J Dilla succumbed to complications of a rare blood disease and lupus over a decade ago, but the prolific producer has proven to be a continuous source of excellent music well beyond his death. Earlier this week, we got another courtesy of the upcoming Detroit hip-hop documentary The Unseen: A Detroit Beat Tape.
Dilla’s trademark boom-bap productions are so vibrant and warm — and their intentionally loose style so endearingly personal — that listening to new, old tracks like “Ghetto Wishing” makes it hard to believe that he’s no longer with us. With that in mind and in honor of what have been the producer’s 42nd birthday, we’ve compiled five of the best posthumous tracks that prove we’ll be listening to Jay Dee for many years to come.
Joey Bada$$ ft. BJ The Chicago Kid, “Like Me”
One of the best things about the seemingly endless depth of Dilla’s vault is getting to see what rappers who weren’t around for his heyday can do over his productions. Young hip-hop’s premier revivalist Joey Bada$$ got a hold of an unreleased beat from a producer he no doubt grew up idolizing. And he didn’t let one bit of it go to waste, turning the neo-soul flirtations and melancholic piano chords into a rumination on police brutality and violence.
Slum Village ft. De La Soul, “Right Back”
Both Slum Village and rap hippies De La Soul have released projects full of exclusively unreleased Dilla beats since his death. And there’s plenty of standouts there, including “Vocabulary Spills” off of De La’s Smell The D.A.I.S.Y. and “Too Much” off of Village’s Yes But why pick one or the other when you can have both? This production on this collab — also off of Yes — has relatively few parts and shows how much Dilla could pull out of a piano and a drum.
J Dilla, “Nothing Like This”
Though it is the sound he’s best known for, not everything Dilla made was as simple as “soul sample + drum + piano.” Jay could get strange with the best of them, going down electronic and even psychedelic alleys when the urge caught him. Okay, so the drums are still there. But Dilla layers all kinds of backwards strings and space-y guitars over the top before topping it off with an appropriately fuzzy vocals. How he heard this in Dave Mason’s upbeat “You Can’t Take It with You”, we’ll never know. But we’re glad he did.
J Dilla ft. Common and D’Angelo, “So Far to Go”
This cut from The Shining isn’t just one of the best Dilla beats to drop after his death, it’s one of his greatest, period. You’ve heard “So Far To Go” even if you think you haven’t. It’s deeply loved and instantly recognizable. And it’s one of the few songs by the Detroit producer that you hear out in the world, away from gatherings meant exclusively for hip-hop nerds.
J Dilla, “The Shining Pt. 1”
The Diary shows us what we lost when Dilla passed more than any project not named Donuts. At the time this album was recorded under the name Pay Jay, we already knew about Dilla’s ability behind the boards. But The Diary let him stretch out as a rapper, flexing his skill with the microphone because he no longer had to worry about producing all of the tracks. “The Shining Pt. 1,” produced by Nottz, shows that Dilla could have had a bright future working over other people’s sounds as well, if he’d had more time.