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Which is not the entire story, not by a long shot, and you know this if you’ve ever actually used an MPC,” he says of some technical explanations surrounding Dilla’s production approach But focusing on process obscures something bigger, his innovations.

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J DILLAThe canonical hip hop producer’s breakout release Ruff Draft restored to his original vision, out now, via Pay Jay Productions. In the seven years since his death, so many unreleased Dilla cuts have surfaced, but fans are united in the knowledge that the full extent of his catalogue will never be revealed. Inspired by her son’s motto that the best talent has always yet to be found, Maureen Yancey is reknown as a tireless campaigner for keeping her son’s legacy alive, starting The J Dilla Foundation in his memory to “help fund inner-city music programs, and provide scholarships to students attending schools that have progressive music curricula”.

Ten years have elapsed since the death of James Yancey aka J Dilla aka Jay Dee In that time, the Detroit producer and rapper has achieved legendary status thanks to the work he released during his lifetime – as solo artist, Slum Village member and beatmaker to the likes of Common , A Tribe Called Quest and Q-Tip – and a succession of posthumous releases ranging from the beat nugget buffet of 2015’s Dillatronic to fabled vocal album The Diary , originally scheduled for release on MCA in the early 2000s and soon to see light of day via the recently reactivated PayJay Productions label and Nas’s Mass Appeal imprint.

But while he may have made his name producing for major stars, he was also a pivotal figure in Detroit’s underground hip-hop scene, helping lay down the foundations for a network of artists including Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, Phat Kat and Elzhi. Kanye and Pharrell have cited his early influence, while the stark, eerie metronome drums of his posthumous work have had a far-reaching impact on producers such as Flying Lotus and Hudson Mohawke. Even today, rappers still tap his sounds: Nas’s ‘The Season’ (2014) found the Queensbridge legend rhyming over the ‘Gobstopper’ beat from ‘Donuts’, while those filtered bass and offbeat handclaps – Dilla staples – have become familiar tropes of hip-hop’s sound in the 2010s.


Born and raised on the east side of Detroit, Dilla – James Yancey – was forced by his parents to become involved with music, and he was a record fanatic at a young age, absorbing funk and rap singles and jazz albums, from Slave to Jack McDuff. He learned to play cello, keyboards, trumpet, and violin, but drums got him like nothing else. He tried his hand at producing tracks on a tape deck by using the pause and record buttons, and he also took up MC’ing. In 1988, he formed Slum Village with Pershing High School friends Baatin and T3. It wasn’t until 1992, after receiving some valuable guidance from fellow Detroiter Amp Fiddler, that his talent really began to take shape.


Most recently, Dee worked on Common’s Grammy-nominated sixth album, Be, and released his own instrumental solo effort Donuts — which he wrote and recorded while in and out of the hospital — last week.

T3: That’s just classic. We’re doing a lot of fun stuff now in our old age. We got new music coming next year, some soul stuff. But we definitely focused on this new Slum in 2020. Me and J will probably drop some loose records here and there. Right now, we just tryna keep the legacy going. That’s all SV’s really about.

By autumn 2005, Dilla was confined to the Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, the hospital where Eazy-E and the Notorious B.I.G. had died. He probably knew himself that his time was running out so he had his studio moved into the room and went to work. Donuts” is the performance of a real master at work, sculpting eerie, leftfield swirls and stabs which are as deep in soul as they are wide in funk. There are no MCs onboard, just Dilla flicking switches and lovingly putting a unique shape on a thrilling collection of brilliant beats.

Three days after his 32nd birthday, James Dewett Yancey, one of the most revered music producers of the last 20 years, died. The importance of the man known to his fans and peers as J Dilla has remained steadfast since his passing in 2006; his music and its impact on the work of others untouchable. Dilla’s work with artists such as Madlib, Erykah Badu and The Pharcyde (to name but a few) led to his becoming one of the most sought after and well-respected hip-hop producers of all time.

J Dilla was only 32 when he died from lupus complications. He spent the final months of his life in a hospital in Los Angeles. His mom left Detroit to be by his side, and she even helped smuggle recording equipment and turntables into his hospital room.

Dilla’s pause button finesse was so impressive that it even lead to an early, unreleased Slum Village track , but how did he manage to make something so damn good with such restrictive equipment? His cousin and early collaborator Que. D shed some light on the topic in the same 2006 interview. According to Que. , the late Detroit producer disassembled his cassette deck and modified it so he could elongate specific parts of the tape that he wanted to sample. This next level ingenuity showed Que. D that his cousin was operating on a different wavelength than most of his peers. That shit, to me, showed that he was more than a beat maker — he was like a mad scientist,” he told Wax Poetics.

As far as our definition of hip-hop production is concerned—as far as making beats—Dilla is absolutely without peer. Many will come after him and surpass him and do even crazier tricks, but for what my eyes have seen in those short nine years that I’ve known him, that’s going to be a very tall order to live up to. It’s been…God, six years since he passed and I still use his beats as the energy power pellets to my Pacmanology, if you will.

Legendary engineer Bob Powers. Wendy Goldstein, my A&R for MCA Records, Black Thought, ?uestlove , Jaguar Wright, Hi-Tek, Talib Kweli, Common and Dilla. You know who came in the door? Motherfucking Dave Chappelle. Dilla was just smiling and laughing and shit. Then I went outside and Busta and Case were just chilling. I’m starstruck; literally tripping but trying to keep my composure.

His local alt-weekly, the Metro Times, gathered a collection of memories from other top producers and collaborators , including Q-Tip, DJ Jazzy Jeff, and T3 from Slum Village, the underground hip-hop group to which Dilla belonged for years.

Stones Throw began working with J Dilla in the early days of his solo career in the early 2000s. He would soon collaborate with Madlib in the group Jaylib, and eventually releasing the solo album Donuts on Stones Throw in 2006, which has come to be regarded as one of his signature works.

You also gotta think about his range. His range is bar none. He’s gone through four production phases in his professional career. He didn’t stick to one. That’s the thing that really separates him from everyone in hip-hop. He started off with that post-Tribe, boom bap with the loud kushy drums and a bouncy bassline—which especially did well for The Pharcyde album and Tribe records. But then in a snap, he went to—once he started working with us, with the Soulquarians—he started playing the stuff live. The most hilarious thing of it all was that he was not technically a musician. But he was able to get the sound that he heard in his head, not only executed onto tape, but he did it in such an original way that it actually started to change our view of how we made music.

Though Dilla’s posthumous discography is fast catching up on the material he released during his lifetime, latter-day productions such as ‘History’, tucked away towards the end of Mos Def’s last album (to date), assuage any fears of barrel-scraping. The bric-a-brac of clipped strings and looped backing vocals are deftly stitched together: a triumph of Dilla’s attention to detail.

QUESTLOVE: There’s Jay’s Ummah period, which led into his Slum period, which led into his Soulquarian period, which led into his Electric Circus period. I would like to think that whole Electric Circus phase was a Hail Mary throw and the ball is still up in the air. I’m seriously banking on that album having some sort of inspirational result ten years down the line. I feel somewhat vindicated now because the Sa-Ra cats and Platinum Pied Pipers are embracing the Kraftwerk side of things.

He was a craftsman, a producer who had a way with sounds which was both distinctive and idiosyncratic. Many other producers of his vintage worked electronic noises, eerie samples and warm, evocative instrumental snatches into the boom-bap, but you could recognise a Dilla piece of work a mile away. Your head would nod, your feet would shuffle, your mind would spin.

DIAMOND D: I used to see him at the Roosevelt Hotel, but I didn’t really know him back then. The Roosevelt was the spot in New York where producers used to meet up, the ones who knew about it. We’d get there early—like, seven in the morning. It was like a fucking cattle rush in there. All we did was drive the price of records sky high, everybody digging for shit and looking for the same drums. Tip was in there, Pete Rock, definitely, Lord Finesse, Buckwild, the Beatminerz, Salaam Remi, Large Professor, Rashad Smith. There were a lot of people in there. The 45 King. Nobody would ever see Mark, and that nigga was up in there, eight in the morning. It was just a cool little movement.

J Dilla was one of Detroit’s most prolific and respected hip hop producers. He died in 2006, but his music still inspires his fans around the world. And now his Mom is using his name to support music education in his hometown.

Yancey moved to California in the spring of 2004 after his basement studio flooded and the MCA deal soured, seeking new prospects at the edge of the western world, where countless explorers had gone before him. Within a year he was regularly in and out of hospital fighting an incurable blood disease, thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. On February 10, 2006, three days after his 32nd birthday, he died. Even before those who knew him could mourn him, everyone began to claim the man as their own. In the decade since Yancey’s death, his oeuvre has been dissected with such intensity that there remains little to slide under the microscope – except the MCA album.

Dilla had a huge effect on the evolution of hip hop connoisseurs’ label of choice, Stones Throw, and his partnership with Madlib pushed both the production titans to shift gears and take their music to new realms. But above all, Dilla will be remembered for the genre-defining Donuts , which came out just three days before his death.


Ruff Draft – Dilla’s Mix, strives to place within the hip-hop canon another album that Dilla’s growing legion of disciples can indulge in and be inspired by. Prior to Ruff Draft, the public knew Dilla’s music mostly through collaborations, productions for others and group efforts, many or major labels. But this project was all him. Ruff Draft is an experimental and genre-expanding outing that marked Dilla’s willing return to the minor leagues, where he refined his approach and became one of the game’s major players.

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