Single Origin: J Dilla

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Few artists have received as much posthumous acclaim as hip-hop visionary James Dewitt Yancey, aka Jay Dee, aka J Dilla. Eschewing the bravado and gold chains of his contemporaries, Yancey was a humble auteur, inspiring a generation of beat-makers while extending his influence far beyond hip-hop alone. Ten years on from the release of his masterpiece “The Shining”, we examine the legacy of the legendary beat-smith J Dilla.

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1. Slum Village – Forth & Back (1996)

Forming hip-hop collective Slum Village fresh out of school, Dilla handled all the production on the group’s first two albums, which serves a potent introduction to the Detroit native. Both rightfully regarded as classics, it was Slum Village’s debut album (recorded between 1996 and 1997) that set the template neo soul followed for a decade afterwards.

2. Erykah Badu – Didn’t Cha Know (2000)

Forming the Soulquarians (alongside some of the biggest names in hip-hop, soul and RnB music including ?uestlove, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Talib Kweli, Common and Q-Tip), Dilla’s dream team led to some of the most ground-breaking albums of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, including Erykah’s debut Mama’s Gun, from which this Grammy nominated single is taken from.

3. D’Angelo – Left & Right (2000)

Although unofficially credited, Dilla was sought by ?uestlove for programming drums on D’Angelo’s opus, and introduced the slurred, unquantized drum patterns that Lenny Kravitz famously claimed were too out of time for him to play on. Described by ?uest as “musically drunk and sober at the same time”, Dilla’s ability to coax human grooves from his machines remains without peer.

4. The Pharcyde – Runnin’ (1995)

Dilla’s commercial breakthrough came via Runnin’ from seminal LA outfit The Pharcyde’s second album. Introduced to the group via Q-Tip (who Dilla would later form the production unit “The Ummah” with), Runnin’ takes three jazz records an a Run D.M.C. hook to create an effortless backdrop for the Pharcyde’s talent; a perfect example of Dilla’s early proficiency with sample layering.

5. De La Soul – Stakes Is High (1996)

Marking a change in direction at a critical time in their career, De La Soul’s Stakes Is High was the first of their records produced without Prince Paul; leaving behind the so-called “Daisy Age”, the trio pounced on an unused Dilla beat for the title track, a furious critique on the commercialisation of hip-hop culture and gangsta rap.

6. Janet Jackson – Got Til’ It’s Gone (Ummah Jay Dee’s Revenge Mix) (1997)

A controversial song in his discography, Dilla claimed authorship over the Grammy-winning song alongside The Ummah cohorts Ali Shaheed and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. Credited to 1980’s hit factory (and frequent Janet Jackson collaborators) Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Dilla’s aptly-titled “Revenge” mix amplifies his unmistakeable, off-kilter groove leaving no doubt who the original songwriter is.

7. Jaylib – Champion Sound (2003)

Only meeting once during the album’s creation, J Dilla and fellow esteemed peer Madlib moved from the shadows of their machines to take turns rapping over the beats they’d send each other through the mail. It shouldn’t have worked- dream-team collaborations seldom do- but in showcasing each-others talents on the mic, the collaborators created a hip-hop masterpiece more than the sum of its illustrious parts.

8. Amp Fiddler ft. George Clinton – Waltz of a Ghetto Fly & You (2004)

Credited with introducing Dilla to the MPC sampling workstation, fellow Detroit musician Amp Fiddler’s discography includes collaborations with Prince, Moodymann, Maxwell, Jamiroquai and on this release, George Clinton, mirroring Dillas own collaborative style. On Waltz of a Ghetto Fly & You shows Dilla’s returned to the crusty, jazz inflected soul from which he made his name with.

9. Common – 8 Star 69 (PS With Love) [Featuring Bilal and Prince] (2002)

Common’s Electric Circus- the final album from the Soulquarians collective- served as the perfect vehicle for the eccentric style to which Dilla’s music had evolved; 8 Star 69 (PS With Love) typifies both the experimental nature of the album and the incredible way Dilla was able to combine disparate elements into a cohesive whole.


10. J Dilla – BBE (Big Booty Express) (2001)

Taking a sharp left turn from the well-worn path Detroit’s Kraftwerk fanaticism usually follows, Dilla’s homage to the krautrock masters takes the same drum machines and afro-futuristic minimalism of fellow motor city natives Derrick May and Jeff Mills and contorts them into a slow motion science-fiction fantasy, showcasing the electronic style Dilla would perfect later in his career.

11. Daft Punk – Aerodynamic (Slum Village Remix) (2001)

An uncredited sample from a Thomas Bangalter dance track resulted in Daft Punk’s manager Busy P requesting a remix as payment. The result was one of the finest reinterpretations in Dilla’s career, hitting the airwaves years before either Frank Ocean or Kanye West dreamt of collaborating with the robotic French ones. 

12. J Dilla – Don’t Cry (2006)

Released on his 32nd birthday- a mere three days before succumbing to a rare blood disease Lupus- Dilla’s landmark album Donuts was created from a hospital bed while surrounded by his beloved samplers and Moog synthesizer. An album that rewards repeated listens (the fact a 130-page book exists on Donuts is testament to it’s depth), Dilla is said to have layered the album with messages for his family, wringing every drop of emotion from The Escort’s I Can’t Stand (To See You Cry) as a message to his brother.

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