Now that groundbreaking rapper and producer Jay Dee has passed, it's time to permanently enshrine his beatmaking machine. "They better put his MPC in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," proclaims close friend and colleague Chris Manak, aka Peanut Butter Wolf, the DJ and producer whose label, Stones Throw, put out some of the dearly departed pioneer's best work.
James Yancey -- aka Jay Dee, J-Dilla, or, as he preferred, just Dilla -- died Friday, February 10 of lupus, though it's rumored his long hours in the studio only exacerbated his condition. Regardless, Dilla's work ethic was both prodigious and prolific. After producing six tracks on the Pharcyde's underrated 1996 classic Labcabincalifornia, he went on to craft beats and/or remixes for Common, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson, and countless others. Recording both as producer and artist under a slew of aliases (including J-88, Jay Dee, and 1st Down), Dilla was also an original member of Detroit trio Slum Village, and integral to superstar production teams the Ummah and the Soulquarians.
Despite considerable commercial success, he increasingly moved in a more artistic direction after 2000, recording a critically acclaimed solo album, Welcome to Detroit, with UK indie BBE, and collaborating with fellow all-star producer Madlib on 2003's Champion Sound, credited to Jaylib and released on Stones Throw. That label (born in the South Bay, though it moved to Los Angeles five years ago) is also home to Dilla's latest and sadly last project, a collection of soulful instrumental beatscapes called Donuts, named in honor of his affinity for Krispy Kremes. It was released three days before his death.
"I think [Donuts] stands on its own, like [DJ Shadow's] Endtroducing," Wolf says, justifying the decision to release the album as-is, rather than enlisting emcees to rap over the tracks. More validation has come from Dilla's loyal fan base: Donuts' initial shipment sold out in a matter of days, though Wolf ironically notes the label planned to release it "with little fanfare" before tragedy struck. For him, the album's success is "beyond bittersweet ... I just don't really give a fuck. He's gone, and nothing's gonna bring him back."
It's a touching statement from a man who considered himself both a fan and friend of Dilla's. "I spend 95 percent of my time listening to music, trying to peep out the different stuff," Wolf says. "When I heard his stuff, it was like a breath of fresh air. He changed music."
Stones Throw's founder might be slightly biased, but still, a distinct line can be drawn between how urban hip-hop and R&B sounded before and after '95, when Dilla first appeared on the scene. "He understood the art of sampling as well as live instrumentation," explains Wolf, who calls Dilla the "forefather of soulful hip-hop" and a prime influence on so-called neo-soul. Known initially for his subtle, layered beats (generally featuring laid-back tempos and prominent snares and kicks), in the last five years he'd started branching out into less formulaic endeavors.
Another of Wolf's favorite Dilla tunes is "Nothing Like This" from 2003's Ruff Draft EP, which, while "not a club banger, really brings emotions out." The song reminded Wolf of '80s industrial music -- a reminder, perhaps, of Dilla's Detroit birthplace, home of both techno and Motown.
"He was never one to brag about what he did," says Wolf, who characterizes Dilla as "a very private person."
The story of how Dilla came to Stones Throw has a certain mythic quality. It started when a few tracks with Madlib rapping over Dilla's beats accidentally leaked; as it turned out, Dilla was more intrigued than angry. "He was like, 'Let's do a whole album like that,'" Wolf recalls. "I was like, 'Really?'" Thus, Jaylib's Champion Sound was born. "To get them in a room together was kinda like pulling teeth at first," Wolf admits. Not that there weren't prominent similarities: Madlib and Dilla "both smoked a lot of weed." However, they were the "poster boys" for productivity while under the influence of cannabis -- "Those two, they would come up with another fifty beats, like, every week."
Wolf also takes pains to emphasize Dilla's skill as a vocalist: "I do want to say, he was the most underrated rapper that I can think of. Everybody's talking about how great his beats are. At the same time, as a lyricist and vocalist -- not just his lyrics, but the way he projected and everything, and put choruses together -- he knew how to put a song together from start to finish. That's one thing I don't really hear people talking about."
To give Dilla his due, Wolf and his Stones Throw cohorts J-Rocc (Dilla's DJ) and Madlib reconfigured an already-planned Donuts record release party at SF's Mezzanine last Friday night (originally slated to feature Madlib's jazz-funk band, Sound Directions) into an official tribute show. In addition to honoring Dilla's legacy, the fete would also raise money for Dilla's mom (in the house that evening), who is still struggling to pay her son's medical bills.
Close 2 tha Edge was there to record the event for posterity.
9:45 p.m. The phat clap embedded -- there's really no other word for it -- in Slum Village's "Players," one of Dilla's most definitive tracks, makes its first appearance of the evening. The house is still half-empty, but filling up fast.
10:10 p.m. J-Rocc, on the wheels of steel, announces Sound Directions will not be performing: "Tonight, it's all Dilla." He proceeds to run through some of the dude's best-known tunes: "Stakes Is High" (De La Soul), "Runnin'" (the Pharcyde), "Find a Way" (A Tribe Called Quest), "The Official" (Jaylib).
11:30 p.m. The house is packed to capacity, watching Wolf himself pay homage to his late friend. He rocks double copies on vinyl, triggers samples from a laptop, and otherwise remains in deep concentration. Some people grumble about Madlib's cancellation; it's a frequently-heard refrain, even when pointed out that by not paying the band, there's more money for Dilla's mom. It's hard to really complain, though, when history is in the making.
12:00 a.m. J-Rocc mans the decks again, delivering a high-energy, high-intensity set that peaks with "Find a Way," which has never sounded better. Meanwhile, in the outdoor smoking lounge, a metrosexual-looking Asian guy with heavily moussed hair busts freestyles about Dick Cheney.
1:00 a.m. Madlib makes his first appearance of the evening, taking over the turntables to the crowd's delight. It's an "Oh shit" moment -- many assumed since Sound Directions wasn't playing, Madlib wouldn't show up. Sheathed in white and blue lights, he proceeds to rock the house with a dope Dilla set for the next hour.
2:00 a.m. His DJ set completed, Madlib raises the energy up to "The Red," grabbing the mic and ripping through the Jaylib song of that name. Y'all niggas must be out of your head if your system ain't up to the red, he insists. The crowd leaves happy -- we'd gotten a taste of Madlib live after all, plus a warm feeling from hearing hours of nonstop Dilla. The event was a fitting, joyous eulogy for a fallen comrade, a vibrant celebration of life in remembrance for a man whose MPC might just be encased under glass in Cleveland, twenty years from now.
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