J Dilla

"The Secrets to J Dilla's Production Style Revealed in a Fantastic New Video" (AFH archive)

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.

"Pete Rock & J Dilla Birthed a Beat Generation that Shaped the Future" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 4 January 2018, read the article on the AFH site


Within the space of three months in 2001, two of Hip-Hop’s preeminent producers, J Dilla and Pete Rock were in a kind of competition, and this led to the release of two ground-breaking albums that would shape the sound of the genre for the next decade and beyond.

According to Hip-Hop folklore, when Pete Rock heard Jay Dee’s idiosyncratic and, as it would later prove, highly influential debut, Welcome 2 Detroit on its February 2001 release, he felt compelled to match it and did so with PeteStrumentals a few months later.

“This guy took it at least two or three levels higher than me,” Pete Rock said of the Slum Village co-founder in Brian “B.Kyle” Atkins’ documentary Still Shining, per Complex “It’s like a chain reaction. Basically, it was like Larry Smith to Marley Marl, from Marley Marl to Pete Rock, from Pete Rock to Jay Dee….” He then says that Dilla was the “brand-new king,” with a talent that was  “ridiculous.” The two had worked together on the Villa’s Fantastic, Vol. 2 in 2000.

The two albums came out in the Beat Generation series via London-based label, BBE Records. The label was founded by DJs, Peter Adarkwah and Ben Jolly and took its name from the Universal Robot Band track, “Barely Breaking Even” from 1982. Later Beat Generation contributors in the series included Marley Marl’s Re-Entry, will.i.am.’s Lost ChangeDJ Jazzy Jeff (twice), DJ SpinnaKing BrittMadlib, then Dilla with The Shining in 2006.

BBE Records boss Adarkwah says that the series made its name in the US, with other key producers, such as Flying Lotus and 9th Wonder citing its importance. Not only did it set up the Jay Dee-Pete Rock dyad, it also ushered in an era where Pete Rock-type beat-tapes have their own currency. Something that is arguably a defining feature of the current Hip-Hop scene.

Adarkwah’s message to the Beat Generation producers was simple: “Do what you feel,” and urged the beat-makers to create music that embodied their musical tastes, in all its eclecticism.

“I’d been on enough shopping trips with Kenny [Dope] and Mr Thing to know that those guys don’t just listen to Hip-Hop. They buy Jazz, Rock, Funk, Reggae – they’re into everything. So, Beat Generation wasn’t just about people who make beats. It was about that Beat spirit of Allen Ginsberg and Jazz poetry. My brief to them was, ‘Do what you feel. Try and express what your influences are on record.’” He says that Dilla and Spinna out of all the contributors “nailed it the best.”

Leading up to his Welcome 2 Detroit solo record debut, Slum Village’s Dilla had been establishing himself as a producer, as one-third of The Ummah and working on Common’s 2000 critically acclaimed Like Water For Chocolateamong other projects.

Welcome 2 Detroit was a radical move on his part and unlike anything else around at the time: an album made up of fragments and unexpected musical and tonal shifts that was also marked by the  personality of its maker and the city he came from. On Welcome 2 Detroit, the young producer is reveling in mixing up musical genres (see: “Rico Suave Bossa Nova”) and thereby helps smash the template of a what a Hip-Hop album might sound like.

In the album liner notes, Dilla says how “B.B.E (Big Booty Express),” which transformed Kraftwerk’s elemental break “Trans-Europe Express” into a kind of space-age stripper anthem, was “his baby,” maybe because of its debt to Detroit Techno origins.

Dilla also sang a cover of Jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” with Neo-Soul star, Dwele on trumpet and keys.

PeteStrumentals, meanwhile, put in place the foundations for all Soul-based Hip-Hop production that came in its wake, see here the pure melody and moody intelligence of “Smooth Sailing” and perhaps most famously “A Little Soul.”

In 2015, Pete Rock dropped PeteStrumentals 2 on Mello Music Group.

"Always a singer first": an interview with Illa J, following the release of John Yancey (Jakarta Records, 2018)

Naming his latest album, John Yancey – the artist’s birth name - might seem an overly sober, straight-forward move for Detroit singer and sometime rapper, Illa J but there are reasons and significance behind his choice.

In 2008, Illa J released Yancey Boys – a strong début showing off his talents as singer/MC against some superb unreleased beats by his late brother, J Dilla. With a tiny guest roster (Frank Nitt, Guilty Simpson …), the album was an intimate tribute to the much-missed producer/MC known as Jay Dee.

Yancey Boys still sounds great today, but it seems to have been a mixed blessing for Illa J who was just 19 when his brother passed. Hence the significance of the John Yancey title; this new album, like others before it is all about Illa J reclaiming his name in his own right, asserting - no matter how gently - the singularity of his voice, while still showing respect to his brother.  

John Yancey more than adequately meets any such challenges. Produced by Calvin Valentine - who also provided the music for the previous album, Home - it showcases Illa J’s sophisticated lyricism and truly sweet voice.

Meshing pop/R&B, with occasional rhymes, Illa J’s songs are carried by a summery, almost doo-wop vibe a lot of the time, while still held in the embrace of the music that raised him. Illa J’s vocals have a distinctive timbre, reminiscent … old school Smokey Robinson as he raps on the lovely hybrid-rap ballad, “Rose Gold.”

Other album highlights, such as “Tokyo” and the dulcet tones of “Sunday” similarly allow his vocals take centre stage. Future plans include moving into production, it’ll be interesting to see how Illa J continues to keep building his name as a vocalist, as that is where his real talent lies.   

Our phone conversation last month stayed focussed on Illa J’s new album, John Yancey.  When it was time to talk about the songs making references to J Dilla, “James Said” and “32,” the pre-paid credit on my phone cut, thus leaving my remaining questions unanswered. This seems appropriate, somehow.  

In the interview below, Illa J speaks about Detroit’s distinctive sound, and why we should thank the Yancey Boys’ musician father, Beverly Dewitt Yancey for providing the “foundations” for everything his gifted sons later produced and how Slum Village remains a key influence, as he says: “No Slum Village, no me.”  

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