The Collegian
Thursday, February 22, 2024

"Dilla's Groove: The Pioneer Who Transformed Hip-Hop Production and His Legacy"

<p><em>Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian</em></p>

Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian

Easily in my desert-island top-five artists due to his wide range and influence, is James Dewitt Yancey, commonly known by his stage names Jay Dee and J Dilla. J Dilla was a highly influential hip-hop producer and rapper from Detroit, Michigan. He had a unique sound and approach to production that has had a lasting impact on the music industry. Here are some of the ways J Dilla impacted music:

1. Production style: J Dilla's production style was known for its soulful, sample-based sound. He would chop up samples from a wide range of sources, including jazz, funk and soul records and recontextualize them in his beats. This approach to production has influenced countless producers and has become a staple of hip-hop production. 

2. Drum programming: J Dilla's drum programming was also a key part of his sound. He was known for his use of swing, which is a subtle rhythmic variation that gives his beats a more organic feel. This approach to drum programming has been widely emulated and has become a defining characteristic of the "Dilla sound." 

Many would say that he “humanized” the beat machine, more specifically the Akai MPC3000 that he used. He was unimpressed with the way that contemporary music sounded due to technological advances in beat machines, that is, the way drum beats in every song at the time were created on a strict grid. He wanted to take it back to a time prior to this, to make the music sound more authentic. In songs such as “Runnin’” by The Pharcyde, he would play the drum beat throughout the song and not quantize it. Quantization places the notes that are recorded through the beat machine on that strict grid that I mentioned earlier. By not quantizing the beats, he created a loose, drunk and laid-back sound. In other songs, he would quantize different parts of the drum beat to different rhythms, for example the snares to 1/8ths but the hi-hats to 1/16ths. This would result in the hi-hats coming in slightly before expected. Questlove explained that this style of drumming is actually pretty hard for a drummer trained to hit every note on that rigid grid structure.

3. Collaborations: J Dilla worked with a wide range of artists throughout his career, including Slum Village, The Pharcyde, Common, Erykah Badu and The Roots to name a few. His collaborations helped to introduce his sound to a wider audience and have had a lasting impact on the music of those artists.

The story behind my favorite album of all time, D’Angelo’s “Voodoo,” is actually a great example of the influence that J Dilla had. Questlove explains in a Red Bull interview how D’Angelo essentially “recruited” him. Take it back to the 1995 source awards. Yes, this is the one that Outkast said “the south got something to say,” and Death Row Records threw shots at the New York crew. Questlove knew shit was about to go down, so he left in a rush. On his way out, someone handed him a mixtape, and mind flustered by the confusion and tension, he grabbed the mixtape and left. That mixtape was D’Angelo’s Brown Sugar album. He listened to it and immediately fell in love. The time was coming that D’Angelo would release his second album. Questlove heard about this through the grapevine and he knew he wanted to work with D’Angelo on this project. What followed was, The Roots were performing at the LA Soul Train awards in March 1996, and Questlove knew D’Angelo was in the audience, so, he performed in the style of drumming that he knew D’Angelo wanted: that J Dilla sound. As a result, he messed up the rest of the Roots performance because his band members were used to the straight beat throughout. However, his messing up of the performance was well worth the effort, as at that moment, D’Angelo knew he wanted Questlove as a drummer. It was that J Dilla sound and rhythm that united them. In fact, it wasn’t just them two that were infatuated with this “authentic” sound, but a whole loose collective of artists who became known as the Soulquarians. The group consisted of D'Angelo, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, J Dilla himself, Erykah Badu, Roy Hargrove, James Poyser, Bilal, Pino Palladino, Q-Tip and Mos Def and rappers Talib Kweli and Common. 

J Dilla made a variety of contributions to Soulquarians. J Dilla’s notoriety as a music producer whose use of samples, intricate drum programming and deep melodies helped to define the collective's sound. His method of production, which was characterized by his talent for composing soulful and intensely emotional rhythms, was highly acclaimed and admired by his contemporaries and had a significant impact on the music the Soulquarians created.

In addition, J Dilla's work ethic and dedication influenced his fellow Soulquarians and other groups. He was known for his meticulous attention to detail in production, often spending hours perfecting a rhythm or composition. His commitment to excellence and relentless pursuit of creativity inspired fellow musicians, and his work ethic continues to be admired in the music industry today.

4. Legacy: J Dilla's influence can be seen in the work of countless artists across multiple genres, including hip-hop, neo-soul and electronic music. He has become a cult figure in the music world, with many producers and fans citing him as a major influence on their work. Questlove, a world renowned drummer in his own right, calls J Dilla the world’s greatest drummer. 

His final album was released on his 32nd birthday, three days before his unfortunate passing on February 10th, 2006. The album, “Donuts,” consisted of 31 tracks, representative of his 31 years of life. It was largely recorded from his hospital room over the course of a year as he suffered from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura and lupus, which he eventually died from. The album is an instrumental hip-hop album, with the only vocals being derived from the various, eclectic samples that he utilized. The album is also considered a cyclical album, that is, as the last song ends, it flows into the intro song. In this case, the two are reversed, beginning with the outro, and ending with the intro. 

Overall, J Dilla's impact on music was significant, and his legacy continues to inspire new generations of musicians and producers. There is so much more I can say about J Dilla - his career, sound and impact - but I’ll just end it with some of my favorite tracks produced by J Dilla that I think are a great starting point to get to know the legendary artist.

“She Said” - Jay Dee remix with The Pharcyde

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“Don’t Cry” off of “Donuts”

“Bullshittin’ remix” with N’Dea Davenport

“Fall in Love” by Slum Village

“Didn’t Cha Know” by Erykah Badu

“Little Brother” by Black Star 

“Runnin’” by The Pharcyde, of course, to name a few. 

Contact columnists Daniel Saravia Romero and Ben Queen at daniel.saraviaromero@richmond.edu and ben.queen@richmond.edu. 

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