J Dilla, The Maestro of Beats, Remembered by Hip-Hop Peers
It has been five years since hip-hop production virtuoso James “J Dilla/Jay Dee” Yancey passed away from complications of lupus. In a too short career, the Detroit native amassed a substantial production discography with his group Slum Village, as a solo MC and via his collaborations with the likes of Q-Tip, Questlove and Erykah Badu. While Dilla may be gone, his music is still here and continues to resonate with fans, old and new. The BoomBox asked some of his peers — Q-Tip, Black Milk, Peanut Butter Wolf and Ta’Raach — how they were personally touched by the late, great Maestro of Beats.
Peanut Butter Wolf (DJ, Producer & Founder of Stones Throw Records)
“I met [Dilla] through DJ House Shoes originally. House Shoes talked to me about him all the time, since 1994. I didn’t even like Dilla’s early stuff (for Busta Rhymes, Pharcyde, etc.) and thought he was overrated, until I heard the Slum Village stuff. When Madlib and I started working with him, he was on a whole other level — the ‘Welcome to Detroit’ record and stuff like that.
“Dilla told me ‘I’m gonna take you all on a ride,’ and he did. He always complimented and encouraged Madlib and Stones Throw as well. He’d show (his then-roommate) Common music we put out and big us up to people like that. The other thing I enjoyed is that he kept his word. He wouldn’t commit to something unless he was sure he’d do it. He never let me down. When I saw him on stage in a wheelchair, that flipped me out cuz he always kept his sickness private, but that day, he put all that aside and did the shows. He jokingly told me afterward, ‘I aint never doing no s— like that Wolf,’ but the point is, he kept his word to people.
“When he was alive, he was already a legend, so when we lost him in his prime, the whole world should have taken note like they did for Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley or Biggie or Pac when they each died young, but it didn’t really happen to that extent. Dilla didn’t seem to really be into fanfare anyway.”
Ta’Raach (MC & Producer)
“I met Jay at a time when we were both working out of a studio just outside of Detroit on 8 Mile. It was called RJ Rice Studios back then, but now its Barak Records. I had become the go-to ‘Hip-Hop Producer’ over there since Jay was more in and out working with The Ummah. There are a lot of beat makers out here, a lot. What initially stood out for me about Jay’s music was his song arrangement. I am of the belief a disciplined craftsman is a master servant indeed. His mastery of arrangement and sampling allowed for the song structures to veer of from their norm and the listener not know. You’re just caught in the innovation of it. Maybe that’s my Aquarius nature as well, but that’s what I enjoyed most about working with him, the unfamiliar directions in music he made extra familiar.
“Dilla wasn’t famous but he is Infamous. Plenty of critics, fans, producers, and songwriters were touched by his music and the legacy continues. I would advise to stay tuned.”
Black Milk (MC & Producer)
“I met [Dilla] through working with Slum Village, and was able to collab with him on a few different songs on my ‘Dirty District Vol. 2′ album for B.R. Gunna and on ‘Reunion‘ for Slum’s ‘Detroit Deli’ album. We actually weren’t in the studio at the same time for any of those recordings, but it was an honor to meet him the handful of times that we crossed paths in the studio. He’s my biggest influence, so to have done any work with him was definitely an honor.
“[He inspired me] the same way he inspired all of his fans and fellow musicians. His music was so incredible. He made me want to produce my own music so I could make people feel the way his music did for me. I definitely feel like since he passed away, he’s gained even more fans than he had when he was here, which is obviously a little bittersweet. It’s great to hear that people are still learning about and enjoying and supporting his music just as much now as they were at the beginning of his career. His work is timeless.”
Q-Tip (MC & Producer, A Tribe Called Quest)
“Amp Fiddler introduced me to [Dilla] in ’93. I believe it was on the Lollapalooza tour in Detroit. It was pretty instant. He gave me his demo for Slum [Village] and I heard the music and it was dope and right from then on I knew … and Amp was always saying this dude is right in your vein and doing his own stuff. It was true and it was just evident.
“His work ethic [inspired me]. He always stayed busy and stayed creative and working on his craft, trying to innovate it and bring it to higher heights. I think we just had the same philosophy musically and he had a different twist on it. So I really appreciated that. He took something we may have done and took it further, and he did what he was supposed to do. You should take it and extend it and go further with it, which is what he did triumphantly.”