I have been thinking recently about musicians of the decade, with features like the Ghostly 110 list, and countless best-of posts across music blogs, the conversation is definitely taking place. Many musicians, producers, and bands have made indelible marks on music history, but from what I’ve seen, few have captivated more creatives (ie. designers, other musicians, or musical explorers at large) than J Dilla. Myself included, I have delved deep into his catalog, and while listening to it, created my newest submission to Typcut, shown above. Sort of a movie poster or book cover I wish I would find somewhere.
Slum Village – The Look of Love – Fantastic Vol 1 & 2
This prolific producer rose to prominence from the Detroit underground with Slum Village in the mid- and late-nineties, and in the new century, he built a staggering catalog of productions both on a solo tip, and working with artists like Common, Madlib, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Black Thought and the Roots, and many, many more. His influence has found its way into the music of favorites of mine, like Flying Lotus, Prefuse 73, Dabrye, Trus’me, Bibio, Bullion, Paul White, Mike Slott, Shigeto, Charles Trees, and countless others.
Common – Love – Beat CD ’05 #1
However, Dilla’s gifted life was, as it is in so many cases of genius, not without challenge– he fought the rare blood disease TTP, a battle that consumed him just as he was starting to really catch on in 2006. Now, had this been just the story of some musician who was taken from the world too soon, it might have been a tragedy, but it would have passed in memory, and music would have continued to take its natural course. But that isn’t what happened with James Yancey…at all.
DJ Wally West ft. Avei – One for Jay Dee (Don’t Cry Pt. 2) – YouTube (link)
What makes J Dilla such a viable candidate for musician of the decade, in my mind, is just as much about his life as it is about his afterlife. While he was alive, this man worked relentlessly, slowly building up a solid accumen, and pioneering a unique production style, a mainstream-independent musical aesthetic, that exploded in posthumous popularity over the last few years. Musicians from across genres, from the obvious scenes like underground hip hop, to much less likely ones like deep house and tech house, even lo-fi and indie rock, have all paid homage to what Dilla was communicating.
J Dilla – Bye. – Donuts
Even more importantly, so many new musicians and producers have made their efforts to pick up the torch, or at least still-burning splinters of it, and said production style is beginning to proliferate, fashioning itself into a genre of it’s own. From mashups and remixes, to original productions, abstract hip hop is forming under the example Jay Dee has set, blurring hip hop, idm, dub music, and anything else that sounds funky. Busta Rhymes, who befriended and worked with Dilla for many years, had difficulty finding words to describe “the zone” Yancey would get into with his beats, other than to say it felt like, “it was always right, and it could never be wrong.”
My Melody (Feat. Mf Doom) (DJ Nu Mark & Porno My Melody) – J Dilla Blends
The reason Dilla belongs up on the top of the list is simple: no artist, alive or dead, has manifested the energy to contribute to music, and to the future of music, like he has. While so many others have built their careers based on scenes, or precedents set by others, or worst of all, on what the mainstream wants, he had something unique in his mind, and he set about sharing it with the world. And guess what? It was still blazin’ hot, it was still popular, it kept Jay paid. The myriad of material released since his passing has given form to the energy I’m referring to. It illustrates and defines the same type of energy that allowed Dilla to rock mics on stage from a wheelchair, battling lupus and an uncurable blood disease. He stared death in its empty eyes and prepared a musical haymaker that had a follow through to give form to Jay Dee’s spirit, allowing him to communicate with listeners even after his material form ceased to be.
Illa J – Alien Family (By Frank Nitty) – Yancey Boys
It’s been speculated by many of those who knew James Dewitt Yancey, that young Dilla was actually an alien in disguise. Wherever he is now, be it heaven, or outerspace, or wherever fans can feel the energy of his presence in music, he has reason to smile as wide and bright as he does above. If you feel me, please, leave some love in the comments. I also found this awesome tee shirt by Parra on Stones Throw, the label that re-released and helped popularize J Dilla, it says “Raise It Up For Ma Dukes,” and money from the shirts go to help Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey’s own personal battle with lupus, the same disease that claimed her son. While she, along with Dilla’s idol Pete Rock released J$P this summer, Dilla’s younger brother John also made waves with his debut release, Yancey Boys as Illa J.