As we’re continuing to celebrate the life of J Dilla throughout the week of his birthday and sixth anniversary of his passing, I can’t help but double take at the phrase “J Dilla Changed My Life” written across shirts and posters, the “greatest producer there ever was” headlines and “hip-hop will never be the same” comments that are making their yearly bloom across media in everything from the New Times Broward-Palm Beach to Okayplayer. There’s something that never seems fitting enough in those words “greatest,” “genius” or “hero,” something too human that can’t possibly live up to the idea that is trying to be conveyed. They’re too simply said.
If you’re truly going to define James Dewitt “J Dilla” Yancey, you won’t find your solution flipping through the thesaurus or reading his biography. Dilla’s craft was something more than the moment it was in, a perpetual invention that was always pioneering from the then while mining from what most of us missed in the past. Even now Dilla’s sounds can, at times, lack definition, being familiar, but different enough with that slightest touch that makes them one step ahead. Three years before his death in 2006, Dilla said that he still considered himself underground in the now famous interview with Y’skid in the Netherlands, though with the growing popularity of celebrating his life, you’d think he’d hung the moon, and always had been seen as such.
The skeleton key to begin understanding Jay Dee is the word “reinvention,” because it wasn’t only his music, but himself that he was constantly remodeling, inspired by both his former philosophies and the new ideas. His music is simply the window into the procedure. In the documentary J Dilla: Still Shining, Questlove lays out Dilla’s evolution:
“He went through his East Indian movement with just doing East Indian beats, his Kraftwerk period where he was just making, you know, electronic beats. He went through his big drum phase. He went through his club phase. He went through his spare, you know, one note beat making phase. He went through his street hip-hop phase. He went all over the place, and he showed range.”
There are signifiers of this constant advancement throughout his discography, and these watermarks are what tell his story. The tools remained the same, but each Dilla was different, each had a different vision, and through the diversity of his endeavor, the lasting perfection was his ability to bring all separate elements to a single juncture that still remains to be enjoyed, digested, contemplated and analyzed on an international count. The spectrum of personalities in everything from Welcome 2 Detroit to Donuts is a versatility of mind, each track a new language hinting at the continual alterations of thought and vision in the unfinished Iliad that he still writes in death.
If there ever was an artist that wasn’t gifted an embellished glorification after his death, it was Dilla, as his value only becomes more appreciated not through tangible remembrances, but what we continue to hear as the vaults are opened and new beat tapes are discovered. Every new listener he gains is earned. The true “J Dilla” remains timeless, immune to the all of the things that stole James Dewitt Yancey from us. It’s almost as if he’s still somewhere, maybe in his basement studio, still hitting the MPC, flipping through records for that one sample that, even unnoticed by the usual ear, could change the full being of an instrumental. The fact is that we continue to hear new beats that match or best their predecessors, that emcees are still taking his sounds to craft some of their finest records, and that every new surprise holds something where we awe maybe just a note differently than we did before. You may be able to break down Dilla’s music in terminology, but adjectives can never express the feeling, because it’s synesthetic. It’s something too personal, where melodrama is welcome because it’s truth. No one listens to J Dilla the way you do, and you’ll never listen to J Dilla like anyone else.
“When I make my music, I want people to feel what I feel, I want them to feel that energy. That’s all it is, because I make it straight from the heart. To be taken for anything else is crazy to me.” – From Dilla’s interview with Y’skid.
J Dilla didn’t change your life–the music he created did.