James Dewitt Yancey, better known by his stage names J Dilla and Jay Dee, passed away six years ago this month. Members of RVA’s hip hop scene reflect on his legacy.
James Dewitt Yancey, better known by his stage names J Dilla and Jay Dee, passed away six years ago this month from complications of the blood disease thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) and lupus. J Dilla is known today as one of hip hop’s most highly regarded and influential producers. He worked with some of hip hop’s greatest talents such as: The Parcyede, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Common on some of their most notable projects. J Dilla’s death is remembered annually by a star-studded Dilla tribute concert in his hometown of Detroit and smaller Dilla tribute concerts all over the country.
RVA music veteran Mikemetic Kemetic (Photosynthesizers & AudioMassTransit) hosted #DillaLives, a concert earlier this month at The Cellar Door to honor J Dilla. I recently caught up with Mike to chat about Dilla’s legacy and the importance of #DillaLives. “In my opinion, J Dilla is much more than just a producer,” Mike said. “He embodies a whole generation of hip-hop musicians and innovators that were not previously represented at the highest level.” That may seem odd in today’s hip hop world of celebrity producers, most notably Kanye West, but it is true nonetheless. Star status for producers like DJ Premier, Questlove, and Pete Rock has only come after years of hard work, several gold and platinum records, and a new crop of hip hop enthusiast dedicated to finding unique sounds.
“As a musician, you really can’t talk about J Dilla without talking about his drum programming.” Mike followed up. “A lot of producers today focus on mechanically fixing their beats while Dilla played his music out to give it a live feel.” When asked why was hosting a Dilla Lives concert in RVA was important, Mike said, “It is important because J Dilla’s music is alive today. We hear that distinct Dilla sound in a lot of 2012 music…Also, no one else was doing it, which strange because Dilla did have a connection to Richmond. He produced some of the tracks on Skillz’s (then known as Mad Skillz) debut album in 1995. It is still known as one of, if not the, signature hip hop album out of Richmond.”
Currently, there is a large flock of modern producers that credit Dilla’s signature style as the foundation and inspiration to their sound. Among them is Richmond producer, Brad Ohbliv. “Like Questlove, Dilla laid the foundation for a lot of people’s careers.” Ohbliv said. “For me, he really set off forward thinking and progressive ideas in beat making. When I first heard Slum Village (a Detroit hip hop group which Dilla help form in 2002) it wasn’t like anything that I had heard before; and this was coming off of A Tribe Called Quest. He took that jazzy, soulful vibe to another dimension.” Ohbliv said. “Also, to the average hip hop fan, who doesn’t fully understand the nuances of music production, it sounds good.”
WRIR DJ Brad Stabler credits Dilla’s sample selection as a distinction that set him apart from his peers. Stabler, also known as The Witchdoctor, said, “A lot of producers sample everything but there was something special about J Dilla’s samples. You can go back through his entire catalog, his collaborations, etc. and the depth at which he pulled his samples for specific artist and specific vibes was like no other producer.” Brad also echoed the sentiment of Questlove, famed producer of the Roots, by highlighting J Dilla’s versatility, “What I really love about him is his versatility and how easily he was able to adapt to any artist and also push their boundaries. When you listen to a Dilla produced track for an artist, there is a stronger connection happening. It is the purest form of partnership and it is addicting to listen to.”
After hearing Mike, Obliv, and Stabler talk about the nuances of J Dilla’s sound I did a little more research on my own to provide you with my favorite J Dilla tracks. The first two are my all-time favorite Dilla songs:
- “The Light” by Common (2000). In my opinion, the perfect Common song. I know what you’re thinking “I Use to Love Her” fans, but trust me, that Bobby Caldwell sample is unmatched.
- “The Stakes is High” by De La Soul (1996). This song is the classic example of Dilla’s timelessness. In 1996, a lot of people (including yours truly) were pumping Bad Boy and talking about the East Coast / West Coast battle, but Dilla was making a strong run with the collective Native Tongues. Today, “Stakes is High” is a classic joint but it took some years to get appreciated for this sound.
The rest of my favorite J Dilla songs:
- “Runnin” and “Drop” by The Pharcyde (1995)
- “Didn’t Cha Know” by Erykah Badu (2001)
- “History” by Mos Def ft. Talib Kweli (2009)
- “One for Ghost” AKA “Whip me with a Strap” by Ghostface Killah (2006)
I could go on forever about my favorite Dilla songs, but Questlove said it best, “If you name your top all-time producer, J Dilla is in that producers’ top 3.”