The Ghost of J Dilla‏‏

Listening to the brand new Mayer Hawthorne project (w/14 KT) “Jaded Incorporated,” I noticed a familiar bounce on track 2 entitled “Monster”. Further investigation confirmed my suspicions: ‘produced by J Dilla’ – in 2014 eight years after the man’s death? How did we get HERE? Before we answer that question, let’s take a trip down memory lane…

I’ve always viewed the sound provider on an equal playing field as the lyricist in music, if not more vital. Because of this, I’ve been drawn to the liner notes of an album (cassettes and CDs included) to read who produced the songs, specifically my favorite tracks. In the 90’s, this practice of mine became increasingly obsessive as beatsmiths such as DJ Premier, Dr. Dre, Marley Marl & and Pete Rock flooded our speakers and headphones with banger after heat rock. These three, plus many others, prompted me and just about everyone to ask “who did THAT beat?” It was as important to me as “who spit that hot 16?”

Late 1995 The Pharcyde released “Runnin,” the lead single from their sophomore album “Labcabincalifornia”. It immediately evoked feelings of originality, creativity and OMG! The coming of age track, littered with lyrics of new found confidence, was a monumental moment in a year filled with high tier activity in rap music. The song’s producer, Jay Dee, was brand new to the scene and fresh out of Detroit but he clearly scored brilliantly in his first major outing. It seemed that his life would change overnight.

Jay Dee produced 7 tracks on that Pharcyde album which led to immediate work with even bigger acts, namely De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. His off kilter drum patterns fueled with jazzy loops were avant garde in an unprecedented fashion. Even artists outside of hip-hop (Erykah Badu, Brand New Heavies and D’angelo to name a few) were in line to work with this man, now known as J Dilla. His time was now. Perennial rap giants such as Busta Rhymes, Common, The Roots and Q-tip (now solo from A Tribe Called Quest) used Dilla as a chief producer. This must be life…

As if his production output wasn’t enough, Dilla had also formed his own group out of Detroit: Slum Village. Their second album “Fantastic Vol. 2” is widely viewed as a colossal cult classic. Dilla also had aspirations as a solo artist and by this time had developed into a formidable emcee in his own right. He departed Slum Village to pursue these dreams and then everything tragically changed for the worse…

In late 2003, J Dilla was diagnosed with an extremely rare blood disease similar to lupus, but far more deadly. This disorder severely weakened him causing dramatic weight loss and thus slowing his career. He did continue to work, however. He produced music from his bed. He performed from a wheelchair. He continued to inspire. Sadly J Dilla, aka James Yancey, passed away Feb 10, 2006, three days after his final birthday. He was just 32 years old.

Much like many musicians before him who departed too soon, Dilla left tons of unheard music and work behind. More thanfive5 albums of his vision have been released posthumously and to this day, his instrumentals are present in our soundwaves. In the last year alone Talib Kweli, De La Soul, Joey Badass and the aforementioned Mayer Hawthorne have contributed to the Yancey estate by using beats Dilla produced prior to his leaving us. How real is that?

Below are my favorite 10 J Dilla beats. The epitome of a timeless artist creating timeless product.

1) Runnin’ – The Pharcyde
2) Fuck the Police – J Dilla
3) Stakes is High – De La Soul
4) Show Me What You Got – Busta Rhymes
5) Let’s Ride – Q-Tip
6) Whip You With a Strap – Ghostface Killah
7) Players – Slum Village
8) Listen – Heavy D
9) Get A Hold – A Tribe Called Quest
10) Turn Me Up Some – Busta Rhymes

-Jermaine Raetone Johnson

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