To accompany Jordan Ferguson's J Dilla Primer in The Wire 386, contemporaries and disciples of the revered producer and rapper select their favourite Dilla productions
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.
In The Wire 386, Jordan Ferguson (author of J Dilla's Donuts, published as part of the 33 1/3 series) presents a handpicked selection of Dilla's key productions for The Primer. Meanwhile, The Wire's Deputy Editor Joseph Stannard asked a range of artists, producers and DJs – contemporaries and disciples of Dilla including Ras G, Jonwayne, Linafornia, Tenderlonious and Gilles Peterson – to name their favourite productions. Read on, and click on each participant's name to investigate their own work.
"Wild" from Ruff Draft (Stones Throw) 2007
"Dilla’s Ruff Draft EP, in its original vinyl form, seemed to come out of nowhere in late 2002, but now we know it was a response to the shelving of his vocal album for MCA, now being released as The Diary. I was running Stones Throw at the time, hard at work on Jaylib's [Dilla and Madlib’s] Champion Sound album. Ruff Draft seemed to hint at the direction Dilla wanted to move, and it was in line with what Madlib was doing at the time. It seemed to portend a great musical meeting was going to happen. After Dilla died and I got his archival tapes from his old studio in Detroit, and as J Rocc was helping me look for the files from his vocal album and the Ruff Draft mixdowns, we found this track. We never even knew it existed: Dilla never mentioned it, or even hinted that Ruff Draft had unreleased, ancillary music. I always thought that perhaps this track was just a bit too crazy for Dilla to release back in 2002, but, post-Donuts, and with the knowledge of the musical back and forth he and Madlib had shared over the years, it made sense to release. It is, to date, one of my favorite Dilla songs."
London based producer, musician and creator of the Pet Sounds: In The Key Of Dee mixtape, which mashes the 1966 Beach Boys classic with Dilla beats
"Untitled/Fantastic" from Fantastic Vol 2 (Good Vibe) 2000
"Fantastic Vol 2 is an album that seemed more universal than other rap I was into. No one world. Just a fun and adventurous atmosphere to languish in. "Untitled/Fantastic" sums up that feeling neatly. One note string playing throughout. Uneven bar lengths (I think!). Charismatic vocals chopped up roughly. Little break in the middle then fade into a new beat, why not?? “It’s fantastic”. Uplifting and loose. It doesn’t feel like an exclusive or egotistical club, more like a reminder that you can do whatever you like when making music. Turn one song into two; put the kick where the snare goes; cut to silence for a sec; steal that continuous string idea – it’s fantastic."
Scarborough, UK based beatmaker
"Runnin'" from Labcabincalifornia (Delicious Vinyl) 1995
"If I had to describe J Dilla to an alien with only one of his productions, I would choose The Pharcyde’s "Runnin'". I feel that the instrumental perfectly captures what Jay Dee stood for. I can vividly remember the first time I heard "Runnin'" when I was about 13 years old, the memory is crystal clear. "Runnin'" clearly made a huge impact on my life and influenced me to follow a certain route in hiphop. The beat is layered with subtle beauties throughout, I absolutely love the structure and how the instrumental feels. We are first introduced to the ingenious hypnotic humming loop layered with the rhythmic shakers and then out of nowhere the magical guitar loop drops in perfectly. Shortly following the guitar we are knocked off balance with the meaty kick, the snare snaps our neck and the percussion send us into a mild trance. We eventually settle into the beat and then all of a sudden we get thumped in the heart with the beautiful bass. To top it all off we have the nice trumpet samples and the "Run" cuts chucked in to the mix, which is the icing on the cake. What more can I say, it's a masterpiece."
Guitarist, composer, leader of Screaming Headless Torsos and instigator of Flam! Blam! Pan-Asian MicroJam! Hommage À JDilla Et Olivier Messiaen (RareNoise)
"The Factory" from Donuts (Stones Throw) 2006
"My relationship to J Dilla is probably unusual. I don’t have a lot of hands on experience with hiphop (besides having played with MeShell Ndegeocello), nor do I know J Dilla's catalogue intimately, but considering I’m influenced by him anyway should hint at the staggering impact he had and still has on the music industry today. I'm kind of a musical hunter and gatherer in that I collect unique melodies, harmonies and rhythms and draw on the inherent concepts when needed. I wrote a composition that features bird songs, pan-Asian melodic and rhythmic elements. These unusual ingredients intersect via the 'flammed' inflections that make them so unique. A 'flam' can be described as a drumbeat or accent consisting of two attacks that happen in quick succession. I was wondering what rhythms could be implied by this odd mix of avian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese and Japanese components and it dawned on me: Dilla! "Factory" is a great example of one his signature rhythms where the backbeat on the snare is doubled into a 'flam'. It is so unique that you can immediately tell who wrote the piece even if you didn’t know it."
Los Angeles based DJ, producer and co-founder of Poo-Bah Records
"As Serious As Your Life (Jay Dee Remix)" from As Serious As Your Life (Domino) 2003
"The way it starts, like it’s a record, always bugged me out – like, how he do that shit? – then the original guitar joins in, then the drums… that fucked us up. Then Guilty Simpson kicks in the door with a sawn-off shotgun verse. Then the way Dilla’s singing on the hook… you can’t help but feel it, like a gospel type feeling, especially since he’s off the planet. Then he starts talking that Dilla shit on the verse… the cuts, the beat… flawless Dilla in my scrolls."
Devon, UK based DJ, producer and member of the Bizarre Rituals collective
A Tribe Called Quest
"1nce Again" from Beats, Rhymes And Life (Jive) 1996
"I doubt that the pasty faces of an ethnically uniform, mid-1990s South Devon formed a big part of J Dilla’s global fanbase, but his music and legacy definitely left an enduring mark on me and a number of my childhood friends. Some of my formative musical memories involve discovering and subsequently trading Tribe and Pharcyde CDs back and forth with like-minded schoolmates. I obviously didn’t give them back without first ripping them to MiniDisc. I’d then spend ages trying to make the graffiti fonts of my handwritten tracklist do justice to how amazing it all sounded! As a teenager growing up in Devon I had never experienced the things which all these rappers were talking about. As a result I didn’t relate to, or probably even understand a lot of the lyrical content that featured on many of Dilla’s productions.
"Musically however, I felt a very real connection. For me it was about the production of the tracks: laid back, often sun-drenched and always dripping with swagger. The way they sounded and the way those beats made me feel offered a much-desired escapism from what felt, at the time, like pretty limiting and dreary surroundings. Dilla's swinging, sample-rich, head-bobbing rhythms made me feel so fucking cool. It didn’t matter one bit that we were just cruising the country lanes in a friend's clapped-out Fiat Uno blasting The Pharcyde’s "Runnin'" through a repurposed pair of domestic speakers in the car boot. We knew even back then that we were listening to something special and we knew just how cool that made us."
Los Angeles based producer and rapper
"Shake It Down" from Welcome 2 Detroit (BBE) 2001
"Everything about this song made me catch the holy ghost as a teenager in my brother's 2001 Sebring. Technical commentary on his production is a rabbit hole in itself so I'm going to instead focus on something else, which is his masterful understanding of hiphop music's yin and yang: rapping and producing. Dilla was a great rapper because he was a great producer. He taught us that the voice is just another instrument in the mix and that an effective rap vocal communicates with its surroundings instead of talking over them. That philosophy is on full display in "Shake It Down". I just picture his voice as a chain, swinging in the booth like extra percussion. The instrumental, like much of the beats he inspired past his death, is self-contained as its own listening experience, though the magic of his music is that the same instrumental, like the beats that inspired him, is wide open and waiting for someone to jump in and tell their story. A perfect balance."
Dallas, Texas based producer, vocalist and actor
Common featuring Slum Village
"Theolonious" from Like Water For Chocolate (MCA) 2000
"Dilla crafted a full-on masterpiece with the album Like Water For Chocolate. I used to get in fights with my brother over who would get a chance to listen to that CD. I think all of his selves are on display in this album and at their best particularly on "Theolonious" both as a producer and rapper. In 2008 I finally focused on music and started making beats regularly along with dissecting the work of other greats. At that point in my creative process I was playing everything into my beats but they all sounded really rigid. I used to go online every other day and just look up on producer message boards, "how to get that Dilla bounce". He just has such a perfect pocket where his backbeats hits within the bar and the way he's a low key minimalist. Like almost every day I was just trying to find out how to get that bounce… unfortunately I never learned anything from the message boards."
Los Angeles based DJ, producer and twice Beat Cinema Beat Battle winner
"The Look Of Love" from Fantastic Vol 1 (Donut Boy/Longplayer) 2005, recorded 1996
"J Dilla is the type of artist that I was a fan of before I even knew who he really was. His sound in hiphop inadvertently shaped my ears since the 1990s when I was a child. When I was old enough, I had more freedom to really investigate his work and as I dug deeper into his prolific catalogue I fell more in love with his musicality and style. His drum patterns always had a specific syncopation that separated him from everyone. His choice of samples was always so versatile. You can only imagine how hard it is for me to pick just one track. As difficult as it was, the only way I could decide on my favorite was to pick the first beat that immediately popped into my head, which was “The Look Of Love”, a track by Slum Village from their album Fantastic Vol 1. The hauntingly beautiful guitar chord progression he sampled from Barney Kessel is what had me stuck on this beat for weeks. Slum Village’s unique lyrical cadences complement the swing of the beat perfectly. I also love the element of the recording for the live performance of the song at the beginning of the track. It's a really dope way to build up the anticipation for the actual beat to drop. You can tell he pieced everything together purposefully. Thank you Jay Dee."
Los Angeles based DJ, producer and Low End Theory resident
"Get Dis Money" from Fantastic Vol 2 (Good Vibe) 2000
"Figuring out which Dilla beat to write about is difficult, but ultimately, it has to be "Get This Money" by Slum Village. There are several things happening in this beat that make it one of my favorites of all time. First, the sample plays for seven bars instead of the usual eight. This gives the beat a circular and droning feeling, as the loop comes back around in the middle of bars throughout the song. It shouldn't sound as smooth as it does, but somehow he makes it very easy to listen to. As if this wasn't enough, the main kick drum hits on the eight of every bar, one beat earlier than the one. This is what really gives the beat the feel that it has, as this syncopation makes it ultra funky, as if the one is suspended for an extra beat. When I first heard this I counted both the bars and the hi-hats over and over to make sure I wasn't crazy! How the vocal structures the song regardless of where the loop is adds to the floating feeling of the song as well. This beat exemplifies how Dilla is able to make music that can both rock the club and stimulate a nerd’s mind. Also shows that he wasn’t afraid to do some weird shit in a song about hiphop’s most classic subject."
London based DJ, compiler, broadcaster and founder of Brownswood Recordings
"The Red" from Champion Sound (Stones Throw) 2003
"Possibly my favourite memory of J Dilla was when I was curating a room at the Montreaux Jazz festival in 2004. I had booked Jay and Madlib to play under their Jaylib moniker. Around an hour in, Mos Def jumped up on stage and the night took on an unpredictable and unexpected air of possibility and excitement. Something special was happening, a one-off. A rare talent all projecting from a very personalised view that someone has gained of their chosen art form. That unpredictability and wanting to push into unexplored areas is what distinguishes him from the rest in the strange alchemy that is record collecting, DJing, producing and, in Jay's case, performing and rapping. This, together with his legendary monastic dedication to the practice and knowledge of beatmaking, meant he had gone way past the usual suspects in terms of what would influence him. You were likely to find Eberhard Weber records on ECM, contextualised by a very idiosyncratic ear that placed the beats he made and productions he did into a bracket all of his own. Having a mother that was an opera singer no doubt opened his ears to possibility. He constantly reinvented himself and inspired others. The soulful renaissance he started is always tinged with regret, as to die at 32 leaves the question… how much more could he have achieved?"
Seattle based producer, songwriter, vocalist and one half of THEESatisfaction
"Let’s Ride" from Amplified (Arista) 1999
"I’ve been a fan of J Dilla unknowingly since I was a young girl. Both my brothers, older and younger, had been sharing his work with me for some time. Songs like "Find A Way" by A Tribe Called Quest and "Fall In Love" by Slum Village really resonated with me, but it didn’t click what role Dilla played in the creation of these songs. I still didn’t quite understand how songs were made. Like many, I didn’t know who wrote or assembled the music, I was only familiar with the prominent vocalist/MC and assumed they were the only ones behind the magic. It wasn’t until high school (when I really started embracing my musicianship) that I began researching the credits inside my favorite albums and discovering the meaning of a producer.
"Transitioning from high school to college, I got into some of Q Tip's solo work, specifically the Amplified album. "Let’s Ride" was a standout track to me and was one of the ways I rediscovered Jay Dee. He was combining sounds to create deep parallel stories to take the listener on a journey. The track featured samples from ESG’s spacepunk alarm anthem "UFO", a sick jazz riff from the Joe Pass rendition of Coltrane’s "Giant Steps", a funky drum pattern from The Vibrettes' "Humpty Dump" as well as chants and exclamations from "The Champ" by The Mohawks. Being that I was a jazz major, this beautiful blend of genres excited me about the vast approaches to take when composing music. It was one of the many songs that inspired my next musical projects (THEESatisfaction, SassyBlack) and is a great example of the type of skilled producer and influencer Jay Dee was and continues to be."
Woking, UK based producer, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and founder of 22A Records
"Jealousy" from Fantastic Vol 2 (Good Vibe Recordings) 2000
"When I hear people talk about Jay Dee I straight away think of Slum Village! I’ve been bumping Fantastic Vol 1&2 since I was a kid (shout out to Baatin and T3!). It’s hard for me to pick just one favourite – there's too many classics to mention. If I meet peeps who either know loads or absolutely nothing about Jay Dee, I’ll more likely just talk about SV – that’s the realest Dilla I ever heard! One of the classics has got to be "Jealousy". I use to have that one on loop for days. Everything in that track sits perfectly and they talking about some real shit. Enough cats in the world are tripping about jealousy, hating on other heads – I see and hear about it regularly, especially in the music game! SV set it straight with "Jealousy". It’s hard to describe in writing – music is about feeling – so I suggest anyone reading this gives it a listen. Bless."