Home > Music Revolution > It’s a Celebration! J Dilla: 5 Years Later – The Hits

It’s a Celebration! J Dilla: 5 Years Later – The Hits

J Dilla Week, Day 1

The Late J-Dilla is one of the most celebrated producers in Hip Hop history, revolutionizing the art of sampling.

Good morn’ or evening, friends.  TheWell-Dressed Headphone Addict is proud to welcome you to J Dilla Week.  Today, February 7th, marks what would have been the 37th birthday of Jay Dee, born James Dewitt Yancey in Detriot, Michigan.  In addition, Thurdsay, February10th marks the five year anniversary of death, caused by Moschcowitz syndrome.  Thanks to the prodigious upbringing from his opera singing mother and bassist father, and his own personal drive to study and create, Jay Dee became responsible for creating some of the most innovative music the Hip Hop and R&B music community has ever seen.  From Monday to Friday, daily posts shall be dedicated to his work.  Each day will focus on a different theme of his music:

February 7th: The Hits
February 8th: The Rare
February 9th: The Remixes
February 10th: Solo Beats
February 11th: A.D. (After Dilla)


Since birth, Dilla had a formidable ear when it came to hearing music.  More than any other producer in Hip Hop in the early 1990’s, he understood the importance of meticulous subtlety, and put elements of old records into new perspectives that where completely unprecendented at the time.  Already an accomplished musician as a teenager- played piano, guitar, bass, drums and cello! – Dilla taught himself to use MPC and SP1200 mixers and samplers to make beats that would allow him to create songs that expanded the boundaries of the sonic qualities of Hip Hop and R&B music of the 21st century.  Infamous for his cassette tapes loaded with dozens of beats, some of those beats have become standards in Black music, seeming to be light years ahead of its time, yet finding a way to stay true to the time tested traditions of his predecessors, such as Marley Marl, Pete Rock and DJ Premier.

“Running Away” – The Pharcyde, 1995
In the mid-1990’s, Dilla had been gaining a load of respect from the underground Hip Hop circles.  His first big breakout credit came on The Pharcydes’ “Running Away,” the soulful, standout single from their album, Labcabincalifornia, expressing each members personal bouts with standing up for themselves and refusal to avoiding courage.

“Stakes Is High” – De La Soul, 1996
After three albums of bright sounding rap with positive messages, Long Island’s De La Soul dropped Stakes Is High, their darkest album to date, focusing on the devolving state of Hip Hop as the crossover reared it’s ugly head.  Dilla produced its title track, using the brooding Ahmad Jamal composition “Swahilililand” and obscure James Brown album track “Mind Power” to complement the ominous lyrics of the song.

“Find A Way” – A Tribe Called Quest, 1998
After being blown away by a cassette tape of his beats, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, two thirds of legendary trio A Tribe Called Quest, enlisted Dilla to form the production team, The Ummah (Arabic for “brotherhood).  Together, The Ummah helmed the production of Tribe’s final two albums, Beats Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement.  Perhaps the most popular song of those two CDs was “Find A Way,” which cleverly utilized a japanese language club song “Technova” – from Dee-Lite DJ Towa Tei – for it’s famous hook: “You caught my heart for the evening/Kissed my check, moved in, you confused things/Should I just sit out or come harder?/Help me find my way.”

“Breathe & Stop” – Q-Tip, 1999
One year following the retirement of A Tribe Called Quest (as far as recording albums), Q-Tip the Abstract launched a much anticipated solo career with the release of Amplified.  While Q-Tip handled the production of lead single, “Vibrant Thing,” himself, Jay Dee co-produced the remainder of the album with him, including the anthemic dance track, “Breathe & Stop.”

“The Light” – Common, 2000
The Ummah would expand from a three-headed production team into a large, rotating collective of musicians and producers known as The Soulquarians.  Including mainstays like Roots drummer Questlove, keyboardist James Poyser and singer/songwriter D’Angelo, Dilla and company handled the bulk of production of Common’s major label debut, Like Water For Chocolate.  On a CD full of soulful samples mixed with live instruments, its highlight was “The Light,” Jay Dee’s heartfelt conversion of a Bobby Caldwell composition, “Open Your Eyes.”

“Didn’t Cha Know” – Erykah Badu, 2000
Known mainly for being a hip hop producer, J Dilla made a significant impact on contemporary R&B music as well.  Perhaps his most recognizable contribution is to Erykah Badu’s sophomore album Mama’s Gun, which he produced three tracks with the Soulquarians, including the second single, “Didn’t Cha Know.”   During their first meeting, Dilla asked Badu to pick from his endless stack of vinyls.  She picked 1970s pop/soul band’s Tarika Blue’s self-titled LP .  Dilla used her favorite track, “Dreamflower” to craft “Didn’t Cha Know” within mere hours.  The infectious bass line and hypnotic drum programming made it a Badu classic, becoming nominated for Best R&B Song at the 2000 Grammy Awards. 

Tomorrow: The Rare – Early beats and album tracks from artists like Slum Village, The Roots and Busta Rhymes.

Thank you for reading, and always remember: Black Americans may only be one tenth of America’s population, but that tenth is talented.

Categories: Music Revolution
  1. Joe Green
    February 9, 2011 at 1:38 am

    Thanks for writing this insightful article and having links to the videos also. J-Dilla was definitely a genius. Love the tribute The Roots did for him on the Game Theory CD.

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