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J Dilla: A lasting presence

Late producer to be memorialized in Smithsonian

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James Dewitt Yancey, otherwise known as J Dilla or Jay Dee, is one of the most influential figures in hip-hop.
Courtesy of Stones Throw Records

The Smithsonian Institution announced in July that equipment belonging to celebrated producer J Dilla (born James Dewitt Yancey) — a MIDI Production Center beat machine and a synthesizer custom-built for Dilla by Robert Moog himself — would be housed in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open in 2016. The announcement came at the D.C. Loves Dilla Tribute Concert, courtesy of Ma Duke, who was there to see the crowd’s reaction to the memorialization of her late son’s legacy.

J Dilla revolutionized the musical landscape of hip-hop and neo soul before passing away in 2006. Known for his unique experimentalism, sampling style, and incorporation of jazz and soul, Dilla had the kind of genius that was contagious, touching artists such as Root’s founder Questlove and vintage soul legend Erykah Badu, both of whom he worked with closely.

A student and colleague of legendary producer Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, Dilla worked as a part of production collective The Ummah alongside Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, producing classics such as Midnight Marauders (1993). The two were first introduced by Amp Fiddler while Q-Tip was on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour.

While speaking with the Red Bull Music Academy Radio, Q-Tip recalled Dilla’s smile as the first thing he saw and described the experience of listening to Dilla’s tape that night on the tour bus, saying, “What the fuck is this shit. Damn this shit is crushin’!” From there Q-Tip played the demo for Trugoy of De La Soul, who described him as Q-Tip, but better. After that they went on to work together and spread Dilla’s genius far and wide.

In an RBMA Radio interview Erykah Badu recalled Dilla’s eccentricities, telling the story of her first sampling lesson with Dilla, which led to her song “Didn’t Cha Know.” He was an engineer in school, and she described his beats as “strictly mathematical, they’re just right out of his consciousness.” Of his basement lab she said, “it looked like a graveyard. It was perfect, everything was perfect,” all the Coke cans facing a certain way, all his vinyl organized by his own system.

The two formed part of powerhouse musical collective the Soulquarians, along with D’Angelo, James Poyser, and Questlove of the Roots to name a few.

Questlove spoke of the liberating effect Dilla’s music had on him, sharing with RBMA Radio the story of the first time he heard Dilla’s music when the Roots opened a show by the Pharcyde in North Carolina. He said that on Illadelph Halflife (1996) he made every effort to be a cold machine, but when he heard Dilla’s production of the Pharcyde’s second album it freed him.

He recalled that at first he dismissed Dilla, having heard that Q-Tip was supposed to produce the Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia (1995) and found out that instead Dilla was handling it. After opening for the Pharcyde he had to run out to do a college radio interview and heard the Pharcyde open with their song “Bullshit.”

“As I’m leaving the club I’m hearing the vibration of the kick drum and it’s the most life changing moment I’ve ever had. Like I had to get out the car and run back in the club to make sure I didn’t hear what I heard. Did I hear that? I mean just the way that it… it sounded like the kick drum was played by like a drunk three year old. I was like, ‘Are you allowed to do that!?’” Questlove later asked about the track and described the experience of listening to Dilla’s beat tape saying, “I’d just never heard someone not give a fuck, and that to me was the most liberating moment.”

J Dilla lives on in his music, as part of Slum Village, through his collaborations, and his immeasurable impact on the musical community. His iconic tools, with him at his bedside to the end, will find a worthy home as the inaugural exhibition “Musical Crossroads” in the Smithsonian African American Museum of History and Culture. I look forward to seeing the late producer’s legacy.

Rest in Peace JD.