Originally published for The 405.
He is a favourite of Pharrell Williams’, he worked with Prince and his production credits range from A Tribe Called Quest to Erykah Badu; but how did such a talented and hugely respected producer and solo artist manage to spend most of his career widely unknown?
This Sunday marks seven years since J Dilla‘s death, after a life-long battle with a rare blood disease, Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. His influence in the hip-hop and R&B community has spanned over the past decade and looks nowhere near diminishing. His status as an “underground” producer has also not stopped his influence extending outside of the hip-hop world, with bands such as The Horrors and The xx also citing Dilla as an influence in their work. Such is his global influence that there is even a small street named after him in Montpellier, France (Allée Jay Dee). As a friend of mine said: “If you know anything about hip-hop, you’ll know that J Dilla is one of the finest, most original producers there’s ever been.”
James Dewitt Yancey, otherwise known as J Dilla or Jay Dee, was born in to a musical family: his mother was an opera singer and his father a bassist and vocalist. From a young age, music was instilled in Dilla’s life, with his mother claiming “he wouldn’t go to sleep unless he heard jazz”. First, he began playing the piano and cello, where he learnt to read music, before extending his knowledge to drums, flute and guitar. However, it wasn’t until Dilla reached high school that he began to network with fellow Detroit musicians and really begin to showcase his talent.
Dilla’s recording career began in the early 90s as part of hip-hop trio Slum Village, which he founded along with two of his childhood friends, rappers Baatin and T3. Together they released two studio albums, Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 and Fantastic Vol. 2. It was through his work with Slum Village that Dilla was introduced to Q-Tip, who Dilla had worked with as part of The Ummah production team on his last two studio albums with A Tribe Called Quest. Q-Tip’s adoration of Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 led the group to achieve a record deal with what was then A&M records and with that came introductions to many of hip-hop’s biggest stars at the time, resulting in the likes of Busta Rhymes and Jazzy Jeff featuring on Fantastic Vol. 2.
In his years as part of Slum Village, Dilla continued to work on other projects with The Ummah where he contributed to the production on tracks for Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and many more. However, these credits often did not name him specifically, leading to him missing out on a Grammy for his production on Janet Jackson’s ‘Got ’til It’s Gone’. It wasn’t until Dilla collaborated with The Roots’ drummer Questlove, Common, D’Angelo and James Poyser that his big break really arrived, when they collectively founded the Soulquarians. As more members, including Erykah Badu, Talib Kwali and Mos Def, joined the collective, the greater their success expanded. In 2001, Dilla decided that it was time to say goodbye to Slum Village and focus more on his solo career, but still continued to produce the group’s next two albums.
A small playlist of J Dilla tracks we love
Dilla’s production on Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun brought him two Grammy nominations in 2001: Best Solo Rap Performance for Common’s ‘The Light’ and R&B Song of the Year for Erykah Badu’s ‘Didn’t Cha Know’. Within a year of this, he achieved a major label record deal with MCA records, released his first solo album Welcome 2 Detroit and officially rebranded himself from Jay Dee to J Dilla. However, internal issues at MCA records meant that the follow-up to Welcome 2 Detroit was put on hold so Dilla took matters in to his own hands and self-released his Ruff Draft EP, with a little help from German label Groove Attack who assisted in the distribution of it. It was during the touring of this record that Dilla’s declining health became apparent when he suffered from exhaustion and malnourishment. Despite concerns over his health, Dilla continued to create and produce music, going on to collaborate with Madlib, whom he greatly respected, and they created and began working together as Jaylib.
Dilla’s most celebrated work, Donuts, was also his last completed work, released just three days before his death. Just last month, Stones Throw released a reissue of Donuts as a box set of 7″ singles. Nate Patrin of Pitchfork said of the record:
“As an album, it just gets deeper the longer you live with it, front-to-back listens revealing emotions and moods that get pulled in every direction: mournful nostalgia, absurd comedy, raucous joy, sinister intensity.”
With more reissues of Dilla’s work set for release this year, including some previously unheard tracks, it is clear that his influence continues to exist. Whether or not the mid 90s to early 00s hip-hop scene would have been the same without J Dilla is uncertain but what is inarguable is that it probably would not have been the golden era it was without him.