People didn’t wear t-shirts that read J Dilla Changed My Life back when James Yancey was alive. It wasn’t because he hadn’t changed people’s lives back when he was alive — it was because it took his death for most of us to realize it.
Some may take the opposite approach and chastise those who spent more time paying homage to Dilla on the day of his passing than they had in the 10+ years that Dilla spent building one of the most thorough hip-hop-producer discographies ever. I was listening to Phat Kat’s last album Carte Blanche the other day (mind the shameless plug, but DJ01 interviewed Kat last year), and on the track “True Story, Pt. 2″, a phone call interlude features someone talking about how it took Dilla to die for radio stations to finally play his music, and how the program directors didn’t even know what tracks he produced. Jadakiss once said “Dead rappers get better promotion”, and the adage seems to apply to rapper/producers as well.
I’m proud to say that I didn’t need to hear about Dilla’s death to know about and appreciate his catalog. I was a fan of his work since back when he was simply “Jay Dee”, before he switched his alias to “J Dilla” to avoid confusion with Jermaine Dupri. (Even though it likely wasn’t Dupri’s fault that this confusion existed, I’ve disliked Dupri ever since — although, I’m sure, like most of y’all, I can’t isolate a single moment that made me dislike Jermaine Dupri, it’s kind of just a culmination of a lot of things.) Despite this, if you asked me at any time prior to February 10, 2006 if Dilla was the best producer of all time, I probably would’ve responded, “Maybe top 5.” And, if you asked me whether Dilla changed my life, I probably would’ve asked you if you were high… and then I probably would’ve asked you who your supplier was. I was a bit of a different person 2 years ago.
I believe that people don’t truly change your life until your life has gone on for some time without them — only then do you realize the difference that they made on you. That’s probably why the usual names that come up in the hip-hop-nerd-universe’s “greatest producer of all-time” debate are guys like Primo and Pete Rock and RZA. We, as listeners, got to know Primo as one-half of Gang Starr — the fact that Gang Starr doesn’t record anymore certainly adds to Primo’s legacy. We got to know Pete Rock for his work with C.L. Smooth, and we all know how their reunion plans went (see: “nowhere”). We got to know RZA through his work with the Wu, who have all branched out to an extent with their respective solo careers (though willing to put aside some time to reunite every few years and make an album that most of ‘em will then talk shit about in the press). We praise these producers not only because they make great fucking music, but because the music that we praise them for most likely won’t get made again.
When you look at J Dilla’s discography, though, you don’t see that one artist or group that defined his body of work. You don’t see that big name that just sort of stopped working with Dilla over time — I wouldn’t count A Tribe Called Quest and The Pharcyde under this classification, as they each broke up on their own. And though Dilla bounced from Slum Village after Fantastic, Vol. 2, he still contributed to their most of their future albums, though to a much lesser extent. Dilla worked with Busta Rhymes. Common. De La Soul. There was Champion Sound with Madlib. His other work with Stones Throw. Work with local Detroit artists like Frank-N-Dank, Phat Kat and Guilty Simpson. Welcome 2 Detroit. Ruff Draft. Donuts, The Shining, and all of his posthumous production credits, of which he sadly can’t see the final results.
There was never really a period of time where Dilla wasn’t contributing something meaningful to hip-hop. Maybe that’s why his limitless contributions to hip-hop may have been “overlooked” during his lifetime, or “taken for granted,” if you may. And maybe that’s why the fact that his health was slowly deteriorating as a result of lupus caught everyone by surprise, when those pictures of a sickly-looking, wheelchair-bound Dilla on stage in Europe popped up on the internet months before his eventual death.
Dilla was putting the finishing touches on Donuts from his hospital bed — his dedication to his work was why there was never that period of time where he wasn’t contributing to hip-hop, and why, even 2 years after his passing, that period of time still hasn’t arrived just yet. If we could all have half of the drive and inspiration that J Dilla possessed, we might just be OK after all.
If you were to ask me today whether J Dilla changed my life… well, I think I’m still too stubborn to say something like that (let alone announce it to the world via a t-shirt). But, I know that one day, probably in the very near future, an album is going to come out which includes a J Dilla beat (perhaps the elusive Cuban Linx II?)… and that J Dilla beat will be the last J Dilla beat ever. When that fact hits me square in the face, and I realize it, then I’ll be able tell you that, yes, J Dilla did change my life. Might even cop me that t-shirt, too.
R.I.P. James Dewitt Yancey (2/7/94 – 2/10/06). To echo the sentiments of everyone that contributed to this touching tribute over at Prefix Magazine back in ’06, we miss you, J, and we’ll never forget you.
Considering the significance of this post, we here at ML didn’t want to take on the pressure of selecting Dilla’s best works on our own, so we reached out to a few others to contribute as well. In addition to the ML regulars, you’ll also be seeing contributions from the following:
- Frequent ML contributor and producer extraordinaire Marco Polo (Port Authority nominated for a Juno? Say word!)
- Ben from Floodwatch Music
- Dan Love from From Da Bricks
- Eric from When They Reminisce…… and Wake Your Daughter Up
- Ivan from Hip Hop Is Read
- Josephlovesit from Geek Down, and
- Khal from Rock The Dub
Shout-outs to DJ Franchise from Know The Ledge, GForce from bounce/oz, Travis from WYDU, and ML’s own DSuper, who all had prior engagements and couldn’t get their picks in on time — there’ll for sure be a next time.
Picks are in chronological order (or, at least, as chronological as I could piece ‘em together). If there’s a “*” next to a pick, then the zShare link goes to the instrumental version of the song. And if some comments tend to overlap (i.e. ESG’s “UFO” will be mentioned multiple times, be warned), consider it a consequence of great minds thinking alike…
- The Pharcyde – “Runnin’” (off Labcabincalifornia, 1995)
Josephlovesit: The first time I heard this track was last summer in my friend’s car on the way to another friend’s new apartment. The Pharcyde was an interest we shared and frequently talked up, but until then I had only heard their album Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde. “Runnin’” was unlike most of the generally hip hop-head type tracks that his iPod had shuffled to that point, so naturally I was curious. I sheepishly asked who the song was by and he replied, “The Pharcyde,” with a look that said, “I thought you knew this group?” It was made all the more embarrassing because Imani’s voice on the final verse is so unmistakable in hindsight. J Dilla’s beat perfectly suits The Pharcyde’s introspective-everyman style. He started out with a banger.
Marco Polo: I know this song word for word. I loved this song before I even knew Jay Dee produced it — when I found out, it definitely had me checking for him.
Dan Love: Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde is often cited as the seminal work from The Pharcyde crew, but their more mature sophomore effort trumps it in my book, and this is in no small part due to several contributions by Dilla (or “Jay Dee” as he was commonly known at the time). Despite having listened to it thousands of times, “Runnin’” still never fails to deliver — hip-hop rarely feels as beautiful as this.
Ivan: What can you say about this track? It’s as hip-hop as a beat can get! One of a handful of rap songs which directly impacted me growing up, “Runnin”’ struck out for it’s emotive lyrics, catchy hook and, of course, its sensitive, multi-layered production. There’s an element of innocence in the production of this track, a quality which, to me, has persisted since I first heard it. Without knowing who crafted the beat, anyone listening to “Runnin”’ would still imagine that whoever produced the track truly loved hip-hop.
Eric: Most definitely not the “sexiest” pick amongst Dilla’s extensive discography, but arguably his finest moment as a producer. “Runnin’” truly doesn’t sound like your “run-of-the-mill” Dilla production. Well, not that any of his work is defined as “run-of-the-mill”, but even listening to “Runnin’” today, it doesn’t have the groggy bass line of say… much of Dilla’s work featured on Busta Rhymes’ Anarchy, nor does it have the almost cinematic feel of De La’s “Stakes Is High”. “Runnin” was crafted in such a simplified manner it’s silly. A sharp bass knock and a slick Gap Band sample exemplified Dilla’s production genius. Plus, how can you deny that hook? “Can’t keep runnin’ away… yay… yay…”
- The Pharcyde – “Drop” (off Labcabincalifornia)
Khal: I’ve actually revisited this track via VH1 Soul lately. This is one of the perfect examples of that mid-to-late ’90s J Dilla bounce, with the knockin’ bassline keeping the pace and those lush keys over top. It’s just that hypnosis-via-dope-beat thing. To this day I have no idea what those guys were spittin’ about on this one, but that beat could make ANYTHING sound sick.
- The Pharcyde – “She Said (Jay Dee Remix)” (original version off Labcabincalifornia)
Dan Love: It pains me a little to have two selections from the same crew, but the astonishing quality of both Pharcyde cuts manages to cull my pedantic tendencies. Dilla’s remix of “She Said” knocks the original out the park, and I particularly love the first four bars with the gradually rising siren heralding a neck-snapping snare hit at the 0:11 mark that precedes the main drop into this charmingly mellow groove. Simple, yet devastatingly effective.
Buhizzle: Crazy to think that when this track was released, Dilla was only 21 years old. He may have been even younger when he actually made it. As if I need another reason to say why this song is amazing.
- (Mad) Skillz – “The Jam” (off From Where???, 1996)
Dan Love: In an album filled with exceptional production, Dilla manages to come correct with “The Jam”, one of his two contributions to From Where??? A swirling groove and ridiculously heavy snare hits act as the perfect backdrop for Skillz’s vocal delivery, and the result is a truly infectious cut that more than deserves its confident, no-frills title: “The Jam” is exactly what it professes to be.
- 5 Elementz – “E.G.O.” (off The Album That Time Forgot, 1996)
Ivan: Like “The Message” by Nas, “E.G.O.” was also released in ’96, even featuring the same sample. With an interpolation of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart”, “E.G.O.” oozes with anguish and melancholy. It’s an interesting track in which the reverb of the spare strings brings along a gloomy emotion, elevating an otherwise simple break beat into a gritty head-bopper. “E.G.O.” is a prime example of the importance of a lively melody.
- Busta Rhymes – “Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check (Jay Dee Bounce Remix)”* (original version off The Coming, 1996)
Ivan: Replacing the dark and clunky original, Dilla flipped “Woo Hah!!…”, providing a smooth, jazzy backdrop much truer to Busta’s ATCQ roots. One of those rare instances in which an original track pales in comparison to the remix, “Woo Hah!!…” was transformed into something much more suave and natural-sounding. Only a true master could pull that off.
- De La Soul – “Stakes Is High” (off Stakes Is High, 1996)
Marco Polo: The video, the vibe of this song, the shit De La kicked on it — classic.
- A Tribe Called Quest – “1nce Again” (off Beats, Rhymes & Life, 1996)
DJ01: Yeah y’all. Crazy minimal. You can’t really put into words why this song is straight classic. But just know producers are still trying to match or top tracks like this and it won’t ever be done.
- A Tribe Called Quest – “Phony Rappers” (off Beats, Rhymes & Life)
HangoverMonkey: For their 4th album, Tribe enlisted the help of Jay Dee to help Tip and Ali produce, and thus The Ummah was formed. The beat on the introduction track to this album consists of a discordant piano loop and hard drums. This is definitely my favorite track off of Beats, Rhymes & Life. The sound on this is exactly what a Tribe record should start like. Scary genius shit that you can’t play on the radio.
- Busta Rhymes – “So Hardcore” (off When Disaster Strikes, 1997)
Khal: While “Still Shinin’” (off The Coming) was a dope cut, with that floating thing going on, this was the first track where I truly figured out what Dilla was doing. That beat is so sparse — I think it’s just the drums, that sleigh bell-sounding percussion, the keys, and, yeah, that’s it. The thing is, with the head-nod of that beat, it’s just so easy for even the wackest MC to get on that beat and toast about whatever the funk. One of those “you want a fresh style, let me show ya” jawns.
- A Tribe Called Quest – “Busta’s Lament” (off The Love Movement, 1998)
Khal: The first time I heard mention of this was in SPIN magazine, detailing the early listening sessions of The Love Movement. They had no title, just called it “the track with a repetitive Busta Rhymes sample in it”, or something like that. It’s just the genius of Dilla, taking a waist-winding groove and adding that raw human element to it (a.k.a. Bus-A-Bus’s “yo yo”) and taking it to another atmosphere. Those raw, animalistic tendencies, those are the backbone of real Black Soul music, that “feeling”, exposing the syncopated poetry that is the Black experience. Smoke a L, listen to that bitch on repeat, and tell me I’m lying.
- The Roots – “Dynamite” (off Things Fall Apart, 1999)
Khal: I remember reading the liner notes on this one, and ?uestlove writing about how hard it was to mimic the drums on this one. This is an example of how technically sound Dilla could get. I mean, I’m not sure how much of the Roots’ noodling made it into this one, but I would NOT be surprised if it came out that everything but a kick was Dilla’s. He just had that raw knack for finding the pocket, and keeping that funky, JB’s feel to some of his production. This is before the quirk, before the minimal sounding tracks of his later productions. This is a classic funk band jammin’ at 2:00 a.m., high on purp and cognac. Just that cool ’70s feel.
- Q-Tip – “Vivrant Thing” (off Amplified, 1999)
DJ01: Truth be told, this was one of the first songs where I could listen to the instrumental on loop. Overall, this song was probably my favorite song in ’99, you couldn’t hide from its toooo dope bass line. Before you hear the little break cutting into the beat it’s already sick. Once you hear that… game, set, match.
- Q-Tip – “Let’s Ride” (off Amplified)
Buhizzle: Q-Tip’s song about cars that was nothing like the majority of songs about cars that came out around the same time. Dilla kept it simple here with a funky little guitar melody, but, like always, not too simple — check for the subtle use of the classic ESG’s “UFO” (as heard on Big Daddy Kane’s “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” and Junior Mafia’s “Realms Of Junior Mafia”, among many others) breakbeat in the chorus.
Aaron M: Crazy sloppy sounding but hard hitting drums. So many different samples weaving beautifully together. The jazzy guitar riff loop, the “UFO” sample, the “Champ” sample and the high-pitched whistles that pipe in occasionally. Tip flows lovely on top, and manages to balance his singing and rapping nicely (something he would later have problems with). A highlight from the mostly crappy and jiggy-fied Amplified.
- Q-Tip – “Go Hard” (off Amplified)
Eric: Knock Tip’s solo debut all you want, but the majority of Dilla’s production on this album was “tighter than virgin nappy”. I typically associate Dilla with an acronym from a track that appeared on Diamond D’s Stunts, Blunts & Hip Hop — “K.I.S.S.”, or Keep It Simple Stupid, because that is what Dilla excelled at, keeping tracks minimal yet funky enough to shit on many of his “wanna be a dope producer” peers grindin’ day and night searching for the “perfect beat”. “Go Hard” isn’t really a track with an overabundance of depth, but got damn this shit was a head-nodder’s journey to the land of funk. Somewhat “spacey”, “Go Hard” was backed by hard-hitting drums and a pulsating bassline that would rattle your ribcage. For a bit of home-work, take another listen to Tip’ s Amplified to witness Dilla’s dope production. Even though we all shitted on the album back in ’99, it doesn’t sound as bad as it did back then. I think we were just still in grieving over the Tribe split that our ears weren’t trained to hearing Kamaal on the solo tip just yet.
- Common – “Nag Champa” (off Like Water For Chocolate, 2000)
Buhizzle: After A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation”, I’d say this is the most soothing hip hop beat I’ve ever heard — the type of track that could put you to sleep, but not in a being-bored-type of way. Dilla, who always had an underrated singing voice, compliments the vibe well by harmonizing on the hook.
- Common – “The Light” (off Like Water For Chocolate)
Ivan: One of hip-hop’s great women anthems, “The Light” is true to the soul from each angle possible. Common’s lyricism notwithstanding, Dilla’s sample choice on “The Light” made it a done deal. Flipping crooner Bobby Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes”, Dilla took “The Light” and ran with it, providing a warm, bass-heavy atmosphere for Comm’s positive message. One of 2000′s greatest songs, “The Light” bubbled up into Billboard’s Hot 100 charts, a key achievement for Common at the time.
- Slum Village – “I Don’t Know” (off Fantastic, Vol. 2, 2000)
Aaron M: Just some simple drums and chopped piano chords, interspersed with great scratches by DJ Jazzy Jeff. But it sound frickin’ ill, and while the Villa are never saying anything particularly quotable, they fit the beat like a glove.
- Slum Village – “Get This Money” (off Fantastic, Vol. 2)
Ben: As a singular, cohesive statement, I still believe that Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 2 remains Dilla’s shining hour. Say what you want about T3, Baatin, and Dilla’s mic skills at the time — the production never falters from start to finish. “Get This Money” was a sleeper cut nested into the second half of the record, and I probably heard it half a dozen times before I was suddenly struck by its genius. Simplicity is the order of the day here: a chunky drum pattern, Dilla’s signature fuzz bass, a chromatically-descending series of what sounds like disembodied voices, and not much else. My favorite attribute of the track is the false impression that the bassline was originally more fleshed out, and due to a sequencing error, only plays in random blips and buzzes. No other producer had such a way with making a given musical element sound like the happiest accident in the world.
- Slum Village – “Raise It Up” (off Fantastic, Vol. 2)
Aaron M: Obvious choice, but it needs to be mentioned. On this track, each drum hit sounds like someone’s neck snapping. Dilla built this track from a sample by Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk (word to Kanye), making this another one of his uncleared samples. It’s got that descending piano scale that slowly builds up every few seconds to this dope digital rumble, then back again. Luckily, Bangalter was a fan of SV and asked to remix their single “Aerodynamic” instead of paying him back for sampling “Outrun”. This was a huge club hit in the Dirty D and it’s no wonder listening to those drums.
- Slum Village – “Fall In Love” (off Fantastic, Vol. 2)
Marco Polo: I could’ve picked so many joints from Fantastic, Vol. 2, but the hook on this will forever be carved in my brain. It’s incredible.
Dan Love: Although Slum Village was never a crew that I genuinely connected with, there were plenty of moments on Fantastic, Vol. 2 that were outstanding on the production tip. “Fall In Love” endures as the stand-out track for me, its beautifully mellow sample aptly punctuated by heavy drums. The sung chorus adds an extra layer of interest and perfectly consolidates the wistful, spacious vibe of the cut.
Eric: Even though S. Villa’s Fantastic, Vol. 2 didn’t officially hit stores until 2000, it ended up serving as my first exposure to the Detroit threesome. When I think of this underground classic (Fantastic, Vol. 2) , I think “Fall In Love”. The whole album has the same feel as the last few Tribe albums, meaning Fantastic, Vol. 2 didn’t necessarily fit in amongst the “onslaught” of commercial garbage hitting airwaves in the new millennium. “Fall In Love” was Dilla at his best — crisp drums, an escalating bass groove and a breezy sing-songy hook, sung by Dilla himself, had me mesmerized amongst the freestyled, sometimes non-sensical lyrics of T-3 and Baatin. One of Dilla’s most “jocked” tracks and a favorite of many underground emcees who’ve chosen to “freestyle” over this production for their “warm-up albums-slash-mixtapes”.
- Slum Village – “Thelonious” featuring Common (off Fantastic, Vol. 2 and Like Water For Chocolate)
Ivan: Another example of Dilla’s great layering, “Thelonious” features a rich palette of soundscapes zooming in and out, panning left and right. A delightful composition, pay attention and listen to how the beat flourishes throughout. Simply put, “Thelonious” is a beautiful mix of sensuous sounds coupled with Dilla’s gripping and always appropriate bass lines. Monk would be proud.
- Erykah Badu – “Didn’t Cha Know” (off Mama’s Gun, 2000)
Ben: Among his many talents, Dilla’s inherent ability at constructing the most delicious basslines was second-to-none, and the one that he blesses Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know” with is arguably his finest: a slinky, spidery figure that the entire track revolves around. But that’s only the half of it — ignore for a moment Badu’s nasal moaning and listen to the array of colors in the music: the percolating congas in the right channel, James Poyser’s frigid electric piano chords, the whining guitar that introduces every downbeat. This is revealing proof that had he been born twenty years earlier, Dilla would have had a firm monopoly on the Blaxploitation soundtrack market.
- Erykah Badu – “My Life” (off Mama’s Gun)
DJ01: Dilla does sick R&B! Really shows Dilla’s diversity as producer. Definitely my favorite “soulful” production from him. The keyboards over the guitar give the track incredible warmth, with subtle strings scattered all around.
- J Dilla – “Shake It Down” (off Welcome 2 Detroit, 2001)
Josephlovesit: “Shake It Down” prominently features what I think of as a J Dilla signature — the unquantized, quarter note beat drop. I’ve heard it passingly when listening to Jay Love Japan at a friend’s house and probably elsewhere. But on “Shake It Down”, the technique is so tactfully executed. And every time the next beat hits a quarter note later, the high-hats are off just enough to make your head nod that much harder coming back into the groove.
- J Dilla – “Pause” featuring Frank-N-Dank (off Welcome 2 Detroit)
Marco Polo: Welcome 2 Detroit was crazy top-to-bottom. I love this shit. This beat for the time was so ahead of the game.
- Common – “Come Close (J Dilla’s Closer Remix)” featuring Pharrell, Q-Tip and Erykah Badu (original version off Electric Circus, 2002)
Aaron M: Rocks the sitar sample from “Bonita Applebum” with hollow, knocking drums. The beat feels kind of wispy and there’s a lot of vibes and strange electronic noises all over the track. Big improvement on the Neptunes-produced original, and a tribute to one of the classic hip hop love songs (dare I say, one of the only good ones?).
- J Dilla – “The $” (off Ruff Draft, 2003)
Josephlovesit: J Dilla’s flow here is at its most fervent. It’s remarkable that a song about Dilla getting his own can make me emotional. Truly a testament to his passion and honesty. “The $” is the antithesis to DJ Shadow’s “Why Hip Hop Sucks in ’96.” Dilla, get that guap!
- J Dilla – “Crushin’ (Yeeeeaah!)” (off Ruff Draft)
HangoverMonkey: When I bought Ruff Draft, I kept wondering why this song was censoring all the F words. But it didn’t matter. This is a dirty beat. It has a disgusting bassline, and enough static and moaning to qualify for some VHS porno. This is definitely my favorite song from Ruff Draft. Dilla even drops some hilarious verses.
- Frank-N-Dank – “Ma Dukes”* (off 48 Hours, 2003)
Ben: I rarely saw this selection on the multitude of “Favorite Dilla Tracks” lists when he passed two years ago. It’s a shame more heads aren’t familiar with it, as I’ve always considered it as one of his most breathtaking productions. Admittedly, Dilla’s work with fellow Detroit natives Frank-N-Dank wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of his career — too many of their tracks sounded like throwaway demos for an ill-advised electro project — but “Ma Dukes” was the diamond in the rough, a heartfelt old-earth tribute that featured Tammy Lucas on the hook. Naturally, I sought out the 12″ instrumental so I could hear the atmospheric backing track in all its naked glory without the distraction of vocals. The gentle nudges of the guitar, the circular thump of the bass, those sweet string pads — it’s absolute perfection.
- Jaylib – “The Red” (off Champion Sound, 2003)
Eric: From Dilla’s “collabo” with fellow producer Madlib, Champion Sound. OK, let’s keep it real — you and I both know that Madlib isn’t making anyone’s “top 25 emcees” list, but the sheer funk displayed on this track from Dilla Dawg made you forget the nonsense that was spewing from Madlib and commence to nod your head uncontrollably. And the vocal sample that opens the track and carries the hook? NUTS, I say NUTS!! Dilla actually had a few beats on Champion Sound that were far superior to Madlib’s contributions. “Nowadayz” or “Starz” could have both just as easily replaced “The Red” as one of my top 5 Dilla joints.
Aaron M: Pretty much the epitome of everything great about J Dilla the producer — crisp, hard-hitting drums, thick bass and gorgeous chopped samples. When Champion Sound got reissued earlier this year, the sample got pulled and they replaced it with a new version, which, interestingly enough, embodied the quintessential Madlib sound. The remix is dope, too, but I prefer the original with the “Shine On Straight Arrow” sample. And that piano loop! Damn.
Ben: While I admired the concept, Champion Sound never connected with me when it came to the execution, mostly because I’ve never cared for Dilla or Madlib’s attempts at lyricism. Fortunately, Stones Throw issued a vinyl instrumental copy, which pretty much solved my problem immediately. The gutteral, hypnotic thump of “The Red” was the album highlight for me, a track that is instantly likeable upon first listen. Dilla decorates the cut with a saloon piano, a sample of a wordless female exultation, and a bassline that sounds like it was lifted from a warped ’70s kraut record played at 33 rpm — three sources that have no business commingling with each other, but he makes it work somehow. In all probability, I could bump this shit daily to my heart’s content and never tire of it.
Khal: My memories of this song are so un-hip-hop. I have been a fan of Tony Hawk skateboarding games since day dot. A couple of years back, I got his Project 8 game for PS2, and this is one of the hip-hop tracks on the soundtrack. This beat encompasses both sides of Jay Dee — the bottom-heavy bass that I love, but with those interesting sounds laid atop (the female wail loop, those lurching keys). While I love Dilla’s work on projects like Donuts and Ruff Draft, I love hearing the tracks that sneak their way into the mainstream, but still establish his quirkiness. He had such a gift for riddim and space in a tune, knowing where to cut a sample and just what noises will take a beat to that next level.
- Jaylib – “Strip Club” (off Champion Sound)
HangoverMonkey: This is a depressing beat. It’s like dude took some island Super Mario song and flipped it… into a song about a strip club. Madlib gives the most accurate description of a strip club visit I’ve ever heard with his rhymes. The anti-”Make It Rain”.
- De La Soul – “Verbal Clap” (off The Grind Date, 2004)
DJ01: I had no clue Dilla did this beat until like a year after it dropped. At the core is a simple beat, but Dilla throws distortion, keyboards, samples, and cuts on top to create a top notch production… that BET would probably never play.
- M.E.D. – “Push” (off Push Comes To Shove, 2005)
Buhizzle: Dilla could put together some club-banger type shit like this and still be in his comfort zone. Dilla also made a cameo in the video — if you pause it at
2:22 2:25 from the beginning, you’ll see a snapshot that should look chillingly familiar. [EDIT: Knew I forgot something.]
- Common – “Love Is” (off Be, 2005)
Eric: From Common’s second best disc behind Resurrection. I remember when Be was elevated to classic status by XXL, yet many cats were left wanting more from the creative genius better known as J Dilla. “Why’s Dilla only got two beats on this joint?” was the cry that echoed throughout underground forums, blogs, etc. The fact of the matter is, Dilla SHOULD have had a bigger part in the making of Be due to the sheer quality of his production that did make the album. I honestly could barely decide between “Love Is” and “It’s Your World” (what a perfect “closer” to Be), both of the tracks share that same vibe that is heavy on soul and emotion. However, “Love Is” prevails in the long run due to it’s replay factor. All the kids and their aspirations for the last 3 minutes of “It’s Your World” really limited its “plays” in the good ol’ iPod.
- Steve Spacek – “Dollar” (off Space Shift, 2005)
Ben: I still get floored by the way that Dilla used to flip samples, but the first time I heard what he did with Billy Paul’s “Let the Dollar Circulate” for Steve Spacek’s “Dollar”, I was utterly speechless. All I could do was stand dumbfounded, nodding my head intuitively with my jaw hanging open. Dilla dices up a few choice moments of the original’s chorus, captures a snippet of Paul’s decaying vocal, and gates the sample to repeat continuously, to mesmerizing effect. The combination of Spacek’s voice atop Paul’s digitally processed crooning is dreamy and surreal, like an aural narcotic. This is how you operate the modern sampler, boys and girls.
- Prozack Turner – “Leisure Rules” (off Death, Taxes & Prozack, 2005)
DJ01: Perfect example of Dilla fucking with everyone from chart-toppers to severely-underground rappers. Prozack always was slept on in the realm of white rappers, I always thought his flow was tight (and I’m a sucker for white rappers, minus Aesop). Dilla brought a beat that married a sick guitar and bass to perfectly match up with Prozack. I can’t even understand what the intro is saying other “Life is like…”, but who cares? It sounds cool as shit.
- J Dilla – “Geek Down” (off Donuts, 2006)
Josephlovesit: J Dilla invokes a whole lot of contemporary music history by sampling ESG’s “UFO” on “Geek Down”. The song has been sampled by great producers like Marley Marl (twice) and The Bomb Squad, which cements Dilla’s connection to the geekier side of hip hop history. But there’s also the implicit connection to post-punk (and beyond that, krautrock). ESG were a NYC-based post-punk band and “UFO” was produced by Factory Records’ in-house producer Martin Hannett (known for producing Joy Division). Knowing how often Dilla flirted with post-punk/krautrock textures, I have no doubt that this played a factor in his sample selection. For reasons beyond logic and my comprehension, that means a lot to me.
- Ghostface – “Beauty Jackson” (off Fishscale, 2006)
HangoverMonkey: “Beauty Jackson” is my favorite kind of Ghostface song. But the beat is something else. He took this sample and chopped it hard. The way the strings and bells cut in is wild. Some serious producer work here.
- J Dilla – “So Far To Go” featuring Common and D’Angelo (off The Shining, 2006, and Common’s Finding Forever, 2007)
Josephlovesit: This sounds like J Dilla’s swan song. Stretching past the 5-minute mark (none of his other solo cuts do that), he really lets The Isley Brothers sample shine. I initially heard the song as melancholic, but after the Nth listen all I hear is confidence and wide-eyed enthusiasm. Each new element introduced throughout the song adds another layer of playfulness and warmth. “So Far To Go” is one of the most cohesive and affecting songs not just in hip hop, but in music.
- J Dilla – “Won’t Do” (off The Shining)
Dan Love: Although the rest of my selections focus on Dilla’s earlier work, “Won’t Do” is a brilliantly inventive piece of hip-hop production that means that its inclusion in my choices goes down as mandatory. Its status as top level Dilla output is sadly cemented by its release around the time of his death and a video that celebrates his legacy in fine style, although not to take away from the sumptuous production on offer with “Won’t Do” that is truly awe-inspiring.
Buhizzle: Chopping up vocal samples from old soul records became sort of a “cop out” way to make a dope beat — here, Dilla waits until the end of the song to show off his expertise in that area. I love the way Ron Isley’s vocals (from “Footsteps In The Dark”, one of my favorite Isley Brothers’ songs) sound as if they’re layered, almost echoing each other — it’s something you can’t really appreciate unless you hear it in headphones. A beautiful way to close out The Shining.
- Busta Rhymes – “You Can’t Hold The Torch” featuring Q-Tip and Chauncey Black (off The Big Bang, 2006)
Aaron M: That lush and lovely Ummah sound exemplified, down to the Minnie Ripperton “Inside My Love” sample (best known from Tribe’s “Lyrics To Go”). Chauncey Black (yes, from Blackstreet) has some lovely backing vocals that wrap perfectly around the beat. Even the Diddy sample (“…
don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks…”) fits nicely.
- Phat Kat – “Don’t Nobody Care About Us” (off Carte Blanche, 2007)
Marco Polo: I remember the day this 12″ dropped. Me and my man Shylow were buggin’ the fuck out. One of my favorite 12″‘s of all time.