Hip-Hop Legends: The Story of J Dilla

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Younger generations of hip-hop fans may celebrate producers such as Metro Boomin, Murda Beatz or Pi’erre Bourne as some of the hottest producers in the game today… But would they be able to claim that any of today’s producers are the greatest of all time? Making such a claim would require some serious digging into the previous eras of hip-hop, and that digging would likely reveal a name that reoccurs frequently in the conversation of the greatest producer to ever do it. The name? J Dilla.

J Dilla, also known as Jay Dee, Dilla Dawg and MC Silk, was a gifted producer and rapper, but was much more widely recognized for his skill as the latter. Even still, his recognition in the mainstream never quite matched the stature of his body of work. That’s not to say he wasn’t successful or well-known, but Dilla always represented himself as a champion of the underground rather than an industry player. Dilla was so humble, or perhaps focused, that even his family members would find out about things such as his production credits and magazine appearances through others rather than him. For Dilla, if it wasn’t about the music, it wasn’t a priority. J Dilla’s life was be cut short at the age of 32 in 2006, but his time on earth was enough for him to establish a timeless legacy in the history of hip-hop.

J Dilla was born James Yancey in Detroit, Michigan in February 1974, and was brought up in a musical household. his mother studied classical music and sang both opera and classical, and his father played upright bass, sang jazz, and composed music. Additionally, everyone in his family was involved in church choirs and sang gospel music. Dilla’s first formal musical training was in piano and cello, but eventually went on to take up guitar, flute, and drums.


Growing up, Dilla was an excellent student, but showed little interest in anything other than music in his youth. Concerned about his career options if music didn’t work out, his mother enrolled him in Davis Aerospace Technical High School, an invitation-only school at which only academically outstanding students could attend. During his time there, he DJ’d high school parties under the name MC Silk. Still, Dilla became increasingly discontented with his situation at the school, primarily because he was separated from his friends, who attended the district’s standard high school. As a way to bribe him to stay at the high school, mother bought him multiple silk shirts so he could live up to his new alias.

While he was still in high school, Dilla started working with Joseph “Amp” Fiddler, a keyboardist, composer and producer known for touring with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars. They worked together at Fiddler’s home studio, which was walking distance from Dilla’s house. There, Dilla became familiar with digital programming and drum machines, which would serve as foundational knowledge for his future work. In an interview, Amp recalls Dilla as being “the most respectful, most gentleman-like kid that [he] had come in [his] house”. Dilla’s music career built more steam once he started going to hip-hop open mics and became involved in formal hip-hop groups. First, he teamed up with an individual by the name of Ronnie Watts, also known as MC Phat Kat, to form a group known as 1st Down in 1995. In the same year, Dilla recorded an EP with a group called 5 Elementz. However, it wasn’t until J Dilla and his neighborhood friends formed the group Slum Village that Dilla’s name truly started to buzz on the Detroit hip-hop scene.

While Slum Village was just starting out, they would often record at Amp’s home studio. Before they put out their first album, Amp introduced Dilla to Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. After Q-Tip recognized his talent, Dilla joined Tip and A Tribe’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad to form a production group called The Ummah. Along with his involvement in the production group, working with Q-Tip helped Dilla to accelerate his career through traveling, networking, and doing production work for big names like Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and Janet Jackson. Tip even introduced Dilla to Pete Rock, one of hip-hop’s most prominent producers and one of Dilla’s idols. That acceleration continued with the release of Slum Village’s debut album in 1997, titled Fantastic Vol. 1. Along with producing, Dilla was also able to rap, which he showcased on his work with Slum Village. Many of his close collaborators describe his rap style as if it were an expression of his alter ego. While Dilla the producer was reserved, respectful and thoughtful, Dilla the MC was aggressive, cocky, and hood.

Even though J Dilla’s music career started to gain considerable traction in the late 90s, his work ethic remained consistent. Friends and Family of Dilla have commented on his workaholic tendencies, something that even Dilla recognized himself, which he commented on in an interview. “I tell people, all day, I’m in the studio from the time I get up [to] the time I go to sleep,” he says. “I mean, I leave the house, go get something to eat, that’s it. It’s like I can’t do anything else.” In addition to his work ethic, people close to Dilla also point out his meticulous organization habits as a standout feature of his character.

J Dilla transformed the basement of his Detroit home to his own personal production laboratory, with countless vinyl records filling multiple shelves and lining the walls from top to bottom. In an interview, his mother recalls having to spend multiple eight-hour days with her sister and niece alphabetizing and organizing Dilla’s expansive record collection. DJ House Shoes, a friend and frequent collaborator with Dilla, noted how Dilla was able to quickly find and pull out specific records from his many shelves at any given time. Dilla’s brother has commented on how Dilla was able to know exactly what record his brother pulled off the shelf just by the location of where he put it back. Another one of Dilla’s acquaintances noted how he was able to listen to a record while cleaning his basement and instantaneously find the exact spots on the record he wanted to sample once he was done. Even Dilla’s fridge was rank-and-file, with items like soda cans lined up uniformly with all their labels facing the same way.

Much of J Dilla’s record came from a Detroit record store called Melodies & Memories. Owner Gary Koral recalled Dilla would come to the store almost every day for years in a documentary interview.

I can remember he was always on the R&B, soul, jazz. He would stack up records every day. Not only did he spend money, because that’s cool, you know, “hey, this guy’s back again and he’s gonna drop three to five hundred dollars”… I didn’t look at that as the money, just to have him in here, even if he found one record, he was just a cool person to have and talk to.

Koral also noted how Common and Questlove would often accompany Dilla in his trips to the store, staying as late as 1 to 2 a.m. He described how money was no object to them because of their love of the music and their financial freedom allowed by their music careers.

Frank Nitt, a friend of Dilla’s and a fellow rapper, has jokingly talked about how he hated going record shopping with Dilla because of how long he took. Nitt says that on a short trip, Dilla would come out with a box full of records, and on a longer trip, he would likely leave the store with three or four boxes full. Dilla’s record selection process often depended on the kinds of instruments used on the record, which was usually listed on the record’s cover.

Just before Slum Village their second album in 2000, J Dilla became a founding member of a neo soul group called the Soulquarians, which included members such as Common, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Questlove, and Q-Tip, among others. Dilla subsequently worked closely on projects with many members of the group, such as Common’s “The Light” and Badu’s Mama’s Gun album. In 2001, Dilla released his solo debut under the name Jay Dee, titled Welcome 2 Detroit, which became the first album to be commissioned by and released on BBE Records. Dilla was known as, and is commonly referred to as Jay Dee, but would adopt the J Dilla moniker in 2001 to avoid confusion with Atlanta-based producer Jermaine Dupri, who went by “JD”.

One of the most popular singles off of J Dilla’s debut album was “F**k The Police”. The song reflects the frustration Dilla felt after constantly being harassed by Detroit police. Dilla had lived right down the street from a police station, so he was often pulled over and questioned whenever he left the house. He wrote the song after his mother suggested that he do so after a particularly upsetting run in with the police. Ironically, Dilla was a junior police cadet for the Detroit Police Department when he was a teenager, but his disdain for law enforcement grew after consistent harassment from police over the years.

In the early 2000, J Dilla formed a close relationship with fellow producer Madlib. The two came together for form the hip-hop duo known as Jaylib and released a collaboration album in 2003, titled Champion Sound. Although Champion Sound would be the only official Jaylib project, it was listed as one of the top ten albums of the past decade by Detroit producer Black Milk back in 2010. It was also ranked #41 in Fact’s “100 Best Indie Hip-Hop Records of All-Time” and included in HipHopDX’s “30 Best Underground Hip Hop Albums Since 2000”.

🇧🇷 J Dilla & Madlib at Discomania São Paolo, Brasil 2005 📷 Classic Photo Moment by @bpleasel #Make sure you an support this mans great work by purchasing a copy of his latest book #GhostNotes :The Music of the Unplayed B+: This was 2005. We were scheduled to screen Keepintime in Brazil at SESC in São Paulo as part of a hip-hop film festival. And on the last night of the festival they wanted Otis to play. And so Otis by that point was super into Brazil, and he was paying his own ticket to come to Brazil with us – that kind of thing. So this [offer to play the festival] was money and a plane ticket and hotel rooms and it was all hooked up. And he could bring a DJ. At that time, we were making Brasilintime. So I’m like, fuckin’ Dilla’s the first person to sample a Brazilian record. The first dude in hip-hop to be feeling that shit – to make [Pharcyde’s] “Runnin’.” Let’s totally do it, let’s get Dilla to Brazil. Like that’s huge. In our world that’s like, wow, some kind of circle has been completed somehow. We called him from the phone that minute. And he was just hype, “Hell yeah, I wanna do it.” [laughs] He was really only there for three days. He got to go digging. We went for a few hours to Discomania on Rua Augusta – it was pretty close to the hotel where we were. And there’s records there for days. At that time Dilla went in on 45s, man. And pulled out a gang of records. And then we went back to the hotel. Eric had the portable record player and we sat there and played 45s and it was like, damn, dude! We were trippin’ on him. He pulled cheap, hard records. Like disco shit we weren’t hip to!!…. Excerpts from egotripland.com – article

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Dilla eventually left Slum Village to pursue a solo career, signing a deal with MCA Records in 2002. He would later experience difficulties with releasing music through the label, as internal changes and commercial incentives of the label presented roadblocks. He would later express his discontent in a 2003 interview with German label Groove Attack:

You know, if I had a choice… Skip the major labels and just put it out yourself, man… Trust me. I tell everybody it’s better to do it yourself and let the Indies come after you instead of going in their [direction] and getting a deal and you have to wait. It ain’t fun. Take it from me. Right now, I’m on MCA but it feels like I’m an unsigned artist still. It’s cool. It’s a blessing, but damn I’m like, ‘When’s my shit gonna come out? I’m ready now, what’s up?’

After a short tour in Europe in 2003 to support his second solo effort (which he released through Groove Attack), titled the Ruff Draft EP, Dilla fell ill. Exhaustion and malnutrition were initially suspected to be possible causes, but a hospital visit revealed that he had a rare blood condition known as thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, which causes blood clots to form in small blood vessels throughout the body. At the urging of his friend Common, Dilla relocated from Detroit to Common’s Los Angeles spot the next year. His health continued to deteriorate, and he was diagnosed with lupus shortly after his move to LA. Speculation about Dilla’s health was widespread by 2004, as his dramatic weight loss provided hints to the public about his ailments. Still, Dilla never deviated from his workaholic tendencies. He continued to make music every day, even during extended periods of hospitalization.

When Dilla’s health temporarily improved in 2005, he chose to set out on a European tour, despite being bound to a wheelchair. During the tour, Dilla never missed a performance, even though his suffering and physical weakness was apparent to his fans and crew. On days between performances, Dilla underwent dialysis treatments to maintain his health. Upon his return to the United States, Dilla was hospitalized again, but continued to work on what would be his final project that he released, titled Donuts. Dilla would release Donuts on February 7, 2006, just three days before he passed away. Although this would be his last album that he himself would release, J Dilla has an extensive body of work that has been released posthumously.

The death of J Dilla sparked various commemorations throughout the hip-hop community, as well as the world as a whole. Dave Chappelle dedicated his film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party to the late producer, and his music has been featured on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim the same year as his death. In 2007, Dilla posthumously received the PLUG Awards Artist of the Year, as well as the award for Record Producer of the Year.

At the end of his life, Dilla had incurred a considerable amount of debt with the government from his health bills, and had few tangible assets that his estate could procure. This has led to tension between Dilla’s estate and his family, which was only exacerbated by the estate’s decision not to communicate with the family. While the estate’s executor Arthur Erk is concerned with finding and securing Dilla’s copyrighted material floating around the internet illegally, Dilla’s family is barred from using Dilla’s name or likeness and receives no royalties, since they are being used to pay off his medical bills. Additionally, the estate has prevented any future Dilla projects from being released if they were not contracted before his death, even if it goes against his mother’s wishes.

Even though conflict may linger between his estate and his family, its universally understood that J Dilla’s presence in hip-hop has done a world of good. Collaborators, friends, and family have heaped praise on his creative ability as well as his character and rarely have words of criticism. In a 2003 interview, J Dilla expressed his wishes when it came to the impact of his work, in which that famous character shines through brightly:

When I make my music, I want people to feel what I feel. I want them to feel that energy. That’s all it is, ‘cause I make it straight from the heart, so to be taking it for anything else is crazy to me.

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