First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 6 December 2017 read the article on the AFH site
For anyone wanting to understand why Detroit producer J Dilla is so revered more than one decade after his untimely death, a new video by journalist Estelle Caswell in the Vox “Earworm” series offers the perfect starting-point. This mini-documentary takes a close look at Dilla’s radical re-invention of drums, his passion for “low-end texture” and his highly creative, even eccentric interest in extending sounds. The Slum Village and JayLib member did it with some hardware.
The machine in question is Dilla’s Akai MPC 3000, currently on display in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, or John Coltrane’s saxophone, Dilla’s MPC 3000 was an “extension of his self,” Caswell argues and a key to understanding his rare gift as an artist.
The first MPC (beginning with the 60 model) was released in 1988. It is, as Caswell notes a “holding station for all kinds of samples” with 16 touch-sensitive pads and able to take the role of the “musical brain of the studio.” But even though the idea of creating music from pre-recorded sounds goes back to the 1930s, Akai’s MPC ushered in a new era because of its portability and price.
“The MPC was a different beast because it really put you in the driver’s seat in terms of the sonic texture that you want it to have,” Brian “Raydar” Ellis, MC/producer and professor at Berklee College of Music explains in the video. Unlike previous drum machines, the MPC is “a fully customizable machine” allowing producers to manipulate sounds to fit their preferences.
By the mid-’90s, the MPC 3000 was an instrument of choice of the era’s top producers, such as Pete Rock, Dr. Dre and Q-Tip. And of course, J Dilla was also on that list.
One of the best parts of the video is The Roots’ Questlove doing a demo at a drum-kit. First, he does a traditional drum-pattern, but then he twists it into something more Dilla-esque, where drums typically sound as if “the kick-drum was played by a drunk three-year-old.” Questlove recalls how when he first heard Dilla drums, he wondered, “Are you allowed to do that?” But then adds, “That to me was the most liberating moment.”
Whereas many of Dilla’s contemporaries quantized their beats to make the drum sounds follow a perfect pattern, Dilla preferred to switch off this feature. In doing so, he created “a discography full of incredibly off-kilter drums.” But this was only part of it. Dilla was also known for his “signature low-end texture” which came from cutting all high-end frequencies of the sample: see here, the drums in The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” from 1995’s Labcabincalifornia.
Caswell also spends time unpacking Dilla’s interest in extending sounds, see “Don’t Cry” from 2006’s seminal Donuts instrumental LP released on his birthday three days before his death. “Instead of chopping to the melody,” she begins, “He chopped up a handful of kicks and snares from the entire song regardless of the melody on top of it and like little puzzle pieces he re-sequenced these kicks and snares to an entirely new, dream-like song.”
Elsewhere in the video, Caswell sums up the extraordinary talent of the quintessential Detroit beat-maker this way: “[J Dilla] internalized every possible technique in Hip-Hop and expanded upon it.” And he did this “with an intense love and curiosity about sounds and a lot of patience.”
In the end, this video is not just for music-nerds wanting to learn more of the intricacy of what makes Hip-Hop production such a special beast, though they will surely like it too, but for anyone interested in learning what made J Dilla unique.