Where To Start With... J Dilla
February 10th this year marked the 10-year anniversary of the death of James Yancey, known variously as Jay Dee, Dilla Dawg or, most commonly, J Dilla. Undoubtedly one of the greatest and most influential hip-hop producers there has ever been, Dilla's life was tragically cut short at the age of just 32 when he finally succumbed to a rare blood disease that had gradually immobilised him and eventually took his life.
First rising to prominence as part of the Detroit-based group Slum Village, Dilla's work often went under the radar during his lifetime, with many of the tracks he produced being credited to The Ummah, the production collective that consisted of Dilla and A Tribe Called Quest members Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Between them they produced music for a range of acts including Janet Jackson, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, Brand New Heavies and Whitney Houston, among many others.
Since his death, countless mixtapes have surfaced and been released, bringing into focus just how prolific Dilla was, while the myths and legends around the man have continued to grow. But for the last decade there has been one important missing piece of the J Dilla puzzle, namely an album that he had been working on while signed to MCA Records. Dilla intended the project to be different from his other albums in that this time he only wanted to rap on the album, leaving the production to a list of others that included Pete Rock, Madlib and even a young Kanye West. But the album never emerged. So what happened to it?
Well, the story is a familiar one. Wendy Goldstein, MCA's A&R chief who had signed Dilla to the label and been his champion, left the label for Capitol Records before the album was completed and, just like that, the project was shelved. The 15 years that have elapsed since have seen extensive legal battles over the rights to the recordings, but this week the album will finally see the light of day when it arrives in stores today.
The album, named The Diary, has been assembled and mixed by a team that includes Elys, ian Masters studio head Dave Cooley, Dilla's tour DJ J. Rocc and Egon Alapatt, the man behind Now-Again Records. Unlike some of the other posthumous releases that have emerged since Dilla's death, the aim here has clearly been to get as close to the album Dilla wanted to release as possible, and the result is like a time capsule of Dilla's final years.
For hardcore Dilla fans, this will probably serve as the most important release since Donuts, but make the most of it because this is probably the last time that a Dilla album will be released that has been the subject of so much care and attention to detail.
You can find one of its tracks below, beneath that we've picked five essential Dilla productions for anyone unfamiliar with the breadth and scale of his work...
J Dilla - The Introduction (Explicit)
'E=MC2' – J Dilla feat. Common
Taken from The Shining, the album that was only around 75% completed at the time of Dilla's death and was compiled and mixed by friend and producer Kareim Riggins, E=MC2 uses a sample from the Giorgio Moroder track of the same name and is the perfect example of Dilla's approach to beat-making. He rarely used quantization (a tool used in sequencers to align beats and notes with machine-like precision), preferring instead to play in drum beats himself, creating a more rough and natural feel. The beat drops on an off-beat and catches the listener off-guard, but when it does it's raw, nasty and still one of our favourites.
'Reunion' – Slum Village
J Dilla wasn't just a great producer, he was also a brilliant rapper and even though the beat on this track from Slum Village's Detroit Deli was actually produced by Black Milk, we've included it on our list because the opening verse showcases Dilla's rap skills, which on this verse include a sly dig at fellow Detroit native Marshall Mathers with a line that boasts of “reppin' more D than 12 Eminems”.
'Runnin'' – The Pharcyde
Probably still one of Dilla's best-known productions, this cut from The Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia is laid-back groove that utilises a sample from Stan Getz and features the Los Angeles hip-hop outfit rapping about being forced to stand up for yourself. It was a crossover hit for the group and one of the best moments on their second album.
'Lightworks' – J Dilla
There are any number of tracks we could have included from Donuts, the last album Dilla completed – and one he created entirely from a hospital bed – but we've gone for 'Lightworks' because it's just a great example of why Dilla was so revered by other producers. Most producers wouldn't even think of creating a beat like this and the choice of sample from electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott shows Dilla's encyclopedic knowledge of all styles of music, however obscure. It's been sampled countless times since, most memorably by Doom for his 2009 album Born Like This.
'The Light' – Common
Dilla contributed several beats to Common's breakthrough album Like Water for Chocolate, but our favourite has to be 'The Light'. It has that trademark smooth feel that permeates so many of Dilla's productions and even amongst tracks produced by the likes of DJ Premier and Questlove, this tune is still one of the album's standout moments.