Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 was legendary producer/artist/genius James Dewitt Yancey‘s birthday. Most music fans know him as J Dilla. And, yes, he did happen to save many lives in the span of his short but prolific one (having passed away only a few days after his birthday, February 10, in 2006). I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t fully conscious of Dilla until his very last album. (This should come as no surprise to anyone as I’m often times the last to know about everything, but I digress.) I say “fully conscious” because J Dilla has been present in all contemporary hip-hop since the 1990s, so it’s most likely I’d heard his work without even realizing it. That being said, his last official release in 2006, the now legendary “Donuts,” was one hell of a rude awakening. Produced while he was quite literally on his death bed, Dilla took every ounce of his musical and mathematical genius and poured it like molasses all over that project. The definition of a true “soul” album.
The Name of the Game is Lightworks
This is the moment my understanding of music forever changed scope. I can’t recall the day, but I do know that my brother and I were riding around town. Hermanito is the type to sort of hop around a CD, getting what he needs from a track, then moving along. I know we were listening to quite a bit of music, starting the night off with Jedi Mind Tricks, moving on to DJ Jazzy Jeff and Jay Electronica. Somewhere along the line he pops in “Donuts.” Each track was incredibly short (only one of them extending beyond two minutes), so I just assumed my brother was hopscotching across another CD. Then the first quirky notes, muffled as if from a time capsule, ooze through the speakers of our small sedan. Suddenly I just see stars.
I’m sure I’d never heard anybody put together a collection of sounds the way Dilla did on “Lightworks.” I recognized it as hip-hop, but there was something slightly … sideways about the music. The sound wasn’t completely in one place, yet it was incredibly focused. A specific sound that wasn’t at all one thing. Once we got back from wherever we were going, I asked my brother if I could rip his CD. I listened to “Lightworks” off and on for 24 hours. It just did something to me, sparked a keen awareness about the expansiveness of music that I hadn’t had before. I was already in love with music, growing up in a household where music was a part of how we functioned during the day. “Lightworks” is the song that made me completely obsessed with it. I can listen to that song 100 times and still find nuances that I’d missed in the last 50. Thus the magic of J Dilla.
Well, with an introduction like “Lightworks” it was only a matter of time before I’d swim through his discography. It helped that Adult Swim used heavy doses of Dilla and Flying Lotus in their earlier commercial bumps, thus subliminally making me fall in love with a man I’d scarcely listened to. “Baby” was the second track I consciously connected to J Dilla and just thought, “Who even is this guy?” I know … I know. I’m not proud of being so late to his music, but at the very least I found him. I was perusing his library at a time when things were very rocky for my mental health. Just before I discovered K-pop, I fell in love with J Dilla. I can honestly say, “Baby” was the catalyst of a very necessary mental recovery for me. It was one that would last about a year. But without Dilla’s help, there’s no telling if I would’ve actually crawled out of it.
Naturally once I was attuned to Dilla’s presence in the universe, I had to take a trip back and educate myself. It led me to his early work with rappers Baatin and T3 in the legendary Slum Village.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that someone so entrenched in the soul of hip-hop would also be an MC, but here we are. It makes sense that J Dilla would also have a knack for putting words together and creating some of hip-hop’s most profound musical creations with his brothers in arms. Listening through their discography, and particularly “The Fantastic Vol. 2” — virtually required listening to any supposed fan of the genre — it occurred to me that Dilla had a stake in every aspect of the music he made. From the smallest notes to the largest statements, he had a voice that resonated. Whether through his own musical creations or his collaborations with his fellow rappers, there was something intrinsically magical about the way J Dilla expressed himself.
This Is Hip-Hop
Anyone who talks about J Dilla speaks both in reverence and with overwhelming gratitude. Without putting too fine a point on it, the man was a genius. This isn’t some attempt at exalting the memory of an artist. Anyone who worked with him, hell, anyone who just watched him work realized that there was more mad scientist than trained musician in him. It was all science to him. His early education at Davis Aerospace Technical High School no doubt added another dimension to his already keen ear. However, anyone who creates music knows that what Dilla had, beyond an incredible work ethic and impeccable attention to detail, can’t really be taught. He had inherent soul, a story inside him that he could transfer seamlessly to wax. Never mind he could hear sounds between sounds. The man just knew music. Any fan of hip-hop would without a doubt point to J Dilla’s discography and swear by it like a sort of bible. In every way, Dilla’s music encapsulates the true spirit of hip-hop: boundless, timeless, musical. At its root, hip-hop is a genre of all genres. If there’s a beat, something to dance to, if there’s movement, if there’s a message, it lends itself to the transformative nature of hip-hop. Dilla understood this probably better than most artists and used this understanding to create some of the genre’s most haunting, articulate, intelligent, thought-provoking music.
J Dilla was the architect of so many universes. We were all blessed to inhabit several of them. Happy Birthday and Rest in Everlasting Power to the one and only J Dilla.