Friday, March 24, 2006

MJ in his prime...

So, because of all the wedding hoopla, and work, and my successful attempt to disconnect myself from Okayplayer, I didn't find out about the tragic passing of James Yancey (aka Jay Dee/J Dilla) until last week. For folks who don't know Dilla's music -- it might turn out that you do. He barely promoted himself at all, even in his solo career, but he made some of the best and most distinctive hiphop in the last 20 years. Amongst heavy-duty hiphop fans he was totally revered, to the point of fetishization.

I've been wanting to write something about him for the last week. But his history, and his struggle to make music through the illness, are well documented in articles by the Detroit Free Press and And you can hear a lot of his live music at, which recently produced a tribute (this link also gives you the uncharacteristically personal and emotional statement from Roots MC Black Thought, which is a must-read).

I guess I don't have a whole lot to add. Dilla's work demonstrates, even on first listen, that he had one of those minds just built for music. There aren't too many composers out there whose music you hear, then right away understand their personal connection to sound and rhythm. And that quality obviously extended to his collaborations with other musicians. He had a talent where whoever he was working with -- Tribe, D'Angelo, Common, Talib Kweli, Madlib, Badu, Busta, etc. -- it seemed like the perfect match, and at the same time his music brought so much new out of those artists that they seem deeper and stronger with him behind the boards.

Anyway, I've also been thinking about the signature Dilla "sound," if there is one. Dilla was versatile almost to a fault. He went from producing R&B (Janet Jackson's "Got Till It's Gone", D'Angelo) to jazzy boom-bap (Common's "The Light," "Dynamite," for the Roots, etc.), to sparse, percussive bangers ("So Hardcore," the best track on Busta Rhymes' When Disaster Strikes). And that doesn't even count the entirely new style of beatmaking he introduced for his own group, Slum Village -- which I don't even want to try to describe. Whatever he made, it was usually characterized by the absence of instruments rather than their presence. That's one of the ways you can tell a Dilla beat in the first few seconds. The archetypical Jay Dee beat is uneven drums, with a sloppy hi-hat and a too-loud snare, an expressive bassline so weird that no one would play it in real life, and a loop filtered beyond recognition. Overall, his beats tend toward purposeful sloppiness, but the good kind. The kind practiced deliberately by jazz and funk bands in an effort to get further into your guts. Hearing (and feeling) a good Dilla beat makes you worry that your heart rhythm will go out of synch with your lungs. Or, if that doesn't make any sense, it's like the experience of patting your head, rubbing your stomach, and chewing gum while you're walking down the street. Discombobulating and exhilarating at the same time.

What I really wanted was to write a sort of blow-by-blow review of Dilla's work, and make a list of his incredible innovations and moments of genius. But ?uestlove already did it here, and much better than I would have. So if you like hiphop, soul, jazz, or funk, go get Fantastic Vol. II. Get Like Water for Chocolate. Get Donuts, get Jaylib, and Mama's Gun, and Voodoo, and Labcabincalifornia. You'll have Dilla fever soon enough.

One last thing:
I've noticed that it really seems to get to me when people with remarkable, unique approaches to creating music die. Elliott Smith's is another that comes to mind right away. I think my sense of good in the world, more than I'd care to admit, is inextricably tied up with my sense of good in the world of music. The existence of people like James Yancey and Elliott Smith is sometimes what gets me up in the morning. The gratitude I feel for their music, and the hope I hold for the things they haven't written yet. I'm discovering that the indescribable feeling you get, tearing off the shrink wrap, is hard to live without.

James Yancey's music gave me that feeling, no question. But obviously I can't describe it very well. If you want to pay your respects to Mr. Yancey, find the music and listen to it. I'm sure that wherever he is, or isn't, that would make him happy.

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