Questlove on Why J Dilla Was the Best Rap Producer of All Time

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 6 years ago '09        #61
WezLFaCe_KiD 59 heat pts59
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Hip Hops shy giant ..........
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its a pretty good read

Jay Dee, a.k.a. J Dilla, had a lot of fans in high places.

Pharrell Williams describes him as "before his time" and "the illest."

"I aspire to be as great as him," Pharrell said.

Kanye West remembers the time he gave Jay a beat as one of the best days of his life. "I was so honored," West recalled. "He inspired me so much."

?uestlove of the Roots said he was "the only cat whose music gave me goose bumps in the last 10 years."

Jay never had the riches or the fame of his peers, but he had something that many value more: their utmost respect — and for good reason. Through his landmark work with A Tribe Called Quest and his own group, Slum Village, not to mention the tracks he produced for Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, Ghostface k!llah, D'Angelo and many more, Jay spearheaded a new style of soul-permeated hip-hop perhaps exemplified on one of his most popular tracks, Common's "The Light." He had everything he needed to become a superstar — the talent, the work ethic, the connections — but chose to march to his own beats. All he really wanted was to make music, and he did just that until the day he died.

James Dewitt Yancey was born on February 7, 1974, and raised on the east side of Detroit. The city was not only the birthplace of Motown Records, it has long been an incubator for soul, rock, techno and, not least, hip-hop. His middle name comes from his father's: a songwriter, jazz musician and doo-wop singer for a Detroit group called the Ivies. Jay was born with music in his blood.

"His older brother, Earl, was a regular boy — the toys, the trucks — but with James, if it wasn't music or someone playing music or talking about music, then he didn't a.ssociate much with it," recalled Jay's mother, Maureen. "We did everything together, but the crux of what we did as a family always involved music. Everybody was in choirs and the children learned to play instruments."

Altogether, Jay learned some 20 different instruments, from drums to cello. But he loved listening to music even more than he loved playing it.

"He started collecting records at 2," Maureen said. "We would go to the shop every week and he would request certain things. Anything that James Brown did, he had to have."

Jay obsessively listened to and studied his records, wearing out one set of headphones after another.

"No matter how many thousands he had, he knew where every record was, he knew the cuts on the records, he knew what year the record came out — and I'm talking about records that came out in the '50s," Maureen said. "He spent every waking moment with music, every minute."

Jay's fixation with his records was typical of his personality, which bordered on obsessive-compulsive. If someone moved something in his room even a few inches, he would notice and move it back. His wardrobe was always perfectly neat; his pants creased like they'd just come from the cleaners. "He would iron his own pants and he would spend maybe 20 minutes on one pant leg," his mother laughed. "And he was a freak about lint."

Perhaps because of those idiosyncrasies, James was a loner who rarely said much. "When he was a kid he would stutter when he talked, so he was shy because of that," remembered RJ Rice, a Detroit producer, manager and record label owner.

"I think he was basically quiet because he was trying to figure out ways to make music," added Elzhi, a Detroit rapper and latter-day Slum Village member who earned his first industry check (for $1,000) rapping on Jay's 2001 solo LP, Welcome 2 Detroit.

Jay's quietness was perceived in different ways. Amp Fiddler, a veteran Detroit producer and musician (he's worked with Parliament-Funkadelic and Prince) who mentored Dee, considered it a testament to his happy upbringing.

"He was one of the best kids that I ever met," Fiddler said. "He was very respectful, always called before he came, very honorable. You could do nothing but help a guy like him."

Slum Village rapper T3, however, saw it differently. "Dilla was my man, but he was moody," he said. "There were times when he wouldn't answer the phone for three weeks. When he was in the mood, he felt like talking. When he not, you might as well forget about it."

"He didn't like people telling him what to do," Rice added. "He would never argue; he just wouldn't show up for two or three weeks. Then he'd be like, 'Yeah, you're right.' I don't think anyone could say they really understood Jay Dee."

By high school, Jay had built a reputation both as a beatmaker and an MC. After hearing buzz about him on the streets, T3 challenged Jay to a battle. Upon meeting, though, they quickly decided to join forces and form the group that became Slum Village.

His skills soon became apparent: Astonishingly, as a teenager Jay made all his tracks on a cassette recorder. "When you was looping up samples, you would have to change the pitch, but we didn't have the equipment to do that, so he somehow opened up the tape deck and changed the pitch," T3 explained. "He would do incredible stuff because he was a brainiac type of guy."

One of those cassettes eventually landed in the hands of Fiddler, one of the top local hitmakers at the time. "I was surprised — it was tight," Fiddler said. "I mean, you could hear in some places the loops were off, but for the most part it was pretty dope."

RJ also heard something in Jay's tracks and opened up his studio for the producer to work in overnight and loaned him some sampling gear. Amp Fiddler showed him how to use it, and within days Jay was taking his Beatles and Michael Jackson records and reconstructing them into unrecognizable tracks.

"Once he learned how it was done, I would see him smiling every day," Amp said. "He had a God-given gift of rhythm and a precise way of chopping up music. He was great at putting a collage together that was magical."

Immediately, Jay developed a style that was all his own. With his comprehensive record collection, he brought new sounds into hip-hop, from jazz to soul.

"He was the new Motown," Elzhi said. "He was the jack-of-all-trades when it came to beats, 'cause he played all sorts of genres: rock, techno, R&B. He basically had those beats that were heart-filled and touched your soul."

Jay's obsessive-compulsive tendencies also led to unique tracks that were meticulously crafted, yet simple. Like his brother-in-law, comedian Bobo Lamb, put it, "Every sound mattered."

"Dilla was like the producer's producer," Dilated Peoples' Evidence said. "I can't tell you how many nights I've sat home with the instrumentals, trying to figure out, 'Did the drums come first or the bass? How did he do this?' "

Jay also worked at a lightning pace and could make tracks in the amount of time it took an artist to use the restroom. "It might only have three parts, but it sounds finished," Rice said. "I got to watch him work so many times over the years, and I can honestly say I've never seen anybody as talented."

In the late '80s, when the group members were still teenagers, Rice agreed to manage Slum Village, which by then included fellow Pershing High School student Baatin. He shopped their demos around to labels, but no one bit.

Around that time, Amp Fiddler, who was touring with A Tribe Called Quest, passed the demo along to Q-Tip. Jay and Q hit it off and started working together, along with Tribe member Ali Shaheed Muhammad, as the Ummah, the production team behind the last two Tribe albums.

Jay's reputation spread fast, and before long he was working with Busta Rhymes, Ghostface k!llah, De La Soul, the Pharcyde and others. Along with ?uestlove, James Poyser, jazz horn player Roy Hargrove and super session bassist Pino Palladino, he was a member of the musical collective known as the Soulquarians, who contributed extensively to Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun, Common's Like Water for Chocolate, D'Angelo's Voodoo and Talib Kweli's Quality, and helped create a pioneering, unique blend of R&B and hip-hop.

Yet as his star rose, Jay retreated even further behind the scenes.

In the beginning, he'd called himself John Doe, " 'Cause his music was like no name brand, just authentic," Maureen explained. When he discovered other artists with the moniker, he moved to his first two initials, only spelling out the Jay and Dee to be different. Years later, when Jermaine Dupri started going by J.D., he changed it again to J Dilla as a nod to soul singer Bill Withers, who occasionally went by Dill.

"I said, 'Why would you change it? You were there first,' " his mother recalled. "And he was like, 'No big deal.' "

Image and promotion were never a big deal to Dilla. In a realm that — to put it mildly — often trades in self-aggrandizement, he never marked his tracks with his name, never appeared in videos for the artists he produced and rarely talked to the press. And when he did, he never bought the magazines or mentioned them to his friends and family.

"Other people would call, 'Your son is in this magazine,' " Maureen said. "And then I would find out things about him through those articles [that I didn't know] because he never talked about himself. It just wasn't a big thing."

At the peak of his success — according to many of the people interviewed for this story — Jay produced Janet Jackson's "Got 'Til It's Gone" but never took credit (although he did take credit for a remix of the song). Same with 2Pac's posthumously released "Do for Love."

"It was his personality that made him behind the scenes," T3 said. "He could've been a Kanye, because he was working with all the people, but he didn't want to take all the initiative to go there."

Jay was also known for turning down high-paying production gigs, and he often worked with local rappers for a few hundred bucks.

"I've seen stars fly into Detroit to do business with him and he wouldn't open the door," Rice said. "I could name a boy band that called here and he turned it down. He wasn't into names. He'd say, 'I'm not feeling that.' "

Creatively, Jay yearned to make his own albums, but even when he was most in-demand, he remained loyal to Slum Village. "He said, 'I don't really want to be in the group, but I want to see the guys blow up. Is it a problem if I be in the group, but I move on and do my own thing eventually?' " Rice explained. "Everyone thought he quit the group [years later], but that was our understanding from day one."

"He didn't have to come back, but he surely did because he knew I was broke as hell," T3 added. "Dilla would take us to the [strip club] and buy us all kinds of dances and sh--. He wouldn't give us no money, though. He wanted us to earn it and at the end of the day, Dilla showed me how to make beats."

Jay stayed with Slum Village through one failed record deal after another, but eventually found some success with 2000's Fantastic, Vol. 2. A year later, he released his solo debut, Welcome 2 Detroit, introducing the other sides of Jay Dee to his fans.

"Even though he's known and respected so highly for his hip-hop production, Jay was always an extremely underrated MC, singer and instrumentalist," said Bay Area hip-hop veterean Peanut Butter Wolf, who later released Jay solo material on his Stone's Throw Records.

In January 2002, Jay returned from a European tour feeling as if he had a horrible flu and went straight to his mother's house. "That meant that he really didn't feel good, because he liked to be alone, he liked to work every moment possible," Maureen said.

That night, she took him to the hospital, where doctors found his blood platelet level was 8 — it should have been 150. "They were convinced he was bleeding somewhere, they didn't know what was going on," she said.

A specialist was called in who diagnosed Jay with a rare blood disease called TTP, or thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura.

"We wanted to know why and how, and we stayed there a good month in the hospital," Jay's mother recalled. "They just told us that he was one out of so many million unlucky people and they didn't have a cure, but they did have certain doctors who would try to treat him, and that was the best we could expect."

Jay began taking steroids, which brought him back on track for a while. A year later, he moved to Los Angeles to continue producing and working on various albums, including several for Stones Throw, most notably Champion Sound, his 2003 collaboration with California rapper/producer Madlib under the name Jaylib.

"Although he already had a lot of success with all the bigger-named artists he was working with, he chose to work with us because climbing the ladder of success wasn't as important to him as being creative," Peanut Butter Wolf said.

Jay was surprisingly prolific even though his health continued to diminish. His muscles constantly ached, the dialysis left his body temperature ice-cold, and his kidneys often shut down, resulting in extended hospital stays.

"He wasn't scared, though," remembered Maureen, who moved out to care for him in 2004. "He was a real soldier when it came to that. I would've been petrified. He was annoyed because it was like he never had the flu before or had been sick in his life, and then you're faced with something that you can't treat."

In 2005, doctors discovered what they believed to be lupus, a disease that essentially causes the body to destroy itself. Still, Jay continued working in the studio he built in his Los Angeles home, which he shared with rapper Common.

"A lot of times his stomach wouldn't allow him to eat, but he still would work until he fell asleep with his head on the turntable," Maureen said. "I would try to wake him, 'Let's go back and get some rest,' or whatever, and he was like, 'No, no, no, I'll be all right.' He had something to finish."

When he was hospitalized, Jay had Bobo haul his equipment up to his room where he continued to work, introducing his doctors to hip-hop. Few of his friends had any idea he was sick until last fall, when Jay mustered the strength to embark on European solo tour and performed in a wheelchair.

"We had talked about us getting back together and doing another [Slum Village] album and he wanted Baatin to be a part of it and I was like, 'That's cool,' " T3 said. "I didn't realize how really, really sick he was until I saw the pictures of him touring and then I was like, 'Damn.' "
 6 years ago '09        #62
WezLFaCe_KiD 59 heat pts59
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Jay was out of the hospital in February of this year, and on the 7th he got to spend his first birthday at home in four years. Still, he was in intense pain and was unable to spend much time with his visitors, including Common and actress Taraji Henson, and Wolf and Madlib, who brought him a cake in the shape of a donut in honor of Jay's Donuts album, which was released that day.

Three days later, Bobo arrived at Jay's house to take him and Maureen to the hospital. Jay was lying on the couch, mumbling in his sleep. When he stopped, Bobo and Maureen realized he had passed away. He was just 32.

"I felt him take his last breath," Bobo said. "Thinking back, I think the mumbling was him having a conversation with God. He wanted to stay, but when God calls you to come home, it's pretty much time."

A few days later, on Valentine's Day, Jay was buried in Los Angeles in a ceremony attended by nearly every artist he'd ever worked with, and many more, from ?uestlove and D'Angelo to — for reasons not entirely clear at press time — members of New Kids on the Block.

"To see the broad spectrum of people that came out to the service, it just showed how important music is in bringing people together like that," Dilated Peoples' Raaka commented a few days after.

At the funeral, Maureen announced plans to turn Jay's Los Angeles studio into a public workspace, "kind of like a memorial where artists will be able to come work right there and use his equipment with his blessing," she said later.

There's also talk of a tribute concert to help Maureen pay Jay's hospital bills, but such logistics have been far from the minds of his friends, who are still mourning.

"We definitely lost somebody who really cared about the music and who tried to make something really beautiful," Elzhi said. "He had something that couldn't be duplicated."

"He was like that bridge between the underground and the mainstream, but because he was so humble, he's esoteric [to all but] core hip-hop heads," added Eddie of BBE Records, who hopes to up Dilla's profile with the July 11 release of The Shining, the solo album Jay nearly completed before his death. "He had it all, and now is the time to get the word out."

Jay is survived by two daughters, but he never married.

"He just stuck to what he knew best — music — and that kept him from having a personal side," Bobo said.

By recording up until his final hours, however, Jay was able to have everything he ever wanted.

"It was his life blood," Maureen said. "People have different interests — you know, I like to bowl, dance, but he was totally about the music, 100 percent. It was his great love."
 6 years ago '10        #63
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And if dr dre died in 2006...
 6 years ago '05        #64
Kahlil Illah 1 heat pts
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It's between J-Dilla and The RZA if you ask me. Good read though.


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