A New Book Will Explain How J Dilla Re-Invented Rhythm & Changed Music

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Today (February 7) marks J Dilla’s birthday. The iconic producer, MC, and DJ would have turned 45 years old. Tragically, the incredible artist born James Yancey passed away on February 10, 2006, days after his birthday and the release of acclaimed instrumental Hip-Hop album, Donuts. However, his music, impact, and creative spirit still burn bright 13 years later.

Handfuls of posthumous Dilla projects seem to release every year. The triple-threat is immortalized through t-shirts, medallions, vinyl stickers, and theme parties. Dan Charnas has brought the significance of James Yancey to academia, teaching a New York University course. Now, he is preparing to highlight the marvel of Dilla in an upcoming book, DillaTime: How a Hip-Hop Producer Reinvented Rhythm and Changed the Way Musicians Play. The text, due out Feb 2021 on MCD/Farrar Straus Giroux, is co-authored with Jeff Peretz. Twenty years ago, Dan Charnas met J Dilla and watched the master at work in his basement studio. Now his research and writing will help many others understand a Hip-Hop legend that transcends genre.

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Before analyzing and writing about Dilla, Charnas authored The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop. He also co-created a film and series about Hip-Hop in the ’90s, The Breaks. This week, Dan provided Ambrosia For Heads with some insight to his forthcoming text. “The story of J Dilla begins as a rather simple one—a kid who knows, from an early age that what he wants most in life is to dwell with his records,” Charnas says. “The drum machine not only makes that possible for him, but gives him a way to dwell not just with but within [those records]. That’s his joy. You hear it in every beat and every rhyme.”

By the early 2000s, J Dilla left his post with the group Slum Village to focus on his production and an expanding solo career. He signed with MCA Records to make The Diary. However, things did not exactly go according to plan. Dan Charnas notes, “[J Dilla’s] story gets complicated first as he encounters some of the pains of the business and then, later, illness. The thing he most wants to do becomes harder and harder for him to do. But that laser focus, as his friends and family have painstakingly documented, remains until his final hour. Talk about triumph and pain mixed together. One of the things I’ve grappled with since the day I walked into his basement in 1999 is why people have such an overwhelming emotional connection to this person and his work. And one of the answers I’ve come to is that, in every piece of music, we can somehow sense that overwhelming will and spirit.”

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In his work teaching others about Jay Dee, environment plays an important role. Dilla’s groups Slum Village and 1st Down represented the D at a time when widespread recognition was not as prominent. Meanwhile, the city’s Techno and Electronic music scene created a different air than that of New York or Los Angeles did at that time. The students of his college course have previously gone to Detroit to get a sense of the city’s energy. “My co-author, Jeff Peretz, and I took about 20 students to Detroit in 2017 as a part of my Dilla course at the Clive Davis Institute,” The Associate Arts Professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at Tisch recalls. “The Detroit experience was a real eye-opener for our students. Context and environments are crucial to understanding. I’ll tell you one of the things that always strikes me about the D: everyone in Detroit always seems to be building something. Dilla’s ‘Uncle Herm’ isn’t just a chef and baker—he gutted and built the donut shop with his own two hands.” In 2013, Herman Hayes opened Dilla’s Delights in Detroit after years of preparation. “Donut” was also a term Dilla sometimes used to describe his batches of beats that he would supply to MCs and singers.

“We met the legendary Awesome Dre one day for lunch. And he came to the restaurant in his work boots, which were a utility rather than a fashion statement. Another one of Dilla’s closest friends was refurbishing a house and putting in a new floor. He said, ‘In Detroit, It’s cool to be handy.’ Even [Eminem’s character], at the end of 8 Mile [says], ‘I’ve got to go back to work.” If you want to understand the industriousness of James Yancey, that Detroit reference point really, really helps.” Dilla was inventive with his equipment, and meticulously constructed many of his beats sound-by-sound.

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J Dilla also used his blue-collar work ethic in his basement. Creatively, he was a cellar dweller. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Yancey sat at the Akai MPC sampler in his basement, where MCs from East and West would visit to get the vibe and flavor from the musician. In a video available at AFH TV, Black Thought describes his yearly personal trips to Detroit to hear Dilla’s latest creations. Some of those samplings later landed on The Roots’ albums.

In life and beyond, Dilla could never be called a polarizing figure. He was hardly controversial. However, Dan Charnas was asked if the legacy surrounding James Yancey carries any room for misconception or error. “I think the biggest misconceptions around J Dilla show up in how people try to describe his process and his innovations. Most often, you hear people saying that what Dilla did — his process — was to simply not ‘quantize’ his beats. Which is not the entire story, not by a long shot, and you know this if you’ve ever actually used an MPC,” he says of some technical explanations surrounding Dilla’s production approach. “But focusing on process obscures something bigger, his innovations. Adding some clarity to that conversation is one of the main goals of our book.” Down to the title, the text aims to look at Jay Dee’s relationship with rhythm.

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Charnas was also asked about the music. As someone who has been a fan for well beyond 20 years, do the sounds and appreciation change in the course of research? “The nature of J Dilla’s work is ethereal—the more you listen to it, the deeper you sink into it. For me, Jay’s remixes are signposts of where he was going in the last years of his life—not just rhythmically but harmonically. ‘Without You’ for Lucy Pearl, ‘Eve’ for Steve Spacek, and the ‘Oblighetto’ joint for the Blue Note [Revisited] compilation. These three tracks tell the story of a harmonic and melodic genius that was just beginning to find ways to express itself.”

At AFH TV, there is a “Reflections On Dilla” video collection. Besides Black Thought, this includes video interviews with collaborators Royce 5’9 and A.G. (of D.I.T.C.). Additionally, Rapsody speaks about how the producer/MC has influenced her. We are currently offering free 30-day trials.

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#BonusBeat: A playlist of those three remixes, as selected by DillaTime: How a Hip-Hop Producer Reinvented Rhythm and Changed the Way Musicians Play co-author Dan Charnas: