J Dilla Was a Revered Rap Producer. A New Book Deepens His Legacy.
Even during his lifetime, there was something unexplainable about J Dilla, the Detroit-born hip-hop producer and M.C. He was an open secret, an under-acknowledged force shifting and shaping modern music. Followers spoke of him reverentially and with enough hyperbole that he could feel inaccessible to listeners who didn’t quite get it. In the 16 years since his death, the aura around him has only grown.
The writer Dan Charnas conducted nearly 200 interviews to write “Dilla Time,” a 400-page biography out on Tuesday that thoroughly examines the hip-hop producer’s unique approach. But Charnas, the author of the 2010 book “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop,”could barely recall anything that J Dilla, born James Dewitt Yancey, said during the one occasion they spent together, in the summer of 1999.
He remembered Dilla crouched over his MPC3000 sampling drum machine in the basement studio of his family’s home in the Conant Gardens neighborhood of Detroit. He remembered going out for Mongolian barbecue with the rapper Chino XL, Dilla and Common, who was in town to work with Dilla on what would become his album “Like Water for Chocolate.” But that’s about it.
“I was talking rather than listening,” Charnas said in a recent video interview, “and so the big shift for me is that I’ve had to do really, really careful listening over the past four years to try to get this story.”
Dilla, who came to attention via his work with the Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest and his own group Slum Village, died in February 2006 from complications of a rare blood disease three days after he turned 32. He was beloved by his contemporaries and a small following of fans for his off-kilter beats — and he was not known to talk to journalists often. (Charnas could find only 16 interviews.)
Common remembered seeing Pharrell Williams bow down to Dilla when they met and recalled how Kanye West excitedly showed everyone in the studio the album that Dilla had given him to pull drum samples from.
“I didn’t grow up listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I didn’t even grow up listening to Fela Kuti or Jimi Hendrix,” Common said in a phone interview. “I’m bringing up their music because these artists and their work are everlasting. And J Dilla is one of those individuals.”
Dilla’s career was rooted in seemingly contradictory ideas. He became known for matching somber, yet comforting tones with rugged, crackling drums. He often worked alongside artists who were positioned as the sanctimonious counterbalance to the increasingly materialistic and hypersexualized world of late ’90s hip-hop, but he himself was unapologetically enthralled with jewelry, expensive cars and strip clubs. As technological advances made music production easier, and as a result, more uniform, Dilla used those tools to find possibility in imperfections.
Listenership and the breadth of Dilla’s influence have grown exponentially since his death. There are now annual Dilla Day events around the world, and his music has been celebrated by institutions like Lincoln Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts. His MPC3000 is displayed behind a glass case at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Charnas teaches a course about Dilla, which is how the book originated, as an associate professor at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University.
Over the years, there has been almost a deification of Dilla; Charnas’s book takes great efforts to humanize him. Though he is sympathetic to his subject’s struggles — particularly his misfortunes as an artist in the major label system and his deteriorating health — Charnas does not shy away from describing his imperfections.
Dilla had a temper and could become jealous, those closest to him said to Charnas. When he was frustrated, his quietness would break as he lashed out at them. But the same people who told Charnas these unflattering stories continued to care about Dilla unconditionally.
“He was private, and there’s still things I don’t talk about,” said Frank Nitt, Dilla’s close friend since middle school whose music he later produced as part of the group Frank-n-Dank. “But on the flip side, being who he was and how he’s being perceived by the people at this point, there’s a lot of misconceptions.”
One of the foundational Dilla myths is how he arrived at his signature sound, in which the rhythm can feel off, different or just wrong. Some have said it was a failure to quantize his compositions, a feature in digital recording that eliminates human error and puts the timing of drum beats in their “correct” place.
Charnas explains that Dilla’s process was more complex and that he took multiple steps to purposefully accentuate the sonic effects of error. The result was a fresh rhythmic feel that Charnas labels the titular “Dilla time” — differentiating it from straight time and swing time, the two rhythmic patterns that defined Western music. Dilla’s explanation for his innovation? He would just say that’s how he nodded his head.
Charnas traces Dilla’s influence beyond hip-hop and soul, as it extended to pop, electronic music and jazz. His imprint can be found in songs by artists like Michael Jackson, Flying Lotus, the 1975 and Robert Glasper. (“Dilla Time” reveals that Dilla blew off potentially working with ’N Sync, twice.) Sometimes Dilla’s impact has been circuitous. He inspired young Los Angeles jazz musicians like Terrace Martin and Thundercat. Then Kendrick Lamar had those artists work on and expand the palette of his landmark 2015 album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
Charnas also clarifies the story around “Donuts,” an instrumental album that Stones Throw Records released right before Dilla’s death that has become a key entry point for new generations of fans. It’s been said that Dilla recorded “Donuts” in the hospital, embedding messages for loved ones in his compositions as the end approached. In reality, “Donuts” was born from one of the many beat tapes he had made. It was largely edited and extended by Jeff Jank, who worked at Stones Throw, and completed months before Dilla died.
Though he settled on J Dilla around 2001, he was alternately credited under names including Jay Dee, Jaydee, J.D. and Jon Doe. For much of the mid-90s into the turn of the century, he was part of two production collectives, the Ummah and the Soulquarians, alongside more famous members.
In the book, Charnas relates how during the making of D’Angelo’s 2000 opus “Voodoo,” D’Angelo and Questlove called Dilla and Prince their “two North stars.” Dilla was around for many of the recording sessions at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, but none of the songs he initiated were completed. In the end, when he received his copy of the record, he was disappointed to realize that his name was nowhere in the liner notes.
“The main theme for James in this story is credit, being seen,” Charnas said, “and he’s struggling to be seen.” Even on Common’s “The Light,” the biggest hit Dilla ever produced, he’s listed as “The Soulquarian’s Jay Dee for the Ummah,” leaving him, as Charnas said, “smothered in brotherhood.”
Charnas’s main reasons for writing the book are not only to make Dilla’s contributions to music known but to also explain that the devotion from fans is justified. “Ultimately it’s really about me saying to everybody who loves Dilla: ‘You were not wrong. Your affection was not misplaced,’” he said. “He is special, more special than many of you all even know.”