The story behind some of J Dilla's greatest productions

The story behind some of J Dilla's greatest productions
Photo by B+ at Dilla's studio in 2003 (Jaylib session)

  • Fader 42
  • December 01, 2006

Interviews with Common, Kweli, Ma Dukes, Badu, Phat Kat and others by Egon, Eric Ducker and Edwin Houghton, originally published by Fader, 2006.

Think twice, youngbloods, precocious hoodrats, beatbox prodigies. Somewhere in the fine print of the job description for "Revolutionary Black Genius" is a clause that reads, "Must die young." Producer and rapper J Dilla departure from terra firma earlier this year at the age of 32 is proof that there's no escaping the curse, and his killer-Lupus-related blood disease-is enough to make you believe in conspiracy theories of cosmic proportions. If you make music, it's almost enough to make you want to give it up altogether, except Dilla was so damn good at what he did, he probably made you want to give up even when he was still living. The discography of J Dilla (born James Yancey) is brief in time, but prolific in output and wide in scope. Since he passed, there's been a flood of testimonials to his brilliance and his untouchable status as your favorite producers favorite producer, but if those eulogies have enshrined Dilla as a minor deity to beat makers and 12-inch connoisseurs, then no doubt he's the type of god who is properly worshipped with drums, not hymns of praise. So take these firsthand accounts from the various divas, rappers, soul cats and family members whose collective minds he blew when making music not as props for props sake, but as story problems for your MPC, object lessons in how to do it right .... And get back to work.

J Dilla - "Lightworks"
Donuts (Stones Throw, 2006) | iTunes

MAUREEN YANCEY (J Dilla's mother): I knew he was working on a series of beat CDs before he came to Los Angeles. Donuts was a special project that he hadn't named yet. This was the tail end of his "Dill Withers" phase, while he was living in Clinton Township, Michigan. You see, musically he went into different phases. He'd start on a project, go back, go buy more records and then go back to working on the project again. I saw it because I was at his house every day, all day. I would go there for breakfast, go back to Detroit to check on the daycare business I was running, and then back to his house for lunch and dinner. He was on a special diet and he was a funny eater anyway. He had to take 15 different medications, we would split them up between meals, and every other day we would binge on a brownie sundae from Big Boys. That was his treat. I didn't know about the actual album Donuts until I came to Los Angeles to stay indefinitely. I got a glimpse of the music during one of the hospital stays, around his 31st birthday, when [friend and producer] House Shoes came out from Detroit to visit him. I would sneak in and listen to the work in progress while he was in dialysis. He got furious when he found out I was listening to his music! He didn't want me to listen to anything until it was a finished product. He was working in the hospital. He tried to go over each beat and make sure that it was something different and make sure that there was nothing that he wanted to change . "Lightworks," oh yes, that was something! That's one of the special ones. It was so different. It blended classical music (way out there classical), commercial and underground at the same time.



Phat Kat - "Don't Nobody Care About Us"
Dedication to the Suckers 12-inch (House Shoes, 1999)

PHAT KAT: There were multiple beats that I'd already rapped on that ended up on the beat tapes that Dilla sent out and that somebody bought. When the industry started jumping on the Dilla bandwagon, they was getting scraps. He kept all the hot shit for himself and the crew. After we'd seen that people were jumping on all the stuff he was doing, everything that me and Dilla recorded, we did it right on the spot. That's why I always got the freshest shit. That whole "Dedication to the Suckas" 12-inch-I bullshit you not-we started around 8 o'clock in the evening, we was done by 11. He would load the beats up and leave or talk on the phone, let me do my rhymes, come back and the verses were done, it's a wrap.



Black Star - "Little Brother"
Music From and Inspired by The Hurricane (MCA, 2000)

TALIB KWELI: At that point J Dilla was still an enigma to me, but I was very excited about working with him. Mos [Def] had gotten his beat tape that was circulating and it had a couple beats on it that Mos wanted to use. With a producer like Dilla, a lot of his shit was so orchestrated and sounded so right that you'd be like, "Yeah, that's how I want it to sound." Mos took the beat tape to Electric Lady, we laid rough vocals and we wanted to get Gil Scot-Heron to sing on it, so Mos sang the little brother.. part and we got in touch with Gil Scot-Heron a week later. When he got there he was like, "I need to take a nap," and he slept for like three hours. Then he woke up and he sang it, but it didn't sound right. At this point Wendy Goldstein at Capitol was like, "We need it for the soundtrack!" She had the rough version with Mos singing and Gil Scott-Heron was supposed to come back the next day. A week later we were still trying to get Gil Scott back in the studio and I heard the song on a mixtape that had been sent out for the album and I got upset because I was like, "We didn't get to hear the mixdown, it wasn't approved. I know Dilla didn't get to hear the mixdown."



Common - "Nag Champa"
Like Water for Chocolate (MCA, 2000) | iTunes

COMMON: When I was working on Like Water for Chocolate I would go to Detroit like two to three times a month. When we would go to Jay Dee's basement we would always burn nag champa incense, that's where I got that title from. I was listening to Slum Village a lot, so I was influenced by them. With "Nag Champa," which was either the first or the second song for Like Water for Chocolate, we had it for a long time with no chorus. We kept trying but there wasn't nothing good coming out. I took T3 and them to the studio to work with me on the chorus; T3 started chanting something, he didn't finish, but he had a little idea. Jay Dee heard and started really singing it and got it together. Jay had an incredible voice-he actually was going to do a singing album. We used to talk about that when he would stay in LA.



Slum Village - "Get Dis Money"
Fantastic Vol. 2 (Goodvibe, 2000)

T3: The drum programming on "Get Dis Money" is a little off. Dilla didn't like to use a metronome or whatever, so some would be slightly off beat, but on purpose. It's just the way his ear was, crazy. What's funny about "Get Dis Money" is that Baatin wrote three verses before we liked one, me and Dilla was being real hard on his rhyme. If you listen to Vol 1 and Vol 2, Baatin don't talk about the topic at all. It ended up being like we was doing it on purpose, but originally it was not on purpose. Dilla was more upset than anybody about staying on topic. Baatin would just talk about anything. The song is about getting money and the pursuit of it, a real simple concept, and Baatin would just start talking bout his family and then go over here and over there ... you ain't know where he's going! Even with three verses, Dilla still took out a part of his rhyme on the final version, kind of faded him out on the end of that song.



Erykah Badu - "Didn't Cha Know"
Mama's Gun (Motown, 2000) | iTunes

ERYKAH BADU: I went to Detroit to work with this cat that I heard a few tracks from that drove me crazy. Common took me over there, we went down to the basement, Common left and Dilla and I sat and talked. He had records wall-to-wall like it was a public library and he goes, "OK, I want you to look for a record." I'm leaking through these organized, tightly packed crates, and I just pulled out one record and the artist was Tarika Blue. I liked that name. I put on the first track ["Dreamflower"] and I fell in love with the song and I kept playing it over and over again and I said, "I want this." He showed me how to loop a small part of the bassline, he was very generous in teaching you and letting you be hands on. Then I left the room and when I came back he had looped some drums to a small sample of the song and I started to write to it. I came up with the Ooooh, heeeey melody. I wrote for a few days and then the song came to be. My songs sound different from everyone else's Dilla songs. The sound is a little bit more bass heavy and the frequencies are definitely different than most of the songs he does, because it's his world. But when he allowed me to come into his world, it became another kind of world. I think he allowed everybody that kind of space and that kind of freedom because he was so super creative that he would go onto something else while we learned the first part.



Frank N Dank "Keep It Comin"
48 Hours (unreleased 2003)

DANK: "Keep It Comin'" was the era when we recorded 48 Hours for MCA-that's just about coming up out of the hood because we finally crossed that barrier. "Keep It Comin" was like the wrap up, that was just the last song we recorded for that record. ?uestlove from the Roots played the drums, and everything was played live. We had a sample version of it before, but [Dilla] was like, "I want to play this all live." We used the traditional drums, tambourines, shakers, Mexican shakers, old school cowbells, the old school Moog, trombone. That record created Dilla. Everybody knew Jay Dee, Jay Dee sampled everything and chopped. Dilla was about playing live instruments.



Jaylib - "Champion Sound"
Champion Sound (Stones Throw, 2003) | iTunes

MADLIB: "Champion Sound" was one of my favorite cuts, it stood out amongst all of the other joints in the first batch of Jaylib songs he sent to me. I didn't think he would pick that beat, it was one of the dirtiest tracks on the beat CDs I sent to him. But that fit perfect. That track is running, like rolling in your car. His lyrics made that shit even harder. And the concept ... What! What! Someone else could have rapped over it, but it wouldn't have been the same. I remember when we would perform that song, the crowd would get super hype. I wouldn't even say his lyrics, I would just do 'em with steps. I'd just be watching him. Too hype. Flowing with my steps, Thelonious style. That's one of my favorite albums. It's one of my favorites I ever recorded.



Four Tet - "As Serious as Your Life (Remix, feat. Guilty Simpson)"
As Serious as Your Life 12-inch (Domino, 2003) | iTunes

KIERAN HEBDEN: My record company asked me if I wanted to get any remixes for my album Rounds. I instantly suggested Jay Dee, thinking it was deeply unlikely. Domino tracked down his manager, sent him the music and a few weeks later we heard back saying he was up for doing it (for a very reasonable fee). A couple of months passed and no remix showed up so we chased his manager. He came back saying that Jay Dee had been quite sick recently. Not knowing how serious his illness was, we decided to just wait and see what happened. Then one day I got a call from Domino saying a CD has turned up in the post and the remix is wild: it has Jay Dee singing on it and some guy called Guilty Simpson rapping. He had made the heaviest beat from the sounds and him and Guilty were rapping amazing lines all over it, stuff about saxophone reeds and Eddie Murphy's pants. The way he had made the title of my instrumental track into this huge vocal hook was just too good. "As Serious as Your Life" a reference to a book about '60s free jazz, so to hear Dilla sing about something that I associated with Coltrane and Ayler was especially deep for me.



J Dilla - "Nothing Like This"
Ruff Draft (Mummy/Groove Attack, 2003 / Stones Throw, 2007) | iTunes

JUST BLAZE: I bought Ruff Draft real late. I listened to it, but then I forgot about the album for a minute. Most of us don't sit around turntables anymore, and I didn't have it ripped to my iPod or on CD. One day I was on the net and found that someone had ripped it. I downloaded it, and when I was listening to it, I just skipped past that song like, "He ain't rapping ... Then it hit me. It was hypnotic. I didn't even know what he was talking about, but it didn't matter. At the end of the beat, he hit stop on his machine, but the sample played out. I set there for 20 minutes with that part on loop, trying to figure out what the sample was. He caught a pert of the record that was so non-descript. That was what was so crazy about him: he wouldn't use the obvious break. He might use the part right before or after the break. And the pert he used on that song, I couldn't figure it out. It drove me crazy for months. Finally I just gave up.



Steve Spacek - "Dollar"
Space Shift (Sound in Color, 2005) | iTunes

STEVE SPACEK: I was recording my solo project in Hollywood, just around the corner from where Dee and Common lived. We met up at his place, rolled a blunt end got straight down to it. It was quite surreal, actually. Myself, [manager] Mr French and Leon Were were rolling together that afternoon. I had met Jay briefly a few times before in London, but had never really hung out in a chilled environment. So I say to him, "Jay man, just bless me with something for my album." And he's like, "Yo, Spacek, I don't know if I have anything ready for you now," picking up the remote control for his DAT machine. So he's flicking through this tape, then he stops, pulls out the DAT and exchanges it for another and resumes flicking through. Not even a couple of minutes have passed when he lands on the Billy Paul thing, looks up at me and just lets it roll. As soon as I hear it, what with the "yeh-yeh-yeh" vocal going through, I knew that it was the one. We hung out for a little longer, smoked a bit more, then I heeded back to French's gaff to start writing. A few verses and a hook later, along with a couple of chops/edits on the two track, and "Dollar" was done. That afternoon was the last I saw of Jay.



The Pharcyde - "Runnin"
Labcabincalifomia (Delicious Vinyl, 1996) | iTunes

SLIM KID TRE: We were looking for Q-Tip to do some tracks for us. He couldn't do what needed to be done, but he said, "You can check my boy," end we were like, "Okay who is it?" He was like, "Jay Dee." We didn't even believe Jay Dee existed. Q-Tip's name is Jonathan Davis, we thought it was Q-Tip pretending that was his little spin-off name. Q-Tip brought a bunch of beats over, we heard "Runnin" and "Drop," it was some incredible shit. Jay Dee came to Los Angeles and he had his SP1200 and he would just flip these beats like nobody's business. This kid couldn't fuck up a beat. I gave him one of Vince Guiraldi's Snoopy loops like, "I always wanted to do something with this," end he flipped this song called "Splattitorium" end I was like, "Of course." Fat Lip and I fought physically over the way Jay Dee originally programmed "Runnin'." Fat Lip went in and reprogrammed every straight beat because Fat Up was all about having the beats a certain way. I fought for it to be the way that it was because I was a stickler about people's creative input - that's what we hired him for. If I didn't stop that and physically fight this guy for it, "Runnin'" would have been a different song all together on a spiritual level.



J Dilla - "Love" ft Pharoahe Monch
The Shining (BBE, 2006) | iTunes

PHAROAHE MONCH: His label reached out to me about being part of the Shining project. He was in the middle of his illness so we didn't meet in person, but we had met before in California. I usually do all my recording face to face - I'd been to Detroit a bunch of times to work with my men Denaun Porter, but never to work with Dilla. We did it all through exchanging files over the Internet. They sent over some beats end I chose that one. It was soulful end had the feel that let me rap and sing over it and take it in that direction. I don't think he gets enough credit for how much he effected the sound of neo-soul and R&B and music in general so much as he does for hip-hop.



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