Black Thought Reveals What Artists Used To Do To Get J Dilla’s Best Beats (Video)

Between 1999 and 2006, The Roots would work with J Dilla (f/k/a Jay Dee) a number of times. Then label-mates at MCA Records, Dilla produced elements of the Grammy-nominated platinum Things Fall Apart album. While “Dynamite!” would make the LP, “New Year’s @ Jay Dee’s” would be a hidden jewel B-side on the Grammy-winning “You Got Me” single.

At last weekend’s second annual J Dilla Weekend in Miami, Florida, The Roots’ Black Thought & J. Period performed a Live Mixtape: Dilla Edition. Afterwards, the MC born Tariq Trotter spoke in depth with Ambrosia For Heads about the MCA deep cut. Today (February 10), on the tenth anniversary of James Yancey’s death, that conversation comes to life.

“‘New Years @ Jay Dee’s’ marked the end of a week that we had spent at J Dilla’s crib—not at J Dilla’s crib, but at J Dilla’s studio, which was at the basement at Ma Duke’s crib,” said the South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania MC. “Jay Dee, he had a spot of his own, but his records and equipment [were] still in his mom’s basement.”

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The December 1998 trip was part of a yearly routine for the acclaimed MC/singer. “It was an annual thing for me. Every year, I’d go to Detroit for at least a couple days to spend with Jay Dee, so I could be one of the first people that got his tape, of the upcoming season. Every January, he would put out a new volume of beats.” Those beat tapes contained what would later become affectionately known as “donuts.” At that time, those jewels went to elite collaborators of the Slum Village co-founder. “Certain people like Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Common, myself, Erykah Badu—a longer list, but in essence, it’s a short list of artists—Pete Rock—who were related to the work that J Dilla was doin’. We’d get the new batch every January.”

Black Thought, at work on The Roots’ fourth album, wanted early access. “So I started sayin’, ‘Aight, if the batch is comin’ out in January, then he must have it in December too—it’s probably done. Let me just start goin’ out to Detroit to hit him up every December. So my run would be: I would go to Detroit every December to be with Dilla. Then, at the top of the year, every January, I would come here—to Miami. I would mess with Scott Storch.” Scott Storch, a onetime keyboardist member of The Roots had relocated to pivot to a storied solo career. “I would always get like at least a gem or two from Dilla and a gem or two from Scott, around the same time.”

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On the 1998 trip, Black Thought brought a Philly peer with him. “This time, I was out in Detroit. I had my man Rehani with me—who’s the other rapper/MC on ‘Dynamite!’ I know Common was out there. Pete Rock was out there. He was runnin’ with Proof, and Baatin. It’s crazy how many people were there—who were present that day during that visit for roll call—who are no longer with us: Proof, Baatin, Dilla—we was all there, together.” D12’s Proof would be murdered just months after J Dilla’s death, in April of 2006. In 2009, Baatin—a member of Slum Village—died from drug overdose. All three Motown MCs were in each others’ company during that December visit.

In his recollection, Black Thought remembers noticing some changes in Dilla’s lifestyle. “I remember, somebody was givin’ J Dilla a Christmas gift. What do you give the person who kinda has everything? This was when Dilla was in his prime. He had the [Range] Rover. He had all the jewels, all the gear. This was like right when he first started smokin’ a little bit of herb, feelin’ the ‘I smoke weed now’ vibe. He was drinkin’ a lil‘ bit. Someone had given him some Gucci crystal champagne flutes. I just remember christening those, ’cause for the whole time we was there, I remember gettin’ like a bottle of cham’ and a bottle of Alizé or some shit.” Black Thought associates the visit with the year’s libations. “That visit, I remember was ‘the Moet and Alizé visit.’ It was before I was on the groove. Every day we’d go to one of these spots in Detroit to get the most expensive Moet and some Alizé. I was lookin’ for somethin’ to mix that in; Jay Dee opened up this Christmas gift that he’d just gotten of these flutes. We bust the shit, and we drinkin’ outta the flutes. The rest is history.”

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With champagne and spirits in his system, Jay Dee went to work. “He started diggin’ to come up with a beat for the new Roots album [Things Fall Apart]. He came up with the ‘Dynamite!’ joint. We had that looped, and that was poppin’.” However, that session was not over. “He was still diggin’ for something else. That’s when we just started freestyling over some beat that him—I think him and Pete Rock and Questlove had it poppin’—just a real basic drum beat jawn.” Black Thought provides insights to a collaborator, despite the solo Dilla credit. He also provided some rare insights to that “New Years @ Jay Dee’s” mic style. “I think that New Years song came from me doing an impression of what Busta [Rhymes] was gonna be like when he got his new batch. I was like, ‘Yo, when Busta gets this, this is the shit he’s gonna be on.'” Tariq examined his verse. “The last couple words of each measure were the words and the rest was just scattered. I imagined that that’s how Busta Rhymes wrote his songs—come to find out, it is like that. [Laughs]” Busta Rhymes would be a significant Dilla collaborator, working together from 1996’s The Coming solo debut through his Aftermath tenure, The Big Bang.

Later in the interview, Black Thought explained how Jay Dee was a center on the family tree of sound, whether Hip-Hop or Soul music. “Dilla was the common denominator between Kanye West and Pharrell and The Roots and A Tribe Called Quest and The Pharcyde and Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, and the list goes on and on.” Jay Dee had a commanding sound that made well-established artists come to him. “Dilla’s influence transcended genre and it transcended region and it was something that we were all willing to foot the bill, and travel to Detroit and go to this grown man’s mother’s basement to experience.”

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“He had come into his own,” says the admittedly competitive Thought. He said that Dilla had a bravado too, while two men were mutually respectful. “He wasn’t really checkin’ for me on notes on style, or what he should do, or anyone else that he was really rockin’ with. He was rockin’ with the taste-makers and trendsetters, but he was makin’ his own trends at that time.”

Another year, Black Thought remembered partying with the artist who would make major hits with Common, Q-Tip, and Slum. “We had this one New Years Eve show in Chicago—it was J Dilla, Busta Rhymes, The Roots, Common. We were all in Chicago. I just remember it being a shit-show. The performance was amazing.” Without getting into specifics, Black Thought said the moment was a highlight for all parties involved. “I remember the hotel experience, us, our interactions. It was fun times! Now that I think about it, I don’t even think Jay Dee was performing. I think he drove from Detroit to Chicago just to bring in the year with us. It was good times; he was a good brother.”

Black also addressed the Dilla events beyond the Ma Dukes-sanctioned weekend in Miami. He sees these affairs as critical to raising awareness. “It helps to add to the legend and prolong the legacy of the moment. It helps to extend the moment of time in which we observe J Dilla.” The Roots MC uses these events as a standard. “I can only hope that this is something that’s gonna take place in my honor, in Questlove’s honor, in honor of The Roots. I can only hope that my legacy will live on. That’s what I aspire to.”

#BonusBeat: “New Year @ Jay Dee’s” by The Roots:

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