then Dilla started producing for Tribe, Busta Rhymes, and Pharcyde. And those songs just reminded me of The Hip-Hop Shop and of Detroit. Like "Stakes Is High," “Worldplay,” and "Drop" because those sounded like the beats that I heard at the Hip-Hop Shop. It didn’t matter where you were located, Dilla’s beats worked coast to coast. They definitely had a Detroit sound. And I couldn’t believe that he [Dilla] was able to touch the world with this Detroit sound. I was like “Wow.” That was amazing cause it’s like at that point in time it was bigger than I thought it could be. I just knew I liked it because I’m from Detroit. I didn’t know that the world would actually like it. I just liked it because it was good music and I felt cool because nobody in school had any idea about it.
So after we graduated high school, my friends and I decided to start making beats. We were rapping, and people were just charging a whole lot of money for beats at that time. We did one real studio session at RJ Rice’s studio, which is where Dilla recorded at too. Anyway, that session cost us so many hundreds of dollars that I figured, “Man, I need to buy a beat machine and learn how to do all this stuff myself.” So I got my own equipment and started making tracks, but I’ll always remember how good that J Dilla music sounded -- How original it was, and how it made me feel. So when I started making tracks I wanted my music to have an effect similar to that. But I still wanted to do my original music cause I felt like if I came across J Dilla and my music sounded like his, I don’t think he would respect that. So I wanted to still have my own originality. And I stuck to my guns because when Elzhi first joined Slum Village, J Dilla had just left. So they were trying to get that J Dilla sound back without J Dilla. It seemed like if I wanted to get a place in Slum Village, I would have to basically copy J Dilla’s music for them. But I wouldn’t do that. You can’t duplicate J Dilla. You can’t even try. Even if I totally copied his style, I still don’t think my beats could ever sound like his. So I stuck to my guns. Dilla influenced my music, but I kept my originality as well. I wanted to do something for Slum Village cause they were my main connection to the industry. I eventually came up with a track that they liked. It was called “Haters,” and it ended up coming out on Elzhi’s CD, Witness My Growth. It had a bunch of J Dilla productions. Actually, the song that we recorded with Dilla was on there. It was my first project that I put together. It was my chance to get production credit, put my name right next to J Dilla, and Alchemist, and Waajeed and all of them. I was able to attach my name to what they did.
J Dilla’s music taught me to be original, soulful, and stick to my guns. I wanted to have the effect that he did. I wanted to have the same wow factor in my music that he did in his. I think I came up with my own style through trying to figure out how he made his beats. Even now. I listen to J Dilla’s music and it always reminds me to think creative and be original and to keep going. He could take bagpipes and make it sound hip-hop. So one thing he showed us was that you could make a track out of anything. I would hang out at St. Andrews when House Shoes would be spinning and I can’t explain the excitement that everyone would have when he played Dilla’s music.
HNHH: What are some of your favorite Dilla beats to play at shows or to listen to?
Nick Speed: My favorite to listen to I would say… I always loved the remix he did for “Eve” by Spacek. It features Frank N Dank. And that beat is just… Oh my God. Like it’s just some magic. It just sounds so alive.
When I'm spinning I actually like to play J Dilla music that never came out if I can. Super exclusive. Something I can just blow the crowd’s mind with. I like the songs that everybody knows, but I still wanna hit you with something you’ve never heard. Like “Oh my God! Wait a minute. That’s J Dilla? And I never heard it?! What is that??” So that’s what I wanna do when I spin. But as far as listening, I love this Motown beat tape he did where he sampled all Motown. He has a beat where he sampled “Human Nature” by Michael Jackson. I love that. He has so many incredible productions. He has this song called “The Diary,” which was supposed to be on his solo album on MCA. That never even came out, but I love that. “Dynamite” by the Roots on Things Fall Apart.
“Wordplay” by Tribe. I heard that on a local mixtape a year before it came out (On Beats, Rhymes, and Life). That was one of his first Tribe Called Quest productions.
HNHH: Do you have any stories or memories you would like to share about Dilla?
Nick Speed: Absolutely. I actually met J Dilla before. I was in the studio with him one time, in 2001. He was working with Elzhi. And you know, me and Elz are like the best of friends. So El needed a ride to the studio. He called and he was like "Look, J Dilla just called and he said meet him up at the studio. You're driving. Come on!" So I just dropped what I was doing, got El, and took him to the studio. So like we're sitting there waiting, and Dilla arrives in a limousine. Like, who comes to the studio in a limo! So that was just like incredible to me, first of all. So then he had the little guy, the driver, had the white gloves on. He set up his MP and shit. Dilla sat down and started making a beat. After like 10 minutes, he was done. He made this super sweet fucking beat in like no time. Before I realized what was going on, he was done with it. I didn't even tell him I did beats or anything. I was just being real cool and quiet. I didn't even want to let him know that I made beats. I figured he might kick me out of the studio. I hardly said anything to him at all. So he went to smoke, and after he was finished, he came back and he added like two extra little parts to the beat and that shit just made like all the difference in the world. It was like super minimal, but it sounded so fucking sweet.
So then we came up with this one part. Like I used to listen to Mobb Deep and all that. So like on Mobb Deep albums they used to have a part where it sounded like their whole hood was there. Like "Yo Yo Yo!" Ya know? Like all of that in the background. We ended up coming up with a part like that where it's like the whole hood is out on the street corner. But it was only me, J Dilla, and Elzhi. So the three of us were standing at the mic together and we were yelling like "Yo Yo Yo. Hey Hey." Like some Marvin Gaye type shit. Like "What's Going On?"
Oh No: That's the melody man. Extremely soulful. His soul inspired me! You know what I'm saying? From just working with every rapper to just having the illest beats that you never heard that didn't come out. He was just the illest. And he was like an ill spitter too, Ya know? That's inspiring to me. One day I'd love to be even a quarter of what he is. Ya know?
HNHH: What are some of your favorite Jay Dee beats?
Oh No: That's a tough question. Like certain ones do certain things. Like I could just play Welcome 2 Detroit all the way through. Just the whole album in a constant loop. Just cleaning the house all day listening to that or Busta Rhymes' "What's Up."
I like it all. Everything. The Tribe stuff that he did. Common's album (Like Water For Chocolate). "The Look of Love" and "Players" by Slum Village.
DJ Romes: There's no way you can pinpoint one crazy one, There's too many. "Dedication to The Suckers" by Phat Kat.
HNHH: Do you have any memories or stories that you wanna share about Dilla?
Oh No: Dilla was the man. I used to go to his house like every other day when he lived out here. We'd just give each other beats. He came out to the Ox (Oxnard) and we ordered a pizza and the pizza man took like hours. He was like "Yo. I'm 'bout ta kick yo ass. You better get us some drinks or something! You better throw some shit in!" But yeah. He was the man. I remember seeing him when I was record digging before we did the "Move" joint. He was like "Yeah. I'm working on that beat tape for you!"
DJ Romes: When he came to the Ox, he came with me to my mom's crib cause that's where I had my studio. It was just like being with a brother. And I was giving him props on cuts. And he was like "Yo! Nobody gives me props on cuts!" Like he was excited.
Oh No: Dilla was a gamer too, And he drove real fast, Like 80 through my neighborhood, It was crazy. He definitely looked out for me and Roc C a lot. He was like a big brother.
DJ Romes: I'm tripping out that everybody is still loving and enjoying his music and throwing parties in his honor, That's how much he meant to people, I wish people would have recognized him like this when he was still alive, ya know? I DJed with him a few times too and he was an incredible DJ as well.
Black Milk: His music was inspiring because it always stayed innovative, so as an artist, you hope that your music can be as forward-thinking and innovative one day.
HNHH: What are some of your favorite JayDee beats?
Black Milk: Most of my favorite Dilla beats aren't even on official album releases. Most of them are on beat CDs he made that got passed around. A lot of those beats didn't even get used. I would say all of the production on Fantastic vol. 1 and 2 is still my favorite Dilla production.
HNHH: Are there any memories you wanna share?
Black Milk: I mean, there's a few memories, but I guess the most important one is that the day I heard his music for the first time and ever since that day, the way I listen to music and hip hop production hasn't been the same since.
HNHH: I read that Dilla was your favorite producer. Can you describe his influence on your career?
A-Trak: Yup, Dilla is king. The crazy thing about Dilla was always the mystery to his beats. You could never figure out where some of the sounds were coming from exactly and how they all floated together. His drum patterns never did what you expected them to do, but it's like they surprised you with an even better idea than what your brain thought of. (Listen to ATCQ "Word Play" for that). He always struck that perfect balance between dark and beautiful, banging and subtle, warm and synthetic. Another thing that I admired about Dilla was how much he evolved over the course of 10 years. That in itself is an inspiration to me. There are very few producers who reinvented themselves as much as him. Even his choice of samples was ill to me, from sampling Thomas Bangalter to Stereolab to Gentle Giant. Dilla made you want to understand the inner workings of production, maybe that's why I still consider him my favorite after all these years.