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Eight Years After His Death, Why Does J. Dilla Still Resonate?

J. Dilla

Photo by Roger EricksonJ. Dilla

Producer J. Dilla died eight years ago this month, at his home in L.A. His importance in the hip-hop canon is undisputed, but how, exactly, was his legacy built?

Truth be told, no one much called him "Dilla" in his life because, for the vast majority of his career, he was known as Jay Dee.

Born James Yancey in Detroit, Michigan in 1974, he made beats for some well-known '90s songs, including Janet Jackson's Grammy-winning single "Got 'til It's Gone" and Q-Tip's "Vivrant Thing," not to mention cult classics like De La Soul's "Stakes is High" and Pharcyde's "Drop."

He also developed an underground following through his work with his group Slum Village as well as his frequent collaborations with Common.
 

But all of these feats were attributed to Jay Dee. The name change to J. Dilla didn't happen until 2001, and didn't really stick until it was used as his moniker on his single with Madlib from their collaborative Jaylib project The Red. It wasn't the name used as his promotional focal point until his 2006 masterpiece Donuts, which is why, when he died, confused folks mourned everyone from Jermaine Dupri to Ice Cube's Lench Mob member J-Dee. 

See also: An Interview with J Dilla's Mother, Ms. Maureen Yancey

But the untimely passing of this "other" Jay Dee gave sudden attention to the fact that he was responsible for a fairly varied list of classic cuts.

Dilla's death on February 10th, 2006 was three days after his 32nd birthday, and coincided with the release of the aforementioned Donuts. Reportedly completed from his hospital bed, Donuts is the only project you'll find on "Best Rap Album of the 2000s" list that doesn't contain any actual rapping on it. While the vast majority of hip-hop instrumental projects that gained popularity in the 2000s were essentially truncated rap instrumentals that didn't have any corresponding vocal versions, Donuts is a multi-layered ridiculously complex statement that perfects its grooves while still keeping the experience moving in surprising directions. Some read the sentimentality of the soulful production as Dilla saying a final goodbye, others point to the emotional resonance as just par for the course of a master at work.

But why is his posthumous fandom bordering on full-blown worship?

We asked producer/MC The Audible Doctor, who cites Dilla as a major influence.

"His ear is phenomenal. The way he chops samples, and sonically his drums are always phenomenal. From a producer's standpoint, it could be the simplest thing. The rhythm of it, the swing of it is just phenomenal. I've never heard it that on point with anybody but him."

Rapper Chino XL, who collaborated with Dilla in 2001 for his song "Don't Say a Word," tells us:

His musical I.Q. was higher than most people's. His blending of genres and the way he looked at most music as one genre, the elements he was influenced by and interpolations in his music, nobody would know what that was. His library was extremely extensive because his taste was so vast. And, working with him personally, he brought the best out of artists. He was such a stickler for 'you being you.'

It is true that Dilla seemed to hear things other people wouldn't immediately gravitate towards. Take his re-working of Busta Rhymes' outlandish "Woo-Hah! Got You All in Check" into an incredibly laid-back song.

But the embrace of Dilla following his death has recontextualized his work to a degree. As Chino says: "His fanbase's demographic is different and developed a neo-soul vibe, which is a trip because, in a sense, Dilla was mad gangsta."

His work behind the mic, while not quite as popular, has also inspired a ravenous following. Chino continues: "His rhyme patterns were crazy."

Audible Doctor agrees. "His content could pretty much be said to be the equivalent to mainstream content, girls jewelry and cars, but his rhythm and the way he used his voice was phenomenal. I've never heard another rapper rap like that. Beyond that, he was just really clever."

Even today, there's not just a great deal of Dilla content out there, there's still a lot to still get out of it. (And rumored to be lots of great unreleased tracks as well.) It looks likely that Dilla's mythology will live on.


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