February is for J Dilla

todayFebruary 28, 2023 118 4 5

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By Evelyn Lopez

Rap/Hip-hop Journalist


As February comes to an end, it is important to recognize that this month holds a special place for James Dewitt Yancey, a.k.a. “Jay Dee” or “J Dilla.” Ranking highly in my list of favorite Aquarians of all time, Dilla was born on Feb. 7, 1974, and died on Feb. 10, 2006.


God sent, Dilla was a product of talented musicians. His mother was an opera singer and his father was a jazz bassist. His childhood revolved around the world of music. He was a multi-instrumentalist at a young age and played keyboards, violin and flourished on the drums. When Dilla turned three, his parents gifted him his first record of Michael Jackson’s The Wiz. They would take him along on their record shopping trips, which is where he would find a medium through crate digging. Dilla would sample and pull from soul, rap singles, funk and really anything that he liked.


Dilla’s work shaped the 90s hip-hop sound. He holds a throne for his melodic beats and unique drum programming style. He is also credited as a founding father of instrumental hip-hop. Aside from his solo work, Dilla was also involved in multiple group projects. He was a member of Slum Village, half of Jaylib with fellow producer Madlib, and a member of The Ummah, which also included Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest.  Dilla worked with artists in the Soulquarians, a collective composed of The Roots, Erykah Badu, Common, De La Soul, D’Angelo and many more. The list of artists that Dilla has remixed as well as written and produced for is crazy. From Janet Jackson to MF DOOM, Dilla’s thumbprint is everywhere.


J Dilla is notably known for his second breakthrough album, Donuts (2006). It is composed of around 100 samples and has been critically acclaimed by many as one of the most influential albums of all time. It was released on his 32nd birthday and three days before he died from a combination of health issues related to  a rare blood disorder called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) and lupus. Over 93% of the tracks on the album were made with a 45-rpm record player and a digital sampler while he was in the hospital. This album feels like an extension of Dilla’s life through his work—a final goodbye and a great way to remember him.


He was loved by many. His fans and the people he made music with speak highly of him. Questlove, the drummer of The Roots, often shares stories of having Dilla sit in on studio sessions with him during the recording of D’Angelo’s album, Voodoo, or going record shopping together. He says Dilla was “the world’s greatest drummer” and that he “invented the sound we call neo-soul.”


In order to “protect his legacy” from leaks and bootleg compilations, his mother and executor of estate had a say in his posthumous studio releases such as The Shining (2006), Jay Love Japan (2007), Jay Stay Paid (2009) and The Diary (2016). She wanted to make sure his legacy was used for a good cause. In an interview with LA Weekly, she stated that Dilla wanted her to “use it to help others, people with illness, kids who were musically gifted but had little hope due to poverty.”


Dilla’s work is an influence for many. He is credited as an inspiration for artists such as Kanye, Brockhampton and even experimental musicians like Arca. His work is timeless, and it is important to recognize that many of your favorite hip-hop artists would not have a sound without him. If you aren’t familiar with his work and want to have a deeper connection to the music you listen to now, dive into J Dilla.


To help jumpstart your deep dive or if you just want to listen to some of his work, I have made a playlist of some of my favorite tracks from Jay Dee’s catalog, and some tracks you may not have known he produced!


“Aside from his solo work, Dilla was also involved in multiple group projects. He was a member of Slum Village, half of Jaylib with fellow producer Madlib, and a member of The Ummah, which also included A Tribe Called Quest members Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.”


Featured Image by Jeff Jank.


Written by: Preethi Mangadu

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