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The J Dilla Story

A visionary, a pioneer, and perhaps, one of the most underrated persons in the world of music in his lifetime, the revolutionary hip-hop producer J Dilla never found mainstream success in his short life (Russonello,G,2013). His career peaked during the late 1990s and the early 2000s, but his career came to an abrupt end as he passed away in 2006 due to a rare blood disease.

While those who know about J Dilla mostly know him as a hip-hop producer, the musical genius also cast a long shadow over the world of contemporary jazz. Arguably, J Dilla helped bring the genre of jazz back into popularity that modern music enjoys today.

James Yancey, aka, J Dilla, aka Jay Dee, was a beatmaker and rapper from Conant Gardens in Detroit. He was the founder of the iconic Slum Village trio (Beaubien, 2019), and he went on to produce several tracks for various mainstream artists such as De La Soul, Erykah Badu, The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, Madlib, and Common.

Jay Dee played a crucial role in the world of music. One of his most iconic involvements in the world of music was that he developed a new style of beat making and drum programming that would influence countless hip-hop producers, jazz musicians, and even contribute to the development of Neo-Soul with his works with the likes of D'Angelo and Erykah Badu. His daring approach to do what nobody else would lead to the creation of something new for music producers at the time.

One of the things that set Jay Dee apart from the rest was that he came to be known as a sort of musical encyclopedia (Russonello,G,2013). He sorted out his vast collection of thousands of vinyl records in his studio in alphabetical order so he could pick out the perfect sample as soon as inspiration struck him. J Dilla did not rely solely on his collection of music. He would be willing and eager to pick up a guitar, a bass, or set up his drum kit, and even hammer out some chords on the keyboard. And then there is the MPC3000.

This vintage sequencer-sampler was something else when it was in the control of J Dilla. If you were to compare J Dilla’s relationship with his MPC3000, it would be comparable to the relation we know Jimi Hendrix had with his guitar. Dilla used the MPC3000 on a vast majority of his beats, with some of the key examples being the production of music for Slum Village, The Roots, Common, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, and Janet Jackson.

His mastery over the MPC helped him defy the traditional 16th note grid when he was programming drums. How he used it gave him the freedom he wanted to abandon quantization so that he could use those bouncing grooves. The work he created with the MPC3000 initially had an intimidating sound. However, these drunken beats would eventually go on to influence several mainstream artists down the line from the likes of Pharrell Williams to Kanye West. Flying Lotus and Kaytranada also credit J Dilla’s programming expertise as a significant influence on their styles of music.

J Dilla’s MPC3000 now lives in the Smithsonian Institute where they display it as an artifact in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, alongside his Moog synthesizer. The inclusion of his instruments in the museum clearly shows his influence on the world of hip-hop and the overall music industry.

J Dilla dared to play with fresh games using texture and tone (Russonello,G,2013). Perhaps the only hip-hop producer to have studied the cello as a child, his classical music-based training could have influenced his approach to making musical brilliance. He would gladly wrangle fractions of clips from albums just so he could get that perfect timbre from a single note, or the clack of a snare drum hit, or even the texture of the vinyl. Around the time he was producing music, most producers had distinctive sounds due to the samples of the beats they used similar to their other music. For J Dilla, each track he worked on had to have a different sound.

Where many beatmakers would use quantizing, a method that allows them to perfectly divide the electric drum sounds into positions within a matter to create indefinite loops, J Dilla preferred to play the beats on a drum machine by hand in real-time. It created for a more leaned back sound that seemed to land just behind the beat. Besides turning off the beat-correction on the drum machine, he would intentionally play the patterns "off," which we now know as "Drunk Funk." He was the one who broke the rigid structures of how hip-hop music was being produced at the time. The normal hip-hop loop would be a strict four-bar pattern. Dilla would love sevens and elevens as well but within phrases of five (Fitzpatrick, 2011). He would have different parts of the beat looped in threes, fives, and sevens. A lot of the intricacies about his music were things people usually were not meant to notice but enjoy subconsciously consciously.

Drummers now play the drunk funk style to mimic Dilla’s sound. Keyboardists play chord progressions in a choppy manner to emulate how Dilla would sample chords. Dilla’s influence even shows in the fresh sound of Lo-Fi Hip-Hop music that is becoming increasingly popular nowadays.

While he was known for his involvement in hip-hop music, his influence on jazz, and the development of Neo-Soul as a genre, limiting this musical genius to a single genre might be considered unfair.

In his magnum opus, the album he released close to his passing, Donuts, Dilla left us with various music from prog rock, to the sweet soul, and even early electronic - you name it, and it was there in the brilliant 31-track instrumental journey.

Fourteen years after his passing, J Dilla's music still has a freshness to it. He will not simply be remembered as one of the crucial musical figures in Detroit hip-hop music. Dilla can arguably be credited for being among the most influential figures for modern music as we know it today.


Beaubien, S., 2019.Sam's Jams: How J Dilla, Detroit Hip-Hop Pioneer, Changed Modern Music.

Russonello,G,2013.NPR Choice Page. [online]

Fitzpatrick, R., 2011.J Dilla: The Mozart Of Hip-Hop. [online] the Guardian.

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