Tuesday, May 26, 2015

J Dilla

June 16th 2009, The Guardian

by Simon Reynolds

Record stores are dying in my neighbourhood, the East Village of New York. The only ones that are hanging in there, even prospering, belong to a particular type:  boutiques that offer a tidied-up version of the crate-digging experience, without the dust and the graft, the knees-bent flicking through musty cardboard boxes in roach-infested basements.  Smart-looking and well-organised, these stores have nice-looking racks made of unvarnished wood, while their wares--funk and soul, bebop and fusion, soundtracks and library music--tend to be selective and pricey.  As well as selling source vinyl for the  breaks and samples prized by deejays and producers, these stores also stock vintage rap 12 inches and current underground hip hop (always on vinyl, of course). Up by the counter, they'll have copies of Wax Poetics on sale.

Several years ago I was in one of these local shops, just about to clap headphones on my head and sift through an armful of vinyl, when some wondrous music streamed out of the store's sound system. All rippling ribbons of synth and quiet storm diva murmuring and gasps, it was the most swooningly cosmic thing I'd heard in a small eternity. As I headed down the aisle to the back of the store where the deejay lurked, the thought popped into my head: "p'raps this is Dilla?" 

I don't know why, really, since I only had a vague idea of who he was, having read about his recent death and gleaned that he was this big deal cult producer.  J Dilla, a/k/a Jaydee, a/k/a James Dewitt Yancey, is someone I had "slept on" (to use the American expression).   To be honest, I avoid that whole backpacker rap/Premier-is-God/Wax Poetics area.  (In fact I only go to these crate-digger boutiques because they sometimes have Sixties and Seventies rock and weird avant-garde stuff). I'm one of those who believe that the sector that kept rap vital these last dozen years wasn't the underground but that cusp zone between "the streets" and commercial mainstream: Cash Money, Ruff Ryders, Ludacris, Lil Jon. Mostly Dirty South, in other words: hip hop that isn't encumbered by crippling reverence towards its old skool past. 

Still, sometimes as a critic you just absorb a sense of the musical landscape through osmosis and sure enough when I asked the deejay what record he was playing, he reluctantly (the attitude, typical for this kind of store, seemed to be "if you need to ask, you're not someone who needs to know") showed me the instrumentals version of Dilla's posthumous album The Shining.

In the next week I got hold of as much Dilla as I could:  stuff he'd done with his group Slum Village and in collaboration with Madlib, solo records like Donuts, Ruff Draft, Welcome To Detroit, and, naturally The Shining (where I discovered that the track that blew my mind in the store was called "Won't Do"). 

As a body of work, though, it seemed… variable. For every "Won't Do" or similar gem like the halcyon summer-soul-breeze "So Far To Go"  (also on The Shining) there'd be a bunch of backpacker-friendly beats with a languid MC rapping on top.  Still cultists love fragmentary, scattered bodies of work, they enjoy nothing more than chasing down obscure remixes and impossible-to-find mixtapes.  

And sure enough, in the ensuing years, the cult of Dilla has grown ever bigger. An entire wave of music has come through influenced by his trademark style, the most prominent exponents being Flying Lotus, a/k/a Californian experimental hip hop producer Steven Ellison, who recorded the Dilla homage "Fall In Love",  and SA-RA Creative Partners, who collaborated with Dilla on the track "Thrilla" and whose splendid new album Nuclear Evolution: The Age of Love is out soon.  

There's also a burgeoning micro-industry of posthumous product.  Rapster/!K7 have issued two Dillanthology compilations of his productions and remixes for other artists, the second of which is out this month. As is the all-new album Jay Stay Paid, a selection of basement tapes sequenced and spruced up by his mother Maureen Yancey with help from Dilla's hero Pete Rock (like Premier, one of those  cult producers that underground rap types drool over).  As far as I can tell, Jay Stay Paid is the first time that a hip hop beat-maker has gotten the kind of life-after-death treatment afforded superstar rappers like Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. You even get people wearing T-shirts that say "J Dilla Changed My Life".

So what made Dilla special?  If you could break his style down into three main components, they'd be his way with a vocal sample, his way with a beat, and his way with synths.  

As an example of the first, let's look at a really old track that's on the first volume of Dillanthology:  "The Light" by Common. I loved this when it came out in 2000 but I'd never realized that Dilla produced it until I got Dillanthology.  "The Light" is pretty much the only Common tune I've ever cared for and such was my antipathy to the rapper that for a long while I considered the track a kind of sample-delivery machine: you wait patiently through the verses for the gorgeous, glistening chorus, which is derived from "Open Your Eyes" by Bobby Caldwell, a white-but-sounds-black singer who hit big in early Eighties America with a similar "rock 'n' soul" sound to Hall & Oates. 

If you compare the original song (and do check out Caldwell's hat while you're about it) with "The Light" you can clearly see  Dilla's artistry: he's taken an already lovely, if slightly schmaltzy song and created another song out of it.  "Open Your Eyes" is a guy telling a woman to stop pining for her lost lover, because what she needs is right here in front of her. Combining different bits of the chorus into a new chorus, Dilla extracts from the original song a more mystical statement about L.O.V.E. that fits Common's lyric (which I grew to find, um, touching) like a glove.   The most extraordinary, steal-your-breath part of "The Light" comes at the end where Dilla takes vocal fragments from various points in the song--a line here, a curl of grace notes there-- and weaves them into what sounds like a stretch of spontaneous soul-singer extemporizing. It's as though Caldwell is right there in the studio with Dilla and Common, scatting over the beat.

Talking of beats: Dilla's signature, widely forged at the moment, is what tech-heads call unquantized drums.  Quantization is a procedure that makes rhythms perfectly regular, grooves superhumanly tight.  The gist of what Dilla did (and I invite comments box experts to fill in the gaps in excruciating technical detail) is to avoid quantizing and go for a looser, human feel, fitful and fallible, sometimes pushing "off-beat" to the edge of plain wrong.  Hip hop headz talk of Dilla as the catalyst for "the return of the boom-bap"  ,  a phrase originally from  KRS-One's  1993 album "Return of the Boom Bap" . 

Sometimes rendered boom-boom-bap, it's a phonetic evocation of hip hop's classic drum pattern.  The booms are the kicks, the bap is the snare, and the combination is that loping midtempo groove that tugs at your neck and your head, not so much at your hips or your feet.  As it has developed in underground rap circles these past fifteen years, boom-bap has come to refer to hip hop for nodders and smokers.  To backpackers it's the very pulse of life itself, but to these ears, boom-bap strikes me as being as capable of being blandly formulaic as any other kind of beat.  Dilla did his fair share of perfunctorily functional grooves but at his most creative he deconstructed the rhythm, placing the booms and baps, hi hats and claps, in an off relationship to each other, clustered too close or coming in too late, but always retaining a ghostly relationship to hip hop feel.

And finally the synths, which burble and twitter through a lot of Dilla tracks (see "On Stilts,"  "Spacecowboy vs. Bobble Head" and "Dilla Bot Vs. The Hybrid,"  highlights of Jay Stay Paid) , although it's often hard to tell if they are sampled off some obscure record or played on a vintage analog keyboard.  Even more than the cut-up "vocal science" and the stumbling beats, this is one of the most widely imitated aspects of Dilla's style, especially within that amorphous genre-not-genre known as Wonky.  A musician friend of mine, Matthew Ingram (check out his debut album as Woebot ) tells me this has a lot to do with the rise of "soft synths," which have been embraced by producers in lots of different genres.  Simplifying the technicalities, what this means is that producers can have the virtual equivalent of an analogue synthesizer inside their digital audio workstations.  This enables them to simulate the hands-on fun of knob-twiddling and moving sliders that you get with an antique synthesiser and which generates all those supercool retro-futurist wibbles and wooshes.  "Soft synths aren’t always emulations of analogue synths," says Ingram. "But analog synth emulators are increasingly popular at the moment."  And they're one reason Dilla is such a spectral (omni)presence across the left-field music landscape of the late Noughties.

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