Earlier this week, Long Island hip hop veterans De La Soul announced they would be releasing a new mixtape called Smell The D.A.I.S.Y. as a continuation of their 25th anniversary celebration– this coming only weeks after they released their entire catalog for free download (!) on their website. Most notable about this announcement though was that the entire mixtape would use beats produced by the late Detroit hip hop producer J Dilla.
Each year around this time, a number of articles and mixtapes surface on the internet to pay tribute to J Dilla’s legacy (this year’s most notable being The King James Version Vol. 2 – an eclectic mix of Dilla samples by Detroit DJ House Shoes released early last month). Since his death in February 2006 from a rare blood disease, the critical acclaim for J Dilla has grown substantially leading many to declare him one of the best hip hop producers ever. His passing has all the key ingredients of a “Dude was the Greatest of All Time” legendary status: death at a relatively young age during what most would consider his prime; fellow musicians declaring him a genius or the “John Coltrane of hip hop”; multiple posthumous albums unearthed and so on. A small portion of his fans even created “J Dilla Changed My Life” t-shirts shortly after his death.
Brash accolades as some of these may be, Dilla was indeed an exceptional hip-hop producer and made a name for himself as one of the forefathers of the mid to late 90s soulful boom bap popularized by Native Tongues and Rawkus artists. In the 00s, through a fruitful solo career and a gradual artistic reinvention, he innovated and expanded his sound to wider critical acclaim by tweaking his signature “unquantised drums” to sound off or behind the beat but also somehow just right in the groove and by expanding his sample choices — pulling from everything from Giorgio Moroder to Frank Zappa to a chorus of kazoos playing The Flight of the Bumblebee (no, really). His career came to an apex in his final album, Donuts, recorded in the final months of his life while sick in a hospital bed. Released three days before his death on his 32nd birthday, Donuts is a deeply personal instrumental beat tape that runs through many of Dilla’s favorite vinyl selections in 31 short songs/sketches in under an hour. Donuts, with its short sketch like songs and unconventional pacing was somewhat overlooked upon release, but has over time become his most critically acclaimed work.
One of the most endearing and personal qualities though about Dilla’s music that tends to get overlooked was an honest sense of humanity and vulnerability that appeared in his productions. Much has been written about how his “unquantised drums” created a live or human drummer feel, but his productions, especially from late in his career, have revealed over time an appreciation of mess ups, mistakes, and flaws in music.
In an interview with Nodfactor given towards the end of his life, Dilla reflected on this saying:
“I used to listen to records and actually, I wouldn’t say look for mistakes but when I hear mistakes in records it was exciting for me. Like, “Damn, the drummer missed the beat in that shit. The guitar went off key for a second.” I try to do that in my music a little bit, try to have that live feel a little bit to it.”
This appears in a couple notable places on Donuts: The beginning of “The Twister (Huh, What)” samples a live Temptations song where the announcer says “Would you join me please in welcoming-ing…” and “The Stepson of the Clapper” takes a sample from a Mountain live album where the lead singer is leading the crowd in clapping along to the drummer’s beat and cries out “On tempo!” when the crowd naturally starts to fall behind and off beat. Throughout the album, Dilla also creates this effect by sampling portions of human words, phrases, breaths, coos, etc. and chops them in a way to make them sound incomplete, incoherent, or flawed.
This quality not only showed itself in an appreciation for human errors but also in his choice of vinyl for sampling. Dilla intentionally chose vinyl of lesser quality to use for sample material over more expensive vinyl in better condition to achieve a much rawer sound. He notoriously went for the bargain bin vinyl with all the ticks, pops, and hiss of an album that has been lived with and enjoyed over time. This technique gave his samples a distinct human warmth – a gradual wear and tear of something loved and played out by a previous owner. On Donuts, this can be seen throughout but especially on samples used for “Light My Fire” and “Lightworks”. Both sound as if they were plucked straight out of a garage sale bin – years of dust collected in the grooves and an uneasy warble as if warped by the sun from sitting outside in the bin too long.
These small traits, while sometimes admittedly hard to spot on first listen, created a unique and honest anthropological trait to Dilla’s productions. Donuts has a certain personal warmth to it rarely seen in hip hop, which is especially remarkable considering it’s an instrumental beat tape. Dilla’s appreciation for vulnerability placed a small morsel of honest humanity in each of his songs. Moments that in some ways offer a small comforting sigh of relief – a realization we’re not alone in the fact that despite our best intentions and rehearsals, we naturally stumble over our words, miss our cues, and fall off beat.
While subtle, I can’t help but think Dilla’s appreciation is a tiny reflection of our Father–we being the mess ups, mistakes, and played out that have been cast off to the dollar vinyl bin. A Father who loves us in our current honest state — not glossed over or cleaned up but with all its ticks, pops, and hiss made new on the turntable.