Remembering J Dilla
by Noah Adaikkalam
Flashback to Detroit in the late 80s. The Bad-Boy Pistons are about to win back-to-back championships under Isaiah Thomas, American cars are getting replaced by cheaper overseas exports and the resulting Ford and General Motors plants were facing waves of layoffs. The crime rate began its steady incline towards its peak in 1991. Zoom in on a basement in Conant Gardens, a rougher neighborhood in northern Detroit, where a young James Yancey, better known by his production name, J Dilla, stands, spending his hard earned free time messing with Akai MPC60’s and E-MU SP-12’s: old school drum machines.
This was “Camp Amp,” Dilla’s first studio. Camp Amp was really the basement studio of Amp Fiddler, another Detroit musician who spent his time touring with George Clinton and P-Funk, and lived around the corner. It was here that Dilla first learned how to use beat machines and soundboards, the instruments that would define his sound.
In an interview conducted in honor of the 40th anniversary of P3, a rebound German music journalist, J Dilla sat down for an hour and describes his musical influences, growing up, and more. In it, he starts talking about home, growing up where he did in Detroit, and the influences that his father, a successful local musician and factory worker at the local Ford Plant, had on him. Specifically, he talks about how his dad, in exchange for good behavior around the house, would take him to the record store to pick out one record once a weekend. Eventually, he had a full-blown collection of 45’s at six years old.
It was through these records that Dilla found the most defining element of his sound: the “drunk” feel. He talks about listening to older funk and jazz musicians and notes how the drummers had a sort of unique, improvisational groove, calling out Idris Muhammad specifically, claiming that “when they fucked up basically, in the rhythm, or timing, it was still funky.” It was this effortlessness and relaxedness that he tried to model and emulate on the beat machines he was presented with at Camp Amp.
Under Amp Fiddler’s tutelage, he was taught how to use these machines in a very specific way. He describes being taught so that he could “teach it to the next person… When [Fiddler] taught me, he taught me how I would teach the next person, don’t read books, when you get equipment, just learn the machine. It’ll do what you need to do.” And because he never read the manuals, his beats and his overarching his sound gained a that patented drunk feel that we associate with Lo-fi hip-hop. Questlove, the drummer of the Roots, is a modern drummer who Dilla calls out for understanding, or rather having, that old school funk groove and being able to play it live.
With a massive record collection and a self-taught understanding of beat machines, Dilla started DJing at local parties around Detroit This wasn’t a new thing for him. As a child, his sister took him to Weddings and Cabarets to play records, and as his skills and collection developed, he took it more seriously.
Then came “Big Mouth”- the single by Whodini. This was a new development in beats: only drums. Dilla wanting to conquer that himself: “I got so excited with it that I wanted to do it myself and I took these turntables that had a little tape and I used to just take peoples records and just pause and record, making little tapes with it. After a while, I was like ‘damn maybe I can make my own little pattern’ so I started making beats like that and it was just blending old records, blending an old carl wash record with a funky drummer, and after I while I started doing beats like that.”
There was a competitive urge. His parents did everything they could to push him off the street and in doing so they pushed him into Fiddler's basement where he was determined to be the best.
From there Dilla blew up. He used these beats to back his music. Beginning in Detroit, he and his friends T3 (R.L Altman) and Baatin (Titus Glover) formed the rap collective Slum Village. What originally started as a rap battle turned into a trip to the record store, where T3 and Dilla realized their common interests in music and decided to freestyle instead. The inclusion of Slum Village, at first, was an attempt to keep Baatin of the streets. Dilla also continued performing with Fiddler, and through Fiddler was introduced to Q-Tip. It was here that Dilla’s career really took off.
He joined Tip in New York and began heavily influencing the Tribe Called Quest’s production process and sound, eventually forming the Ummah, a production group with J Dilla, Q-Tip, and Ali Muhammad, the latter two being members of ATCQ. Together they produced every track but one on Beats, Rhymes, and Life (1996), and the entirety of The Love Movement (1998), as well as doing a lot of work for Busta Rhymes. But more importantly, these years solidified Dilla’s entrance into this part of the rap scene, more specifically the musical collective the Soulquarians.
This group, composed of roughly twelve members, Dilla being one of the more fluid members, boasted big names of the time like Q-Tip, Questlove, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Common, and other musicians that had promising careers either in the spotlight or adjacent to it in the early 2000s. Rather than producing one record under the name “The Soulquarians” they supported one another in their projects, the most muscle coming from Questlove and his band “The Roots.” The biggest projects that came out of this were The Roots' Things Fall Apart (1999), D'Angelo's Voodoo (2000), Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun (2000), and Common's Like Water for Chocolate (2000). Dilla influenced all of these as a part of the collective, most notably producing tracks like “The Light” (2001), which won the Grammy for Best Solo Rap performance and “Didn’t Cha Know” (2001) which won the Grammy for R&B Song of the Year.
This success led to a rift between him and the groups he worked with back home. Slum Village was becoming less of a priority as his career was building, and while still trying to unify Detroit and the music scene he came from was important, he moved away from Slum Village and began creating his own solo efforts. Welcome 2 Detroit came out in 2001, at the same time as his Soulquarians success, and he released a second record Champion Sound (2003) duo-ing with Madlib. These solo efforts were unusual because he rapped on them, a side of Dilla that never escaped the shadow of his production.
Amidst all this, Dilla’s mentality stayed the same. Despite the growing fame, he held the Detroit attitude of having a deep loyal commitment to his inner circle, while still keeping largely to himself. Perhaps my favorite moment of the entire hour long interview with Sveriges Radio is where he states that his basement was like a spaceship, his spaceship and “That is my only outlet. To go in the basement and do me.”
At this time he was also releasing extended plays, instrumentals, of his productions. They came out sequentially, Vol 1: Unreleased coming out in 2001, followed by Vol 2: Vintage in 2002, and Ruff Draft EP which was released in 2003. The resources where there, the connections were too, and Dilla, rising to the challenge, was pumping out this music.
He left to promote Ruff Draft EP in Europe in 2003 but was forced to come back home due to an illness. He relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles, collaborating more with Mad Lib, and moving to better hospital facilities, doing everything he could to downplay his illness. His production slowed, only working on three major tracks in 2004/2005. His beats were passed around online, a new outlet for his music to gain traction. He did his best to tour, doing so in Europe in 2005 from a wheelchair, with Detroit local and Camp Amp alumni Frank n Dank as his homecoming.
From there it was confirmed that he had a rare blood condition, as well as lupus. Dilla began working on his final solo project Donuts, which he released on February 7th of 2006, naming it after the iconic Giant Donuts sign outside Randy’s Donuts in downtown Los Angeles, which he could see from his hospital bed. On February 10th he passed away in his home in Los Angeles.
J Dilla was one of the biggest pioneers in the production of rap music. His influence on the early 2000s sound and involvement with the Soulquarians and A Tribe Called Quest was revolutionary, winning him two Grammys’ and solidifying a phenomenal discography. His trademark beat style, the drunken feel, is something that has been completely rejuvenated in modern lo-fi hip-hop music, a full-bodied internet phenomenon. In that way, his influence lives on. That same drunken drumming that he interpolated from late 70s jazz, funk, and soul records now manifests itself in online streaming platforms. His solo work also lives on, with his 150-odd unreleased tracks that have been intermittently published since his passing.