October 08, 2019
James Dewitt Yancey, infamously known as J Dilla, has left a mark on hip hop, and ultimately on urban music at large, that is irrefutably important and so far reaching. We indeed still feel the reverberations of his innovation and production style that has been carried on by many of his peers, while also being modeled and built upon by the next generation of musical artists. The Soul Surplus team is a product of this iconic artist paving the way for us while embodying values that are main parts of our creative DNA: musicianship, sampling, classic music curation, feel and soul. By a simple look at his discography one can’t mistaken his impact but the question of why he is so culturally and musically important is best answered by focusing in on his mastery of the craft and the part he’s played in creating the sound of a movement.
James Yancey received musical influence early in life, being the eldest of four children to a Mother who was an opera singer and a father who was a Jazz bassist in Detroit, Michigan—a midwest city rooted in rich musical history with the soul of Motown and Gospel. The years of his development spiked when he reached High School, forming heralded Hip Hop group, Slum Village, with classmates T3 and Baatin. Dilla embraced beat-making head on as a teen, spending hours in his basement perfecting his sound and craft; however it wasn’t until he received his first Akai MPC from Detroit musician, Amp Fiddler, that he began to build the foundation of the iconic sound that we all know him by today.
Yancey’s quick gravitation to this machine speaks to how it really was an instrument that was just an extension of him. The MPC became the weapon of choice for producers in Hip Hop’s golden era, but the skill set that Dilla exhibited on this machine is still studied to this day. “Behind the beat” drums are a huge proponent of his sound as the unquantized beats humanized drum programming at large, playing on imperfection to fuse the live musician approach with the sonic manipulation that sampling brings. Dilla took the tools that the MPC offered and pushed their boundaries. Many trace the foundations in lofi music to Dilla and the likes of artists who filtered, drums, basslines and sampled records to dull the sound quality to produce textures that are an extremely different listening experience as opposed to the original classic vinyls that were being sampled.
Dilla had a hand in redefining how musicianship could be displayed with his sample chopping techniques. The MPC had a memory bank that one could load sounds and samples into. Users would chop up moments in a record and the machine would spread them across pad triggers in which the artist could “play” the chopped samples in any sequence they please. Many would chop to chord progressions or melodies in old records but Dilla would often experiment with the “feel” of a record by cutting up the samples according to, kicks and snares and then puzzle piecing the track back together; this can be heard on records like “Don’t Cry,” on his acclaimed Donuts LP.
Though the MPC was the central piece to Dilla’s studio set up and process, he often mixed in live instruments that he would play himself. From bass guitar to playing live on a drum set, to keyboards, pianos and his infamous custom Mini Moog synthesizer (that later was posthumously placed in the “National Museum of African American History and Culture” along with his MPC 3000). This hybrid production method has become the standard for countless producers’ studio set ups in the industry today.
Dilla also took the curation of classic music seriously by spending countless hours “digging” in record shops searching for old vinyl records he could use to add to a seemingly endless library of sounds at his disposal to create with. Yancey’s ear for music certainly helped him while listening through records for specific instrumentation that he would want to highlight and build off of, but he also had a special skill of being a musical rolodex himself. He had a well versed mental library of music through eras in which he then used to meticulously alphabetized and categorized all the records he would get by genre and artist for easy access while creating. Many now have streamlined this process to work within computer libraries on DAWs, but this workflow proved to be ahead of its time and quite virtuosic in that he had a memory that could remember exactly where and what he wanted to sample.
Dilla’s sound was not created and grown in a vacuum, he instead valued collaboration at it’s finest which lead to him being a pillar in the resurgence of soul movements in black music through the mid 90’s to early 2000’s. The Native Tongues paved the way early as a collective of iconic hip hop groups that pushed afrocentrism, jazz aesthetic and conscious lyrics and themes. One of the most popular and acclaimed acts of this collective was hip hop group, A Tribe Called Quest. Members Q-tip and Ali Shaheed Mahammad formed production collective The Ummah with Dilla (later containing Raphael Saadiq as well), going on to produce for numerous artists consisting of the likes of Janet Jackson to Busta Rhymes and The Brand New Heavies.
Perhaps one of Dilla’s most memorable and impactful collaborations was at the wake of the Y2k era in music. His group Slum Village made a major label debut that brought much more attention to him as an artist and producer all while being one of the founding members of the legendary production collective The Soulquarians. This incredibly talented team consisted of founders, J Dilla, Questlove and James Poyser of the Roots and D’Angelo, with member affiliation ranging from D’Angelo’s band the Soultronics, Erykah Badu, Bilal, Roy Hargrove, Mos Def, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli and Common. From this collective multiple award winning albums, like Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and D’Angelo’s Voodoo, were created through the cross pollination of talent and ideas.
Dilla went on to leave his group Slum Village to pursue his solo career. His beat tapes circulated the underground and the internet inscentantly while he had his struggles with major labels ultimately driving him to release much of his latter work through indie labels. Legendary producer and MC Madlib began working with Dilla as he eventually relocated to LA. They formed the group Jaylib and they put out an array of projects and did some extensive touring. Rumors of Dilla’s health failing began to circulate but it didn’t really publically break until he performed on tour in a wheelchair. Due to a rare blood disease and complications of lupus Dilla’s health was not at a good place and then suddenly just a few days after he released his last project Donuts he passed away due to the alleged cause of cardiac arrest.
Even with such an unfortunate untimely death J Dilla still leaves a special legacy of impact. He has music that lives on to teach and inspire, whether it is revisited by long time fans or discovered by new ones. History will always give witness to Dilla having a wide array of fans, contemporaries, mentees—from up close and far away—consisting of high profile artists, musicians, producers and countless bedroom producers who we may not know yet, who all carry the tradition of being true to the craft of making music that people can “feel.”
- Written by John McNeill
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