J Dilla Changed My Life

by Markis Precise

J Dilla

Thirteen years ago on this day, the entire hip-hop community was stunned and saddened by the death of James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla. The legendary producer had passed away due to severe complications of a rare blood disease called lupus. He was only 32 years old. Since his untimely death, thousands of fans and musicians alike have been caught wearing a black T-shirt with the phrase “J DILLA CHANGED MY LIFE” in large white font. This phrase perfectly describes how J Dilla’s music not only touched millions of listeners, but also influenced a countless number of artists. For example, Kanye West referred to Dilla as a “drum god” back in 2003, and Pharrell Williams enthusiastically declared Dilla as his favorite producer in 2004. To me, J Dilla is more than just one of my favorite producer of all time. He is one of the reasons why I began listening to hip-hop in the first place, which then led me to become a producer, and so forth.

1996: The First Time I Heard the Name Jay Dee

I was in junior high during this time. The only hip-hop that existed to me was on MTV, which played the typical popular acts. I was unaware that hip-hop was going through a truly unforgettable period with lightning being caught in multiple bottles left and right (i.e. Rakim, Nas, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan, Common, The Roots, Mobb Deep, Gang Starr, etc.). I first became exposed to this surging movement when I heard a song called “Runnin” playing in the background of a random TV show. The song resonated with me because it was the second time in my life that I felt I was hearing a “different” type of hip-hop music. Unfortunately, I had no clue who performed this song, and it was nearly impossible to trace back a song without knowing the right people or having the internet. When I finally found out that The Pharcyde performed “Runnin”, my friend Sean drove me to a used record store in Fresno, California called The Wherehouse, and I bought the group’s second CD Labcabincalifornia. It was the first hip-hop CD I ever bought, and I loved it from beginning to end. I meticulously read the liner notes, which listed the producer of “Runnin” as some guy named Jay Dee.

1997: More Jay Dee, Learning How to Produce

I spent a lot of my sophomore year in high school immersing myself with more and more artists who I had never heard of. One of these acts was A Tribe Called Quest, and I enjoyed their fourth album Beats, Rhymes and Life enough that I would often listen to it on repeat whenever I did my homework. I even listened to that specific album on repeat while staying up past 3 am to finish college applications. Per that album’s liner notes, many of the songs were produced by “J. Yancey”, also known as Jay Dee. Throughout the remainder of my high school years, I continued to unexpectedly discover this Jay Dee name listed in the production credits of several albums I owned, one of the most memorable ones being De La Soul’s Stakes Is High.

By the time I was a junior in high school, I had only two years of producing under my belt. Keep in mind, this was a time when it was not easy for a beginner producer to truly learn the art of making beats without proper guidance or resources. The internet was still lacking back then, and I didn’t know anyone else in high school who also produced. I was fortunate enough to go through the traditional route where I often accidentally stumbled upon the sample origins of hip-hop classics by listening to old funk, jazz, and soul records. It was sheer utter amazement to learn how the greatest hip-hop producers chopped and manipulated sounds to create the greatest songs. During this critical phase of learning, my favorite producers included DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and RZA. Jay Dee, the man whom I had also encountered during my sonic journey, was not necessarily one of my favorites yet because I still hadn’t heard enough of him compared to the others. That all changed with the emergence of the group Slum Village.

2000: One of My Favorites

I first heard about Slum Village near the end of high school. The OkayPlayer website had two preview clips available for Slum Village’s upcoming album Fantastic Vol 2, one of them being a song called “Players”. When I clicked on “Players”, the beat started and the best way I could describe my initial reaction during the first loop was “euphorically intrigued”. I had never heard a beat like that before, at least not one that interlaced certain elements in such a creative way. Without any knowledge of the original sample, the parts that intrigued me included the constant “doo” singing on each 4-count, the short bass notes that seemed scattered but essential, the ending “playerrrr” vocal during the 4th bar (I eventually found out it was actually “Claiiire”), and what appeared to be a unique combination of a snare and clap sound which played just a tiny bit separate from each other and not entirely in sync. Ahhh, so simplistic yet so complicated. As the song continued, I was thinking damn, this is so freakin’ smooth, what kind of mind would produce this? When I clicked on the second preview song “Get Dis Money”, I had a similar reaction. After listening to the two songs, I read Slum Village’s short OkayPlayer bio, and low and behold, the producer of the group was named Jay Dee. Go figure. By that time, Jay Dee had also sculptured the musical backbone of Common’s fourth album Like Water For Chocolate, an absolute masterpiece that set a whole new standard for hip-hop releases. With Fantastic and Like Water For Chocolate, Jay Dee definitely became one of my favorites, up there with the best.

2001: A True Blueprint

During my first year of college, my brother Milin asked, “If you could sit down and just observe one producer, who would it be?” I specifically answered “Jay Dee” without having to think about it. One day on campus, I was walking towards the student union, and heard “Players'” bumping from the performance stage. I thought it was just a DJ playing the song off wax, but as soon as I heard a voice yelling “What’s up UCLA, we are Slum Village!” with heavy reverb, I immediately rushed back to my dorm room to grab my Fantastic CD to get an autograph from the group, especially Jay Dee. It turned out to be the group’s emcees performing without their producer, which was still awesome nonetheless. Baatin (rest in peace) and T3 were nice as hell.

Anyways, I continued to spend hours in my dorm room dissecting every beat that Jay Dee made, and would sometimes even try to replicate a few. Jay Dee was not just inspiring amateur producers, but even the most elite. On a mainstream hip-hop level, a huge part of Kanye West’s career was, and still is, built off of Jay Dee’s blueprint; there were many times when I heard a Kanye beat and thought to myself, “That was definitely a Jay Dee snare”. Jay Dee also influenced his own idols whom he worshipped; just listen to the spacey filters that Pete Rock used during several of his impressive solo outings such as Petestrumentals. Beyond hip-hop, Jay Dee’s trademark elements spilled into the R&B world, most significantly through his contributions on several timeless albums by Erykah Badu. Even today when I listen to my favorite soul-R&B radio show, it literally sounds like Jay Dee could have produced the entire playlist.

People often document that Jay Dee officially changed his name to J Dilla around 2001. If that is the case, I did not know until 2003, because even my copy of Ruff Draft still had the name Jay Dee on its cover. Why do I even care? Because when I eventually found out about the name change, I was worried that history would have difficulty preserving a memorable name that was already associated with unforgettable works. Fortunately, the name J Dilla caught on smoothly and became a permanent fixture, probably due to his continued ability to shell out quality projects. I remember in April 2003, when I first heard J Dilla’s collaboration with Madlib. I was in a car, on my way towards taking the most important academic exam of my life, when the beat for Jaylib’s “The Official” came on. Before any rapping even started, I thought it was the hardest beat I had heard in months, and when Dilla’s voice came in, my adrenaline level doubled. While Dilla did not produce “The Official” track itself, he did produce half of the Jaylib album Champion Sound. His other projects through Stones Throw seemed to showcase a constantly maturing ability to breathe life into the most archaic samples that even the best crate diggers would have blindly skimmed through. In fact, many beats from the Dilla era sounded a lot different from the Jay Dee era, but the impact was just as heavy. It’s similar to how Michael Jordan won three straight NBA championships, and then refined his craft to win another three straight before the end of his basketball career. By the time Dilla’s musical career came to an end, he had become a much different sounding producer, even more powerful and praiseworthy.

2006: Where Were You When J Dilla Died?

Not surprisingly, J Dilla’s instantly acclaimed Donuts album was mostly produced while he was lying in a hospital bed. It’s like the man never stopped making beats until the day he died. I remember exactly when I found out that Dilla had passed away on February 10th, 2006. I had just come back from the grocery store, and left the goods in the car trunk in order to grab extra paper bags from my apartment. When I got to my apartment, before grabbing any bags, I glanced at my computer screen and saw a new thread on my music group's message board by an individual named Martin. The topic was labeled “JAY DEE DIED”. I read the thread, and my heart instantly sank. I just sat there at my computer trying to learn more about what happened. I knew Dilla had been in the hospital several times prior, but he seemed to downplay it during an interview I read in XXL magazine. In reality, his health had deteriorated to the point that he had to perform on stage in a wheelchair. Ultimately, Dilla’s immune system turned against him, and hip-hop had lost one of its purest souls. That whole night, I completely forgot to get the groceries from my car. I didn’t even eat dinner because I felt sick to my stomach. Up until that time, I had never taken a “celebrity” loss in such a personal way. Then again, Dilla wasn’t just someone whose music I grew up on. This was the man who was responsible for creating the songs that got me permanently attached to the culture that I love, whose music accompanied me during some of my most vivid memories in life, who inspired me during my pursuit to become a producer, and whose work I had analyzed more than any other artist, inside and outside of rap. Even though I never met J Dilla in person, I really did view him as a mentor in many ways.

2012: Still Shining

How many hip-hop artists have had a full orchestra complete an entire score of their music in a grand auditorium? This is yet another example of how J Dilla touched listeners around the world. There were simply no boundaries to his audience. Since his passing, his work continues to posthumously find itself on critically acclaimed albums by modern artists. It’s not just about Dilla’s music, either, but the way he carried himself. Dilla never sought any accolades and always let his music do the talking. The more famous he became, the more he worked with even lesser known artists while turning away bigger opportunities. At times when he produced songs for iconic names such as Janet Jackson and 2Pac, his name was never listed in the credits, yet he never made a big deal out of it (although it’s fairly obvious he produced “Do For Love"). Even when Dilla was battling through illness, he continued to do what he loved, and always kept a positive outlook on life while surrounding himself with his loved ones. He truly exemplified the ability to stay humble and peaceful during both times of success and adversity, and that is just one of many reasons why the hip-hop community adored him. J Dilla was truly one of a kind, and he undisputely takes his place among the greatest producers of all time. Top Five, without a doubt.

Rest in beats, Dilla.
-Markis Precise

Mark Ratanasen