Stevie G: Dilla Time tells us of legend Jay Dee

Dilla Time will last forever, says Stevie G in his Downtown column
Stevie G: Dilla Time tells us of legend Jay Dee

Hip-hop producer Jay Dee, otherwise known as J Dilla, died at the tragically young age of 32 in 2006.

Hip-hop evolved very quickly, especially in its first few decades. There were innovators everywhere, behind the mic and many in the studio too. The likes of Dr Dre, Preemo, RZA, Rick Rubin, Pete Rock and later Pharrell, Timbaland and Kanye became household names, and even this week, in 2022, one of the hottest releases on the planet, by Pusha T, is shared by both Pharrell and Kanye.

My own favourite hip-hop producer of all time went by the name of Jay Dee (later J Dilla), and I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, especially since reading the recently published Dilla Time by Dan Charnas.

Dilla Time tells the story of Jay Dee’s evolution in the 90s as one of the key producers in hip-hop, right up until his tragic death at only 32 years of age in 2006 (due to a rare blood disease TTP and lupus). By then the wider world was catching on, but it was really only in the subsequent years that he received his full recognition, and this book crucially traces those years too, all the while mapping out some of the shadier elements of an industry which regularly chews up greats. In February 2006 on these very pages, I paid tribute to his genius, and I’ve done so many times before and since, but Dilla Time is a powerful testament to his influence and legacy, and it’s a must read for music fans.

Those early Dilla records soundtracked many of my radio shows and club sets, though it took a few years to work out any distinctions between Dilla, Q Tip and other practitioners of the production team who soon went under the name of the Ummah. In the pre Internet era, things could be vague, but those of us in tune knew that a special sound was emerging, and Charnas negotiates this era perfectly, always bringing multiple perspectives into play and providing balance overall. It’s a delicate journalistic journey that he handles most excellently when he later details the confusing legal fallout after Dilla’s passing, and he breaks down this complicated era without judgement or hyperbole.

The most interesting aspect of the book goes deep into Dilla’s approach to time, breaking down the Euro-centric traditions of conventional music production, especially on machines, and providing wonderful historical and contemporary context. Charnas is not the first person to align Dilla with innovators such as Coltrane and Monk, but he contextualises the argument brilliantly, and even non music theory experts like myself can see how Dilla’s approach is far more african in its roots. Dilla time breaks it down as beautifully as a Jay Dee sample flip.

The morning after he died in 2006 I quickly assembled about 50 of his record productions and did a mix for my radio show that evening. It could have been hundreds and in subsequent years we’ve heard even more. The re-issuing sometimes got a bit vulgar, as it tends to do when a genius dies so young. But as a long term fan I’m glad he’s received his recognition.

Jazz bands now often start their careers doing hip-hop covers on the street and at shows; it’s come full circle.

Our music is now taught in Universities and Dilla is revered by the very types of ‘jazz police’ that once derided not only hip-hop but any post 70s jazz too.

Dilla helped take us this far but in truth, his music always took us listeners to faraway places that I certainly can’t even name. Dan Charnas puts the experience into words, but it’s the music that was at the heart of everything.

Critic wise, the retrospective years have been kinder to many of his great works, but I still stand by my personal opinion of the time, that albums like Beats, Rhymes and Life, The Love Movement, and Amplified were way ahead of the game. Dilla was always light years ahead. I had many arguments about these records back in the day, but 90s hip-hop heads sometimes wish everything stayed in the 90s.

Dilla’s vision and eagerness to innovate also seems born out of a wish to distance himself from the many copycats, but I’m sure that even by the time of his death, he knew that they respected him as a genius too. I can only imagine what he would have done had he lived a decade or two longer, but I’m thankful that he blessed us with his genius for so long.

Dilla Time will last forever.

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