Tuesday, February 14, 2006

RIP: J-Dilla

Now that I've had a minute to catch my breath after a decidedly hectic week, I can focus some attention on a very sad moment in my life: the passing of hip-hop wonderkind Jay Dee, aka J-Dilla.
Jay Dee, born James Yancey in Detroit, was a quietly brilliant hip-hop producer/rapper who was almost completely ignored by mainstream hip-hop fans. His work was pretty groundbreaking, as far as hip-hop standards go, based on his production techniques and wicked ear for new and different sounds (once in an interview, he explained how he had stretched a rubberband across a turntable and used the sound of the record playing as a track sample).
He always stressed creativity and exploration in his music, and his body of work showcased that creative pursuit.
I originally learned of Dilla when he signed up to produce A Tribe Called Quest's last two records. He had teamed up with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed to form the production trio "The Ummah," which I think in swahali meant unity or brotherhood.
It was a significant union in the late 90s, because Tip and Ali were already established forces in hip-hop, and Dilla's inclusion signified a passing of the torch. Jay Dee was that dude.
Interestingly enough, his most famous commercial work book-ended most of his catalogue. He came on the scene as the main producer for The Pharcyde's second album, "Labcabincalifornia," orchestrating the singles "Drop" and "Runnin." Last year, he produced three tracks on Common's opus "Be," the songs "Love Is" and "It's Your World." He co-produced the single "Be," which was featured in a Team Jordan commercial featuring Carmelo Anthony and Terrell Owens.
But simply listing his career highlights and his creative approach isn't enough to encapsulate his work. Simply put, the brother changed the game. How so? Well, to me, the most obvious was in his ability to make true listeners of hip-hop music actually care about snare drums.
Yes, snare drums.
As his career began to define itself, Dilla began finding different ways to signify his production, but he did it in a subtle manner. One of those ways was in his use of snares, which, for a novice music listener, are the sharp drum tones that usually follow the deep bass kicks on most standard hip-hop songs (like boom-snare, boom-snare).
Dilla would make his snares sound so crisp, so sharp, that he became known for them. You could always tell a Dilla track by the clean sounding snare, which was similar to a whip-cracking. You had to listen closely, but the snare was in there on all of his tracks.
Other up and coming producers, from such big names as Pharrell Williams of The Neptunes to underground heroes like 9th Wonder of the group Little Brother, began to follow suit.
In fact, Williams once referred to Dilla as his favorite producer when asked on an episode of BET's teeny-bopper countdown show "106 & Park." Show hostess Free looked at him in bewilderment, asking "Is he someone new." Williams, a closet undergound hip-hop fan, just laughed and explained that Dilla was one of the best around.
But that moment pretty much summed up Dilla's legacy : beloved by his fellow hip-hop contemporaries, but pretty much unheard of to the general public. But that's okay, because true fans will remember Jay Dee as one of the GOATs, one of the Greatest of All Time.
And though this is overall a happy period in my life, I can't help but feel a sense of loss that such a brilliant musician has left the hip-hop universe too soon. RIP James Yancey. Hopefully, the rest of the world will come to know how dope you were.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I got a fever, and the only prescription is more snare drum...!