Celebrating Life: On The Music and Genius of J Dilla

“Fly away to heaven, brotha. Save a place for me.”

Erykah Badu, “Telephone”

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Jay Dee aka J Dilla’s promotional picture for Fantastic, Vol. 2.

I have to admit that I’m a late bloomer to the genius of James Yancey, a man we know as J Dilla or Jay Dee. When Dilla passed away in February 2006, I was in my senior year of high school and I wasn’t big on hip-hop at that moment. But, when I started college that fall, I hung out with a group of rappers called the Undergrounduates that got me into listening to hip-hop again, and Dilla was one of the artists whose music they referenced a lot. Once I started getting into Dilla’s catalog, I realized that he produced my favorite songs from my favorite Common album, Like Water for Chocolate, like “The Light,” “Nag Champa (Afrodisiac for the World),” and “Thelonius.” 

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J Dilla, T3 and Baatin of Slum Village. Photography by Mpozi Tolbert.

I was a Dilla fan before I knew who he was and I became even more of a fan once I listened to his solo work and his work with Slum Village. Then I became a super fan once I found out who he worked with, the songs he sampled, the few interviews that I’ve seen of his floating around on YouTube, and from the countless people who have praised his art and his energy. Almost all of the music I’ve listened to from him have felt good. Each beat puts you into a trance make you subconsciously nod your head or sway your hips…or even just make you question how he even put the beat together, especially the songs from Donuts

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From a 2000 Vibe Magazine behind the scenes shoot: Talib Kweli, Common, yasiin bey (fka Mos Def), James Poyser, Erykah Badu, Questlove, D’Angelo, Q-Tip, Bilal & J Dilla as the Soulquarians.

Outside of skill, Dilla is one of my favorite producers because of two of the ultimate reasons why music is important: emotions and experiences. To me, “Go Ladies” gives me nostalgia of my early college days, “Waves” and “People” remind me of my low points and how important is to keep going through it all, “African Rhythms” is a constant reminder of how much I need to travel the world and experience new things, and “The Light” reminds me of my childhood and why I fell in love with Common’s music in the first place, along with the rest of the Soulquarians.

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Dilla as a kid. Accessed from http://www.dilla.biz.

As I write this on his 42nd birthday, I feel so many emotions, and every emotion I’ve felt while listening to him has led back to a feeling of divinity. Maybe I’m reaching in how I feel because he’s physically gone, but I think it all connects back to his love for creating. I truly believe that his inspiration was enjoying all that he did with his life. His music, from Fantastic, Vol. 2 to being on his deathbed creating Donuts, makes you feel that.

February is Black History Month, as well as the month of love (Valentine’s Day) and the month of Dilla. Instead of lamenting his passing, I want to celebrate his life by sharing my top 10 favorite songs from Jay Dee, from productions on other artists’ albums to his own work. Click on the song title to listen to each song (it will take you to YouTube). 


1. Slum Village – Go Ladies: This was one of the first SV songs outside of “Tainted” and “Selfish” that I heard and I was blown away. Even though folks always give props to Dilla for production, he had a really great rap voice.His verse is my favorite on here. Make sure you do a body roll or two step to this one.

2. Common – Thelonius (feat. Slum Village): One of the first songs I heard of Dilla’s ever (but I didn’t know who he was at the time). What probably drew me in was that it’s named after Thelonious Monk, but the feel kept me hooked on the track. It’s an instant head nodder. That bass gets me every. single. time.

3. Q-Tip – Things We Do: This was a more recent discovery for me. I was a Tip fan from his A Tribe Called Quest days, but I hadn’t gotten into his solo work until after The Renaissance. When I heard this, I needed to know who produced it…and of course, it was Dilla. By the way, this song is two-step heaven.

4. J Dilla – Waves: I feel motivated and inspired every time I hear this track. But then, I feel sad because of how important Donuts is in the context of his life. The way he chopped this sample to leave a message of encouragement to his brother, Illa J, to keep going was beautiful. 

5. A Tribe Called Quest – Find A Way: I remember this song from my childhood and it was an instant groove for me. Revisiting this later on in my life, I found out that he produced it. It feels so nostalgic, like memories of the summertime with the windows down playing your favorite song really loud because you felt that good.

6. Erykah Badu – Didn’t Cha Know: Bruh. BRUH. I didn’t quite understand the gems laid on this track by Badu when this song came out, but I loved its transcendental production, and of course, I didn’t know it was Dilla until later on in my life. They floated over this track.

7. De La Soul – Stakes Is High: I feel like I’m in 1990s NYC every time I hear it. Truth-speaking, hip-hop purists rapping over a bass heavy beat that samples jazz classics. I feel like rocking Timbs, a bomber jacket and a NYC fitted every time this plays. The message is still relevant in 2016, a whole 20 years later. Turn it up and just nod.

8. J Dilla – African Rhythms: I instantaneously move my hips, head and shoulders when this track comes on. I dare you to stay still listening to this. Try to deny yourself of rocking to this goodness from Welcome 2 Detroit.

9. J Dilla – Think Twice (feat. Dwele): I feel like Dwele and Dilla are long lost brothers. They’re both from Detroit, are both Aquarius/February babies (Dilla is four years and a week older than Dwele), are extremely talented, have a great ear, and if you squint your eyes and tilt your head, they kinda look alike…kinda. On top of that, Dwele was once a rapper before he started releasing music as a singer, musician and producer, while Dilla was an emcee and a producer that wanted to get more into singing. Crazy, right? When I first heard this, I thought it was Dwele singing, but Dwele only did some background vocals and played trumpet and piano for this Donald Byrd cover. The breakdown is my favorite part. Sway to this. 

10. Slum Village – Get Dis Money: Once I heard the Herbie Hancock sample used in this song, Come Running to Me (sample at 1:52), I flipped. I love how much fun SV had in making this track. I find myself saying the chorus all the time, and for some reason, I love Baatin’s verse. RIP to him. Play this song while you’re on your way to make your money or as you’re doing it.

It was hard to do those ten because I left so many out, so I’ll leave you with honorable mentions: J Dilla’s Airworks, Slum Village’s Untitled (Fantastic), J Dilla’s People, J Dilla’s Nothing Like This, and Dilla’s Stop. I haven’t gotten into Jaylib yet, so if folks have ideas on where to start, songwise, let me know.

In the comments or on Twitter, let me know what some of your favorite Dilla songs and memories are, and let’s just celebrate the life, legacy and genius of Dilla.

 

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