Behind The Boards Producer Profile: J Dilla

Patrick Lyons

by Patrick Lyons

Published March 26, 2014


Today marked the release of De La Soul's Smell The Da.I.S.Y. mixtape, effectively a collection of mashups between classic De La songs and beats by J Dilla. Released as a tribute to the late producer, who died in 2006 from a rare blood disease, it joins the ranks of the long list of musical tributes to the man born James Yancey. The fact that so many hip hop greats have chosen to honor him in the years following his untimely death should alert you to his importance to the genre, as should the heaps of praise he still receives from them. Questlove, a close friend of Dilla's, was quoted in an MTV obituary for the producer saying, "If you were to secretly ask the most praised hip-hop producers, if given a top three, who they fear the most, Dilla’s name would chart on everyone’s list, hands down." Given that Questlove has taught entire college courses on album production, we'll take his word for it. Discover (or brush up on) Dilla's legacy as one of hip hop's most influential producers of all time in this latest edition of Behind The Boards.

Jay Dee Goes from Conant Gardens to Slum Village

Born to a former opera singer and a jazz bassist who lived in the Conant Gardens section of Detroit, Yancey was surrounded by music at a young age, and became interested in it almost immediately. "Dilla's interest in music started at age 2," his mother said in an obituary published by NPR, "he carried 45s on his arm and turntables to the park every day, to spin records — and this was in downtown Detroit." Moving from his Fisher-Price turntable onto a tapedeck, Yancey continued honing his craft as a DJ in his childhood and teenage years. A breakthrough would come at age 18 when he met Amp Fiddler, a Detroit musician who was once a member of Parliament and Funkadelic, who let him try out an MPC at his "Camp Amp" studio after being impressed by his work on such a basic setup. As was the case with all of his prior equipment, Yancey mastered the beatmaking tool easily, and was ready to give hip hop production a serious shot.

Meeting Detroit rappers through Fiddler, as well as at rap battles at Detroit's Rhythm Kitchen, Yancey quickly got production gigs for local artists. His first production credit came on a 1994 track called "Now" by the group Da' Enna C, who have since faded into obscurity (to the point where three of the five top Google search results for the group's name pertain to the one song they did with Dilla). Listen to it below.

Now producing under the name Jay Dee, Yancey showed that he was more than capable of crafting passable jazz-hop beats in the style of A Tribe Called Quest. The instrumental of "Now" is nothing more than a funky four bar drum loop and a muted sample of a keyboard / electric bass combo, but it snaps and bounces with the best of the early '90s beats it drew influence from. Looking to be more than a hired hand, Jay Dee formed the group 1st Down with MC Phat Cat in 1995, and the duo were quickly signed to Payday Records. Unfortunately, due to troubles at the label, 1st Down only ever released one single: "A Day Wit The Homiez." Hear that track, featuring Phat Cat on the mic and Jay Dee on the beat, below.

Much more immediate and earworming than "Now," "A Day Wit The Homiez" features jazzy samples from Bob James' sampled-to-death "Take Me to the Mardi Gras," and Joe Sample's "In All My Wildest Dreams." Even at a young age, Dee was creative enough to avoid sampling the most recognizable part of James' song (the beat that formed the backbone of Run-DMC's "Peter Piper"), and instead crafted a more unique, laid back track. Soon after 1st Down were dropped from Payday in 1995, Jay Dee had caught the ear of California foursome The Pharcyde, who were looking to follow up their successful debut, Bizarre Ride II, with another album. The resulting LP, Labcabincalifornia, featured six tracks produced by Jay Dee, including both the album's hit singles. Listen to one of them, "Runnin'," below.

This time, Dee took his jazz obsession south of the equator, sampling the hypnotic guitar line from Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfá's "Saudade Vem Correndo." This approach meshed well with The Pharcyde's chill West Coast vibe, and saw Dee expanding his comfort zone a bit. It was Dee's first collaboration outside of Detroit, but in 1996 he would go to work with many artists outside his hometown sphere (mostly from NYC). Another development in his life at this time was Slum Village, a group he formed with old high school pals T3 and Baatin. Though the group's debut album would not be officially released until 2005, the demo tape that ended up comprising most of that release was circulating as early as 1997, and a copy happened to end up in Questlove's hands. In the liner notes of Fantastic, Vol. 1's reissue, he wrote:

"The ‘tape of all tapes’ NEVER left my side. I loved this tape so much I copped a high end walkman for it... I loved this tape so much I did my first ‘stage walkoff faking a piss break’ during Hub’s bass solo just to sneak a peak at a song or two. I loved this tape so much I swear I was gonna break the Roots up when I discovered Black Thought took my tape without my permission."

Below, listen to "The Look of Love," a romantic highlight from that tape (note: although the Spotify player says this is a remix, it's the original).

The Age of Soulquarians

After forming a production team called The Ummah with A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, Jay Dee became an in-demand producer in the industry. The trio worked on Tribe's 1996 album Beats, Rhymes and Life, Busta Rhymes' The Coming and De La Soul's Stakes Is High, but their would-be biggest production was never credited to them. In a 2003 interview, Dilla explained how The Ummah produced Janet Jackson's Grammy-winning single "Got 'til it's Gone," but were never credited (except for Q-Tip, who rapped on the track):

"This is what happened, this is coming from me. Me, Tip and Ali all collaborated on the track. I’m not going to say any names, but we all collaborated on this track, made it happen... When it came out, it said produced by someone else. Check those credits, you won’t see a Jay Dee, or a Q-Tip or anyone else."

Those names he declined to mention were superproducers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who showed up on the credits and accepted the Grammy. Below, listen to the Joni Mitchell-sampling "Got 'til it's Gone" and compare it to Jay Dee's other work. We think you'll hear some similarities.

Shortly after this, Jay Dee hooked up with Questlove for the first time and with him, D'Angelo and James Poyser, formed a collective known as The Soulquarians. They based their style on the soul and funk music of the '60s and '70s, and ran against the prevailing grain of the day, often using live instrumentation and socially conscious lyrics. With a rotating cast of members that went on to include Mos Def, Common Erykah Badu and Q-Tip, The Soulquarians became an influential force in underground and alternative hip hop, and released some great albums to boot. The first of these was The Roots' Platinum-certified 1999 album Things Fall Apart, on which Jay Dee produced one track. Listen to the mellow "Dynamite!" below.

More Soulquarians albums bearing Jay Dee's fingerprints, including Slum Village's major label debut and D'Angelo's Voodoo, came in the following years, and saw Jay Dee take a bigger role in the group. In 2000, he produced the majority of Common's breakout album, Like Water for Chocolate. One of the tracks on the album, "The Light," was named by Complex as Dilla's best beat in their 2012 list of the "50 Best Dilla Songs." Stream it below.

This time leaning more heavily on R&B than jazz, Jay Dee found a great vocal sample in Bobby Caldwell's "Open your Eyes" that served as the song's hook. "The Light" was a bit more straightforward of a production for Jay Dee, with a heavily quantized drum beat that's atypical of his usual style, but it was a hit nonetheless. Dee used similar tactics on Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun, on which he produced four songs, and seemed to be headed towards an intersection with the mainstream, so naturally he had to branch out with a solo career. He first used the J Dilla moniker on Welcome 2 Detroit, his debut solo LP, and rapped and sang on most of the album's tracks. Below, listen to "Pause," the album's lead single that saw Dilla letting his weirder side take the reigns.

With an eerie, distant sample fueling the song, "Pause" was decidedly un-Soulquarian in its semi-abrasive quality and Dilla's lyrics about fat asses. Though Welcome 2 Detroit wasn't as big of a commercial success as the albums by The Roots, Common and Erykah Badu that Dilla had contributed to, it saw him forming more of a distinctive style, seperate from the Native Tongues-inspired jazz-hop approach he used earlier in his career. In 2003, he met up with another left-of-center weirdo, Madlib, to record the album Champion Sound under the joint name Jaylib, which you can read more about in Madlib's own Behind The Boards article.

Dilla's Last Days

2003 saw Dilla's health sharply decline, losing a ton of weight and requiring a wheelchair to perform live. Despite this, he continued to produce a steady stream of music, putting out his second solo release, the Ruff Draft EP, in February 2003. Watch a video that Stone's Throw Records made for the song "Nothing Like This" from that album after Dilla's death in 2006, below.

Along with the rest of the EP, "Nothing Like This" saw a more experimental side of Dilla emerging, as he played with different genres of music and used psychedelic effects on his vocals and beats. 2004 saw him contribute beats to albums by De La Soul, eLZhi, Oh No and even Slum Village, whose ranks he had left in 2002. After the release of Ruff Draft, he turned most of his focus towards his next two solo albums, the instrumental Donuts and the guest-heavy The Shining.

Both of these albums came out in 2006, but Dilla only lived to see the release of Donuts, which hit shelves just three days before his death. With 29 of its 31 songs recorded in the hospital, it became Dilla's greatest critical success, appearing on some year-end lists and even more decade-end ones. Donuts made waves with its glitchy, hyperactive approach to sampling, with short songs and off-kilter composition. Picking one highlight is nearly impossible, and would distract from the flow of the insanely cohesive album, so you can hear all of it below.

Posthumous Productions

The Shining was released in August 2006, and though it wasn't received as well as Donuts, its vocal-heavy approach offered a nice counterpoint to the instrumental album. It mostly included contributions from past Dilla collaborators like Busta Rhymes, D'Angelo and The Roots' Black Thought, and even though the bulk of it was recorded when Dilla was alive, it feels like a eulogy by some of his closest friends. Especially evident on the bittersweet "So Far to Go," Dilla's shadow hung over the otherwise-jubilant album.

Dilla production credits still popped up on hip hop albums in the years following his death, some authorized and others made using leftover instrumentals from his collection. Artists like Ghostface Killah, Q-Tip and MF DOOM all used one or two Dilla beats on their albums released in 2007-09, and the compilation Jay Stay Paid, a collection of his unfinished work, was released in 2009. Most of these felt rather flat, as if Dilla wasn't able to squeeze all of his creativity into definitive final copies of the songs, and some of the best posthumous Dilla songs were actually tributes.

To take us out, stream jazz trio BADBADNOTGOOD's gorgeous instrumental cover of Slum Village's "Fall In Love," which alters the track to degree that would probably make Dilla, ever the restless innovator, proud.

Be sure to check out more from our “Behind The Boards” series right here on Zumic.

A Tribe Called Quest Common D'Angelo Janet Jackson Madlib Q-Tip Questlove Slum Village The Pharcyde The Roots
East Coast Rap Hip Hop Jazz Mid-West Rap Underground Hip Hop West Coast Rap
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