Now-Again's Egon Painstakingly Reconstructs a Lost J Dilla Album

J Dilla
J Dilla
Photo by Roger Erickson

In the decade since his death, J Dilla has become a deity. And as in all subterranean cults that ossify into religions, certain scriptural interpretations began to take root.

Snap-backed evangelicals in “J Dilla Saved My Life” T-shirts eulogize the salt-tear soul of Donuts and the sentimental romantic who made Slum Village’s “Fall in Love.” The avant-garde valorizes the asphalt thump, un-quantized boom-bap slaps and air raid sirens of his beat tapes. His influence stretches from Kanye to Disclosure, Flying Lotus to Panda Bear. Diss Dilla and the D-Hive will come after you with ferocity that Beyoncé fans would envy.

His hagiographers often overlook the gap between September 2001 and April 2002 — the crucial interregnum when he recorded his only major-label solo album. MCA Records shelved the project, originally titled Pay Jay, after Dilla turned in a brash, gritty, iron-blooded Detroit rap album without hits, rather than the Soulquarian love ballads they’d expected.

“With the advent of Napster and P2P sharing, [music executives] were shook. They wanted stuff to sell at Wal-Mart,” says Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, the creative director for Dilla’s estate.

It was Alapatt’s Odyssean saga to piece together a finished version of the album, now retitled The Diary and released last month on Pay Jay Productions and Mass Appeal.

“You couldn’t just talk to your iTunes rep at the time — it was $50,000 just to be stocked and displayed properly at Best Buy,” Alapatt continues. “They wanted hits, and this was for hip-hop heads. They’d paid him a lot of money and didn’t want to spend more just to get it in stores.”

After the project’s death, its skeletal remains lingered in Dilla’s Detroit vaults. An unfinished version leaked in 2008, but legal difficulties, mounting tax bills and estate disarray kept it from official release until now. Alapatt was left with the monumental task of fulfilling Dilla’s original vision as faithfully as possible.

“There were tremendous amounts of revisions, so I had to figure out his intent based on the dates they were made and the various mixdowns,” says Alapatt, the former general manager for Stones Throw and current boss of Now-Again Records.

His involvement dates back to the original recording, when Dilla reached out to Madlib for beats. Alapatt manages Madlib and runs his Madlib Invazion imprint.

“He’d only turned in a couple demos to MCA, and we’d never talked sequence, track listing or what would be the final version,” Alapatt says of Dilla. “It was like figuring out a road map from scratches on paper.”

The finished product features Dilla’s favorite producers and closest collaborators: House Shoes, Nottz, Madlib, Hi-Tek, Karriem Riggins and Bink. Dilla laced four beats, while Snoop Dogg, Kokane, Bilal and Nas contribute guest verses and hooks.

It’s not an unimpeachable classic like Dilla’s best work. The early-’00s production occasionally dates itself, and like most producers who rap, Dilla always sounded best in the pockets that he’d created for himself. But it delivers on what always seemed to be Dilla’s original intent: making a raw rap album full of ferocious braggadocio, swagger and anti-police attacks.

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If Dilla’s acolytes sometimes sanctify him as the angelic martyr to hip-hop or the esoteric visionary, this offers another side — the normal dude with extraordinary talent who enjoyed fine girls, trucks and jewelry. Like all great artists, he contained multitudes.

“The problem and strength of Donuts is that it allows people who didn’t know Dilla to paint their own picture of him,” Alapatt says. “We all knew this other side, and many people who don’t get it have problems reconciling the two sides. I’m hoping that people will get this record and make their own decision on who he really was.”

An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.


More from Jeff Weiss:
O.C. Rapper Phora Has Nearly Been Murdered Twice, But His Music Stays Positive
L.A. Is in the Midst of a Funk Renaissance

How Filipino DJs Came to Dominate West Coast Turntablism


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