Perfect Sound Forever

J. Dilla


photo from Stones Throw, photographer: B+

by Sean Mangan
(October 2008)


Any time a cultural iconís flame of life is extinguished, mythologized accounts of the legend ignite instantaneously and burn through our minds like wildfire. Eager to enlighten a world unfamiliar with our fallen favorites, we fuel this fire and let it spread via pretentious praise and fables of infallibility. Dead Elvis has reined as king for over thirty years. Sinatra is just steps short of sainthood. Hell, even Tupac resurrected into a black Jesus. For our own sanity we remember our beloved idols as we want to remember them, not as they were. We transform talented human beings into everlasting examples of perfection. We paint the most colorful portraits of their lives to accentuate their beauty and cover up their flaws.

When we finally put down our palettes and wipe the bullshit from our brushes, not many of our subjects live up to the grandiose portrayals faithful fans lovingly provide. As each day passes, man and myth become further intertwined; in the cases of the aforementioned artists, the two have become almost inseparable. It is rare to find an artist whose life and legend are one and the same. These masterpieces of pop culture are few and far between, but we know them when we seen them. They don't beg for our attention, they capture it, effortlessly. Theyíre as subtle and seductive as Mona Lisa's smile.

With glassy eyes peering out from beneath a perpetually low fitted cap, James Yancey confined himself to his home studio, much as Da Vinci confined Mona Lisa within the murky mountain backdrop that frames her figure. Just what was going on behind those eyes, nobody will ever really know. Close friend and Slum Village emcee Elzhi cites Yancey's constant preoccupation with production as the force behind his hushed character. "I think he was basically quiet because he was trying to figure out ways to make music," he suggests. Yancey's soft-spoken, intentionally behind-the-scenes demeanor shrouded him in an uncommon privacy. According to Slum Village member T3, "It was his personality that made him behind the scenes. He could have been a Kanye, because he was working with all the people." James Yancey's extraordinary caliber of music and widespread clientele could have propelled his into Kanye West territory, but as T3 says, James Yancey wasn't "a Kanye." James Yancey was music in its rawest, purest, and most loving form. Kanye West is an image; he is more myth than man (which is quite a lot to say for a man still live and well). James Yancey was an obsessive-compulsive MPC impresario; he was a Jay Dee, a J Dilla, and he was the one and only there will ever be.

Here is a true hip-hop masterpiece. James Dewitt Yancey, known to the music world as Jay Dee or J Dilla, proved that in a culture dominated by image, old-fashioned ideals of good music and a genuine love for the art can still reign supreme. It all started at age two, when, according to his mother, Dilla started collecting records. Born into a family of musicians and music lovers alike (mother Maureen a singer; father Beverly a musician, songwriter, and old friend of Berry Gordy), music invaded every facet of Dilla's life. He sang in church choirs and learned to play countless instruments at home and at school. When he wasn't making his own music, Dilla was at the record store collecting it or sitting in at his turntable studying it rigorously. Both of his parents did everything they could to keep young James off the Detroit streets and maintain his musical focus. Clearly, whatever they did worked. "He spent every waking moment with music," Maureen Yancey recalls, "every minute."

Music only became more integral to Dilla's life as he got older. In a 2005 interview with Scratch magazine, the last he would give in his life, Dilla recalled his earliest attempts at beat making. "I started making beats when 'Big Mouth' came out, whatever year that was," he's says. "Big Mouth" was released by Whodini in 1985, which makes him just eleven years old at the start of his beat making career. Consisting of nothing but a cassette recorder and a growing stack of 33s and 45s, Dilla's first production setup was limited to say the least. T3 of Slum Village was there to witness his nothing-into-something mindset alongside his uncanny savvy. "When you was looping up samples you would have to change the pitch, but we didn't have the equipment to do that," he explains. "He somehow opened up the tape deck and changed the pitch." Dilla continued to display his knack for production technique when he linked up with P-Funk keyboardist Amp Fiddler and taught himself how to use his new friend's Akai MPC sampler. According to Dilla, Fiddler would play songs on his MPC with no explanation of how they were made. He left the rest up to the promising teen's keen ear and watchful eye. "He was like, 'Don't use a book,'" Dilla recalls. "Ever since this day I never read the books to samplers and all of that, I just try to learn them."

By the time he mastered his craft on machines such as E-MU's SP-1200 and Akai's MPC3000, J Dilla could have written his own manuals for all of them. Not bad for somebody who never read a single one himself. His extensive self-taught knowledge of the MPC3000 combined with the sampler's immense capabilities led Dilla to develop a style all his own. Dilla flipped the script on how drum machines were used just as drastically as he flipped his samples. Instead of using the technology beneath his fingertips to quantize perfectly played patterns as so many others producers do, Dilla used his MPC to capture the flaws and flubs found in imperfect performances of live music. This technique caught the ear of renowned DJ and Roots drummer ?uestlove, who noticed Dilla was on to something big. "My mission to get accepted by the hip-hop nation was to sound synthetic like a drum machine, to sound like a sample," he says. "His approach was to sound as sloppy as a real musician. But it was so sloppy, I know he wasn't doing it by accident." This goal Ė in part, a rejection of mainstream hip-hop's modern-day predictability Ė has been shared by fellow underground producers such as MF Doom. Yet not even Doom comes off as smooth and succinctly to the point as Dilla's botched drum and sample sequences.

Dilla's signature off-kilter groove can be heard on nearly every one of his numerous productions. From his earliest days as a relatively unknown Detroit beatsmith, to his stint as producer and emcee for Slum Village to his four acclaimed solo LPs, Dilla's style evolved constantly while maintaining a stable core of untouched originality. It is hard to pinpoint exactly what elements give his beats their unique flavor. Dilla's signature sound is far less obvious than the trademarks of hip-hop heavyweights such as Just Blaze or the Neptunes, both of whom cite J Dilla as their favorite producer. Just Blaze blatantly incorporates a vocal sample of his own name into many of his tracks and the Neptunes never get tired of reusing the same synth sounds that have somehow managed to captivate listeners with for the past decade. Even Kanye (who admits to jacking drums from a Dilla beat CD) has his trusty snare-and-clap combo, which saturated soul sampled hip-hop throughout the early 2000's. J Dilla has none of this. His sound lies in subtleties, only fully exposed when one attempts the musical equivalent of reading between the lines. Between the bars and beats, the dirty samples and drums, the filtered basslines and melodic synth riffs, the ear is immersed in a complex realm of boom-bap nuance.

What is seemingly Dilla's most subtle collection happens simultaneously to be his most complex. In 2004, Dilla was hospitalized due to a slew of recurring health issues brought on by a rare blood disease that drastically decreased his platelet count. His waning platelets severely damaged his immune system and led to kidney failure, and in the end, his death. During his extensive hospitalization, his mother Maureen began transporting Dilla's records and equipment from his studio to his hospital room. Although increased swelling in his hands made pad-pressing uncomfortable, it didn't stop the master of the MPC from compiling a full-length album of beats from his bed. Released on February 7, 2006, just three days before his passing, Donuts is a thirty-one-track montage of entirely too short instrumentals. Much of the album sounds unfinished, as if there should be something more to it, but there isn't. The abrupt endings to many of the sweet little numbers will leave you hungry for more Donuts, just as James Yancey's abrupt ending leaves the world hungry for more Dilla.

Confusion, disappointment, and a sincere sadness are all emotions I faced upon first listen to Donuts.

"Thatís it?" I thought to myself. "Some simple loops. Thatís all he did?" I remember voicing my complaints to my older brother, a professional musician, who shared my sentiments about Dilla's looptastic Donuts beatscapade. As a producer and MPC enthusiast, I felt let down by the ambiguous simplicity of Dilla's sequences. I felt cheated. Repetitive tracks like "U-Love," "Glazed," and "The Diff'rence" made me wonder if his creativity and skills had deteriorated in the hospital along with his health. At the same time, highlights "Lightworks," "Gobstopper," and the BPM-fluctuating "Don't Cry" had me running back for seconds. The more I listened to my favorites, the more subtleties I uncovered within each. Each play revealed something new; an odd snare that only comes around once on a track, the sampling of the same note played during a different part of the original record, odd vocal yelps that last only milliseconds. My initial reaction to these tracks as "simple loops" was due to simple listening.

By now, Donuts has gotten more play than almost any other CD in my collection. The sampling may sound rudimentary at first, but in fact it is the opposite. It is arcane. It is as if, from his hospital bed, J Dilla encrypted layers of musical secrets within each minute-plus track, and only with an open ear and prolonged patience will these secrets start to unravel themselves for the listener. More so than any of his other albums, Donuts encapsulates Dilla's spirit to a T. It is gentle, it is hard to grasp, and it is beautiful. It is intricacy wrapped in beauty wrapped in simplicity. Once the album is understood, the painstaking effort put into crafting each one of its quirks could not be more apparent. I've started to feel a bit like ?uestlove. I know he wasn't doing it by accident.

With the help of friend and fellow Stones Throw labelmate Karriem Riggins, Dilla's fourth LP, The Shining, was released posthumously on August 22, 2006. It is hard to fathom that there will never be another J Dilla beat, masterfully churned out on his beloved MPC3000. According to those close to Dilla, his collection of unreleased work consists of up to 10,000 never-heard beats. After paying Dilla's countless hospital bills, Maureen Yancey has done everything in her power to make sure that these tracks reach the light of day in an effort to preserve his legend forever. A handful were featured on a recent collaboration with Busta Rhymes put together by DJ Mick Boogie.

While some consider it unfortunate that J Dilla reached the peak of his career after his passing, Iím not so sure. I can only imagine that he would have become even more reclusive if subjected to the hype that currently surrounds his work. Dillaís legend lives up to his biography, and perhaps even overshadows it, because he refused to create a visible image for himself. J Dilla didnít need an image. His music speaks for itself, and it speaks volumes. With little knowledge of his personal life, the world has embraced Dilla solely through his music. The myths and anecdotal accounts of James Yancey are limited to those who knew him best and loved him most, and they will tell you Dillaís life revolved around two things. Love and music.


Special thanks to Robert Christgau, who edited this paper for his NYU class


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