Raise It Up: Grasping The Entire Greatness Of J Dilla In Retrospect (Food For Thought)
On the heels of the first expanded Dilla Weekend, it is difficult to ignore the growth in posthumous fame that James Yancey (a/k/a Jay Dee or J Dilla) has accrued since passing away on this date, nine years ago. Like Amadeus Mozart’s and Vincent Van Gogh’s before him, Dilla’s legacy has extended beyond those “in the know” to fans all over the world, most significantly in discussions about Hip-Hop production and technique. His name alone serves as a token of cultural cache, with fans frequently being heard boasting that “they’ve been bumpin’ Dilla since before he died,” as if his death signaled an immediate separation between bona fide fans and bandwagoners. To that end, are we celebrating Dilla as a tangible, musical luminary or Dilla, a conceptual idea created by dilettantes? That schism, between the longstanding fan and the recently cultivated, is perhaps a distraction from what can only be argued as a positive outcome; it is hard to imagine anybody rooting for the cause of less interest in his genius.
For some of his Day One supporters (those familiar with 5 Elementz, for example), the recent explosion of all things Dilla can be perplexing. A cross-section of his newer fans are not necessarily fluent in his vast repertoire, unable to name projects outside of Donuts, the commercial success of which was boosted due to its release only three days before his death. Similarly, despite his tremendous popularity, Dilla manages to remain an emphatic representative of the underground; his name is rarely mentioned when average Rap fans discuss the most influential artists who’ve passed away. In that sense, he has less in common with Pun, Biggie, and Tupac, whose repertoires were consumed by the masses while they were still alive. Nevertheless, interest in his discography has spiked, thanks in no small part to the roles played by co-signers. Artists, fans, family, media outlets, and formal institutions have all contributed to his veneration, both in the low- and high-brow realms; from his uncle’s “Dilla’s Delights” donut shop in Detroit to the fans who fought for Allée Jay Dee in Montpellier. Cultural curators continue to drive up Dilla stock, a process they began almost immediately after his February 2006 death.
One of the earliest and loudest tributes from within the Hip-Hop community came from Dave Chappelle, who at the height of his fame dedicated his Block Party documentary DVD to the late producer. The film was released nationwide one month after Dilla’s passing, adding particular poignancy to a musical doc that so much revolved around the Soulquarians, the family of creatives including Common, Erykah Badu, and Questlove, of which Dilla was a member. The same month as the Block Party release, The Roots began recording what would become Game Theory, their seventh album and one imbued from beginning to end with the spirit of Dilla. The first and last tracks served as musical nods to his contributions, the former being the Jay Dee-produced “Dilltastic Vol Won(derful)” and the latter an eight-minute compilation of spoken tributes to the tune of his “Time: The Donut of the Heart.”
In the years since, acclamations for his music have flowed freely from the Hip-Hop community. Notable tributes include those from Erykah Badu, Dwele, Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and Robert Glasper. Indeed these homages from seasoned veterans are beloved and integral to the nourishment of his legacy. One would be remiss, however, not to appreciate equally the more recent deference shown by the current generation of Hip-Hop artists. Bishop Nehru, Chance The Rapper, and Joey Bada$$ are just a few youngsters who have undoubtedly absorbed Dilla’s influence and may prove to carry the proverbial torch for future heads.
Even more influential in affecting vast exposure are the co-signs from outside of Hip-Hop. NPR, considered by many to be one of America’s barometers for what’s worth listening to, has helped tremendously in celebrating Dilla’s legacy with a wide audience. Since his death, they have published some of the most insightful pieces of tribute, from their February 2006 obituary to the 2013 exploration of his jazzy tendencies. Similarly, Rolling Stone – perhaps the music rag – has devoted considerable attention to him, including significant coverage on artists like Nas and De La Soul, who have incorporated his music into their own. That inclusion is important, as it helps to extend the conversation beyond the music already created to the potential of work yet to be released.
The music from James Yancey continues to permeate society, so much so that Heads may not even realize. Beats from the sonic visionary are frequent bumpers for Adult Swim viewers. Dilla-inspired t-shirts for Stussy transcend the music consumer into a simple trademark of cool, not unlike what Urban Outfitters did with Run-DMC or Target, with Grateful Dead. In time, Detroit Techno star Carl Craig hopes to honor his late friend, neighbor and peer through a plaque in Motown’s Conant Gardens. Like so many influential artists in all mediums, Jay Dee’s impact continues to extend beyond our notice, and simply into our daily lives.
And, in what may be the biggest stamp of approval in terms of national cultural significance, the Smithsonian Museum announced last July it would be including Dilla’s MPC and Minimoog in its collection devoted to African-American History and Culture.
As we look towards the tenth anniversary of this loss, perhaps the best thing we can do is to apply Dilla’s method in the lab to our roles as Heads: keep the creations of previous generations of musicians alive while embracing the reinvention provided by future creators.
Amanda Mester is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. Follow her on Twitter @CanEye_KickIt