J Dilla was a revered rap producer. A new book deepens his legacy.

Even in his lifetime, there was something inexplicable about J Dilla, the Detroit-born hip-hop producer and MC. Followers spoke of him ...


Even in his lifetime, there was something inexplicable about J Dilla, the Detroit-born hip-hop producer and MC. Followers spoke of him reverently and with enough hyperbole that he might feel unapproachable to listeners who didn’t quite understand. In the 16 years since his deaththe aura around him only grew.

The writer Dan Charnas conducted nearly 200 interviews to write “Dilla Time,” a 400-page biography released Feb. 1 that takes an in-depth look at the producer’s unique approach to hip-hop. But Charnas, the author of the 2010 book “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop,” could barely remember anything J Dilla, born James Dewitt Yancey, said on the only occasion they spent together, in the summer of 1999.

He remembered Dilla crouching over his MPC3000 sampling drum machine in the basement studio of the family home in Detroit’s Conant Gardens neighborhood. He remembers going out for a Mongolian barbecue with rapper Chino XL, Dilla and Common, who was in town to work with Dilla on what would become his album “Like Water for Chocolate.” But that’s about all.

“I was talking rather than listening,” Charnas said in a recent video interview, “and so the big change for me is that I’ve had to do very, very careful listening over the last four years to try to get this story.”

Dilla, who rose to prominence through his work with the Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest and his own band Slum Village, died in February 2006 complications from a rare blood disease three days after he turned 32. He was loved by his contemporaries and a small group of fans for his offbeat beats – and he was not known to talk to reporters often. (Charnas was only able to find 16 interviews.)

Common recalled seeing Pharrell Williams bow to Dilla when they met, and recalled how Kanye West excitedly showed everyone in the studio the album Dilla gave him to rip drum samples from.

“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 talk about their music because these artists and their work are eternal. And J Dilla is one of those people.

Dilla’s career was rooted in seemingly contradictory ideas. He became known for pairing dark but comforting tones with robust, crackling drums. He often worked alongside artists who positioned themselves as the moralizing counterweight to the increasingly materialistic and hypersexualized world of late ’90s hip-hop, but he himself was unabashedly captivated by jewelry, cars ladies and strip clubs. As advances in technology made music production easier and, therefore, more uniform, Dilla used these tools to find possibilities in imperfections.

Dilla’s audience and reach of influence have grown exponentially since her death. There are now annual Dilla Day events around the world, and his music has been celebrated by institutions like Lincoln Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts. His MPC3000 is on display behind a display case at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Charnas teaches a course on Dilla, who is the source of the book, as an associate professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music in New University of York.

Over the years there has been almost a deification of Dilla; Charnas’s book requires great efforts to humanize it. Although he is sensitive to the struggles of his subject – especially his misfortunes as an artist in the major label system and his deteriorating health – Charnas does not hesitate to describe his imperfections.

Dilla had a temper and could get jealous, her relatives told Charnas. When he was frustrated, his composure would break as he punched them. But the same people who told Charnas these unflattering stories continued to care unconditionally about Dilla.

“It was private, and there’s still some things I don’t talk about,” said Frank Nitt, a close friend of Dilla’s since college whose music he later produced in the band Frank-n-Dank. “But on the other hand, being who he was and how he’s perceived by people at this point, there’s a lot of misconceptions.”

One of Dilla’s core myths is how he arrived at his signature sound, in which the beat can feel off, different, or just plain wrong. Some have said it was a failure to quantize his compositions, a feature of digital recording that eliminates human error and puts the timing of drum beats in their “right” place.

Charnas explains that Dilla’s process was more complex and that he took several steps to deliberately accentuate the sound effects of the error. The result was a cool rhythmic feel that Charnas calls the titular “Dilla time” – differentiating it from straight time and swing time, the two rhythmic patterns that define Western music. Dilla’s explanation for his innovation? He just looks like that’s how he nodded.

Charnas traces Dilla’s influence beyond hip-hop and soul, as it spanned pop, electronic music and jazz. His imprint can be found in the songs of artists like michael jackson, flying lotus, the 1975 and Robert Glasper. (“Dilla Time” reveals that Dilla potentially exploded while working with ‘N Sync, twice.) At times, Dilla’s impact was deflected. He inspired young Los Angeles jazz musicians like Terrace Martin and Thundercat. Then, Kendrick Lamar put these artists to work and expanded the palette of his seminal 2015 album, “To pimp a butterfly.”

Charnas also clarifies the story around “Donuts,” an instrumental album Stones Throw Records released just before Dilla’s death that became a key entry point for new generations of fans. Dilla is said to have recorded “Donuts” in the hospital, incorporating messages for loved ones into his compositions as the end approached. In reality, “Donuts” was born from one of the many beat tapes he had made. It was largely edited and expanded by Jeff Jank, who worked at Stones Throw, and completed months before Dilla’s death.

Although he settled on J Dilla around 2001, he was alternately credited with names such as Jay Dee, Jaydee, JD and Jon Doe. For much of the mid-1990s until the turn of the century, he was part of two production collectives, the Ummah and the Soulquarians, alongside more famous members.

In the book, Charnas recounts how during the realization of D’Angelo’s 2000 opus “Voodoo”, D’Angelo and Questlove called Dilla and Prince their “two northern stars”. Dilla took part in numerous recording sessions at Electric Lady Studios in New York, but none of the songs he initiated were completed. Ultimately, when he received his copy of the record, he was disappointed to find that his name did not appear anywhere in the liner notes.

“James’ main theme in this story is credit, being seen,” Charnas said, “and he struggles with being seen.” Even on Common’s “The Light” the biggest hit Dilla ever produced, it is listed as “The Soulquarian’s Jay Dee for the Ummah”, leaving him, as Charnas put it, “choked in brotherhood”.

Charnas’ main reasons for writing the book are not only to publicize Dilla’s contributions to music, but also to explain that the fan devotion is justified. “At the end of the day, it’s really about saying to everyone who loves Dilla, ‘You weren’t wrong. Your affection wasn’t misplaced,'” he said. special than many of you even know.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: J Dilla was a revered rap producer. A new book deepens his legacy.
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