Plenty of words in print, online and on t-shirts praised James Yancey bka J Dilla as a premier, yet overlooked, artist since he died seven years ago. We could lament in the fact that he’s not here to keep his sound going as is customary around this time of year. However we’d rather celebrate his life and the music he left us for years to come.
Dilla had a knack for making records you felt as well as heard. Moreover, the man’s talent matched his prolific output which may bewilder newcomers curious about his sound. Well that’s the purpose of this series, ain’t it? Get your eyes, mice and ears ready for the latest, special installment of The Primer.
1. Common – “The Light”
Common’s ode to the fairer sex guarantees him a pair of draws after every show for the rest of his life. He says nice things but he’s also forever indebted to Dilla’s Bobby Caldwell flip. Love songs rarely sound colder than this record.
2. Pharcyde – “Runnin'”
Pharcyde’s relatively short run came packed with iconic records and “Runnin'” is near the top of the heap. Also, can you believe Skillz passed on this beat? You know what they say about hindsight.
3. Slum Village – “The Look of Love Pt. 1”
J Dilla regularly made Slum Village sound SO MUCH BETTER than they actually were. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine those rhymes sounding greater behind anyone else’s production at the time. Such is especially true on “The Look of Love Pt. 1.” The song is short on the things that make rap nerds say “ooh” and “ahh” Yet it rides in the face of obscure references and multisyllabic rhyme schemes.
4. Slum Village – “Get Dis Money”
Dilla kept the vibes consistent from Vol. 1 to Vol. 2 to even greater effect on the second go ’round. “Get Dis Money” personifies the audio cool laced throughout SV’s follow up.
5. De La Soul – “Stakes is High”
Jay Dee didn’t always make smooth songs. He could lend his swing to something fiercer and, as seen on “Stakes is High” the results made necks snap.
6. Slum Village – “Fall In Love”
Is it rap or soul music? Who cares when the end product sounds so nice. I’m usually against rappers singing but J Dilla used his fun pass well here.
7. Janet Jackson – “Got ’til It’s Gone”
Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are a legendary production duo. They also, in spite of what this song’s liner notes suggested, did not make this beat.
The Ummah concocted one of Janet’s most soulful records here. J Dilla’s work often went without proper credits but, of said snubs, “Got ’til It’s Gone” is easily one of the biggest.
8. Pharcyde – “Drop”
“Drop’s” swirly sounds makes you feel like you’re falling to your doom…until you land on thumping kicks and DAT BASSLINE. The video is pretty neat too.
9. Black Star – “Little Brother”
The story behind this song, as told by Questlove, will inspire some bedroom beat makers and compel others to throw their gear out the window. It almost sounds like urban legend until you hear the source material and shake your head.
10. J-Dilla – “So Far To Go ft. Common and D’Angelo”
The production on Donuts signified a stark change in how Dilla approached his song making. The switch rang especially true when you heard “Bye.” It’s a shame he didn’t live long enough to build his new found approach. However, from “Bye’s” transformation to “So Far To Go,” it was clear his altered sampling techniques headed into promising territory.