Why J Dilla May Be Jazz’s Latest Great Innovator

Visionary hip-hop producer J Dilla never found mainstream success during his brief lifetime. But in the seven years since his death, Dilla — who would have turned 39 today — has come to represent a major inflection point on hip-hop’s evolutionary tree. At his peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he suggested syntheses that hadn’t seemed possible. He played fresh games with texture and tone. He recast the sample as a malleable component, rather than the monochromatic backbone it had seemed to be. And he injected a softened, swaggering humanity into the rigid slap of classic hip-hop drumbeats.

His magnum opus, Donuts, was reissued on vinyl last month, and the posthumous Music From the Lost Scrolls Vol. 1 came out on Tuesday — the first in a series of previously unreleased recordings. In Detroit on Saturday, the rapper Talib Kweli, violinist and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and a handful of other artists will perform at the second annual Dilla Day, a concert celebrating Dilla’s career.

Dilla’s reach stretches way beyond hip-hop: For one, he’s recently cast a long shadow over contemporary jazz. He never belonged to jazz’s inner circle, but since his death in 2006 from a rare blood disease, his legacy has helped pull the genre back into kissing contact with modern popular music.

“He’s so important,” says jazz drummer Karriem Riggins, who collaborated extensively with Dilla and is himself a hip-hop producer. “Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams and Miles [Davis]: He’s in the same category to me.”

The jazz world today finds itself swamped with young talent eager for reinvestment in the discourse of contemporary culture. The shift has roots that run in a lot of directions. It’s a reaction to the neo-traditional revivalism that capped the last century, and to jazz’s withered commercial infrastructure in the wake of the 1990s CD bubble. Add to that the simple fact that millennial jazz musicians grew up listening mostly to hip-hop, R&B and rock.

The crush of these influences on jazz was a matter of when, not if. But no movement takes hold without a hero, and J Dilla has filled that role. “Pretty much anybody else in hip-hop — from Jay-Z to Kanye [West] — you can tell a musician you don’t like them and it’ll be like, ‘Okay, cool,'” says Kenneth Whalum III, a jazz saxophonist who tours with the R&B singer Maxwell. “If you go into that same setting saying you don’t like Dilla, it’s not okay for you to be there anymore.” He’s kidding, but only by half.

A Human Encyclopedia

So what set Dilla apart? Why has his brand of virtuosity proved so captivating to the jazz crowd?

For one, Dilla was a sort of human musical encyclopedia. In his studio, he sorted thousands of vinyl records, many of them jazz, into specific sections and kept them alphabetized so that he could dig up the right sample as soon as inspiration arrived. He didn’t just rely on his collection, either. He was always ready to pick up a guitar or a bass, or saddle up behind the drum kit, or hammer out chords on the keyboard.

Dilla would happily wrangle split-second clips from albums just for the timbre of a single note, or the texture of vinyl, or the clack of a snare drum hit. “Every track he did, he had different drum sounds,” says Damion Reid, a jazz drummer who grew up listening to hip-hop in the 1990s. “Most producers around that time — like DJ Premier and Diamond D and guys like that — they kind of had a sound. When you heard a beat, you knew it was them because of the drums. [In Dilla’s music], I would hear that every sample, every drum, every nuance, every atmospheric sound was strategically placed. Jay Dee embodied, to me, the culmination of all those things.”

Then there was Dilla’s approach to crafting the rhythms of those drumbeats. Many beatmakers use a method known as quantizing, which lets you perfectly subdivide electric drum-machine sounds into positions within a measure. From there, the pattern can repeat indefinitely as a loop. Dilla preferred to play beats on a drum machine by hand in real time. That allowed him to color his creations with a signature rhythmic sway: languorous, leaned back, landing just behind the beat. In some ways, it was a new paradigm for the swing rhythm that had been born in West Africa and grew up with jazz.

“He was one of the first cats that kind of broke down the rigidity and the rules and the boundaries of hip-hop,” says DJ HouseShoes, a Detroit producer who worked with Dilla starting in the 1990s. “Hip-hop had a stiff, structured code to it, and that definitely got loosened up after his reign.” Dilla’s sample choices and drum textures might’ve been so protean as to be hard to identify, but his proudly laggard strut shines atop his tracks like a personal seal.

The Rise Of A Giant

James Dewitt Yancey was born Feb. 7, 1974, and grew up as the oldest of four children in a household on the east side of Detroit. Both his parents were musicians, and he showed natural prowess early. In high school, he started making hip-hop beats and rapping alongside two classmates, with whom he would go on to form the trio Slum Village. By the mid-1990s, word was traveling about his production chops, and he was collaborating with artists in New York and Los Angeles: The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes.

In 2000, Slum Village released its breakthrough album, Fantastic, Vol. 2. But the year was more notable for the release of two other CDs, both by singers, that Dilla had helped produce: Mama’s Gun by Erykah Badu and Voodoo by D’Angelo. Marked by the unhurried, swirling fantasias that were becoming Dilla’s stock in trade, these records helped confirm the arrival of a new subgenre. It was vamp-driven, insouciantly seductive, happily lodged between the live sock of classic Motown and the tinkering studio savvy of hip-hop. The music was called neo-soul.

Later in the decade, Dilla would release a string of solo albums that stretched his hazy canvases to their fullest breadth — soul vocals and jazz harmony and rattling funk beats sprawled out together in a warm bath. These records, including the classics Welcome 2 Detroit (2001) and Donuts (2006), didn’t grab the spotlight, but they laid themselves out for posterity, and upped the ante for all vigilant producers.

“His music had that soulful jazz thing, but it also had a bounce to it,” says the rapper Common, a collaborator and close friend. “Somebody could dance to it. I think those records had a huge impact on the way producers thought about music.”

Gateway To ‘A Spiritual Space’

Just as he helped solidify neo-soul more than a decade ago, Dilla seems to be freeing jazz-trained musicians today to reconsider how their music might sound, and what defines it. Listening to the generation that’s come under his influence, you realize that some of jazz’s supposed fundamentals interest them deeply. Others, not so much.

The combustion of group interplay, and improvisation that can seem to tug on the boundaries of a band or a song: These things remain exciting. But long, exhaustion-seeking solos pointed at some final emotional summit? Swing rhythm that clangs contentedly on the ride cymbal? Not necessarily.

“At home, I have my Rhodes and drum set set up,” jazz pianist Robert Glasper says. When his bandmates come over, “we’ll play a Dilla beat for literally an hour, because it feels so good, and that’s all that matters to me. I think that’s harder [than playing chord changes]. It takes discipline. He’s the producer that makes you change the way you play. … When you just play the beat for what it is, the repetition definitely gets you into a spiritual space.”

“I’d rather repeat something for 30 minutes than solo for 30 minutes,” Glasper adds. “A lot of jazz musicians don’t have that mentality, [but] my band loves to just make beats.”

In Glasper’s work with his electric band, the Experiment, you can hear this concerted drilling-down, especially on the 2009 album Double Booked. Chris “Daddy” Dave’s drums land after the beat with an almost metallic clatter; most of the time, he ignores the ride cymbal. As accompanist, Glasper might hammer a single note on repeat for an entire minute — as if he himself were quantized — or hunker down to work subtle adjustments on a compact chord progression. He has a way of playing chords in swiftly splashing arpeggios so that most of the notes hit barely behind the beat, and the harmonies emerge in a wash of prettiness. It’s not unlike the effect Dilla’s splices could have on an Isley Brothers sample.

The Legacy Of A Phantom

You can also feel Dilla’s impact in the work of ERIMAJ, a band led by drummer and producer Jamire Williams. The influence reaches beyond the laid-back, clunking physique of Williams’ drum attack. It’s also in his ideal of a pastiche: strings and Rhodes and acoustic bass, and an electric guitar that might have been chopped from a Radiohead track. The band’s first album, Conflict of a Man, even includes a cover of Dilla’s “Nothing Like This.”

Saxophonist Greg Osby was on the front lines of attempting to fuse jazz with hip-hop in the early 1990s, when the idea was still green enough for incredulity and ridicule. Today, jazz musicians don’t seek a conscientious merger of genres so much as they use jazz concepts to reassemble the parts that have made hip-hop, R&B and neo-soul so contagious. Jazz training is starting to look like a competitive advantage more than a career roadmap.

“Jazz was born of a hybrid of folk musics,” Osby says. “And for a long time, jazz has gotten away from that. It became so left-brain and strident, its purposefulness has been obscured. Hip-hop, with its loops and its emphasis on the low end, gives a healthy nod to the black mystique and the black struggle in the United States. A lot of intelligent jazz musicians have recognized that as something that they need to reinstate and reintegrate into the output, because it’s been lost.”

In J Dilla — the musical archivist, the sonic poet, the bass knocker — Osby sees someone who has helped young jazz musicians square their belief in instrumental expressionism with their love for the modern blues music that is hip-hop.

“Dilla, he recognized this,” Osby says. “He’s kind of like a folk musician, almost like a pied piper, and he’s drawing in a lot of people with his assessment of a wider variety of material. Dilla will be like one of those Coltrane figures, where people will be talking about him in a legendary or phantom-like status forever. He was that experimental.”

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