Radio Active: 40 Reasons Why I Love J Dilla
It’s already a week into Black History Month – time flies when you only have 28 federally allotted days to laud the achievements of a highly accomplished race of people, so let’s get to it.
Today (February 7th) is the 40th birthday of the massively talented producer James Dewitt Yancey, better known to the music world as Jay Dee, and eventually J Dilla. You may not know the name, but you definitely know his work. If you’ve ever listened to Slum Village, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, MF Doom, The Pharcyde and Common, then you’ve heard J Dilla. In 2006, just three days after his 32nd birthday, we lost the young Mr. Yancey to a rare blood disease known as thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP or Moschcowitz syndrome).
Like so many musical talents who shed their mortal coil at a young age, his legacy has experienced a whole new life of its own in the eight years since his passing. The expansive body of work that he left behind, along with the seemingly endless repertoire that has lent itself to numerous posthumous releases, garners the utmost respect and continues to inspire awe in a new generation of musicians and music lovers alike.
I’d argue that books could be written and courses could be developed around J Dilla’s technique and influence alone – for now, I’ll just humbly submit 40 reasons why I love this musical giant, in honor of his 40th anniversary of birth.
40. He’s your favorite producer’s favorite producer.
During an appearance in 2004, Pharrell Williams told BET’s 106th & Park that J Dilla was his favorite producer. He also gushes about him in the 2011 A Tribe Called Quest documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life.
39. His music gave The Roots’ drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson chills.
“Dilla was the only cat whose music gave me goosebumps in the last 10 years,” according to his blog, several days after his friend J Dilla died.
38. He formed a group that would become one of the first hip-hop acts from Detroit to sign with a major label.
J Dilla and Phat Kat were known as 1st Down, and they signed to Payday Records in 1995. However, the label folded and the deal was terminated after just one single.
37. He formed another group that was hailed as the successor to A Tribe Called Quest.
J Dilla formed Slum Village with T3 and Baatin in 1996, and released “Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1)” in 1997. While being compared to ATCQ wasn’t a bad thing, it made J Dilla uneasy because he felt that Slum Village was of a different aesthetic altogether.
36. He was a shy giant.
Despite becoming a major hip-hop prospect by the mid-’90s, most of his production credits were given to “The Ummah” – a collective he formed with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest.
35. He was a Soulquarian.
34. He loved Dutch Girl Donuts.
This is where I brag about how my favorite producer loved the same mom & pop donut shop that I love and get nostalgic (and slightly hungry) for a moment. #sorrynotsorry
33. Music is in his DNA.
His mother is a former opera singer and classical music enthusiast; his father was a jazz bassist. “Jazz was the music he grew up with and was raised on,” says Maureen Yancey. “Since he was a couple of months old, he wouldn’t go to sleep unless he heard jazz, so my husband had to sing and play for him to go to sleep. It was his lullaby music as a child in his nursery.”
32. He was a vinyl enthusiast by age 2.
“Dilla’s interest in music started at age 2,” his mother says. “Dilla carried 45s on his arm and turntables to the park every day, to spin records — and this was in downtown Detroit.”
31. His enthusiasm for vinyl became an obsession.
30. His “musical sincerity.”
“What separated Jay was that he was uninhibited in his knowledge of music, and he was uninhibited when it came to making his music. A lot of producers say they are, but a lot of us are ‘industrialized’ as I like to call it, meaning we’re slaves to an industry, even when we don’t realize it. We have to do something that radio will find credible, or the hip-hop community is going to understand.
“When radio was a freer space and played music that people liked instead of what people paid for, the music that we heard was created by somebody in their basement being a mad scientist. Jay is a throwback to that time. He’s the guy in the basement.” – DJ Jazzy Jeff
29. His work with Madlib doesn’t even feel like it’s a decade old.
28. His catalog speaks volumes.
This is the part where I launch into the songs that have defined his career. This entire list could have been nothing songs, because that’s how expansive his body of work is – but that would have been too easy.
27. A Tribe Called Quest – “Keep It Moving”
26. De La Soul – “Stakes Is High”
25. Busta Rhymes – “Woo-Hah” (Jay Dee Bounce Remix)
24. Tha Pharcyde – “Runnin’”
23. Janet Jackson – “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”
22. A Tribe Called Quest – “Find A Way”
21. The Roots – “Dynamite!”
20. Q-Tip – “Vivrant Thing”
19. Slum Village – “Climax”
18. Slum Village – “Players”
17. Erykah Badu – “Kiss Me On My Neck”
16. Common – “The Light”
15. Common ft. Slum Village – “Thelonius”
14. De La Soul – “Much More”
13. Jaylib – “The Official”
12. Jaylib – “The Red”
11. Steve Spacek – “Dollar”
10. Ghostface Killah – “Beauty Jackson”
9. Busta Rhymes – “You Can’t Hold The Torch”
8. J Dilla – “Crushin (Yeeeeah)”
7. J Dilla – “Airworks”
6. J Dilla – “Think Twice”
5. Slum Village – “Look of Love”
4. Ma Dukes
To love J Dilla is to love his mother Maureen Yancey, affectionately known as “Ma Dukes.” She is a true pillar upon which he stood. We are forever in debt to her for bringing him into this world, nurturing his talents from a young age, caring for him as his health deteriorated from TTP and later, lupus and being the foremost torchbearer of his legacy.
J Dilla created music until the very end. He spent his final months working on a drum machine from his hospital bed. He lived to see the release of his third solo LP Donuts on his 32nd birthday, February 7, 2006. He died just three days later on February 10, 2006.
Giving scholarships to musically gifted youth and helping fund inner-city music programs since 2010.
1. He continues to be one of your faves without even trying.
The music he made throughout his career is timeless. His music invokes memories of the first time you heard it and what you were doing all the other times it came on. J Dilla has been the soundtrack of your life.