Follow TV Tropes


Music / J Dilla

Go To
The King of Beats

Yo, Yo!
Check it out now!
It's another batch!
From the one they call Jay Dee!
J Dilla's intro to nearly all his beat tapes

James Dewitt Yancey (February 7, 1974 – February 10, 2006), known best as J Dilla (or Jay Dee prior to 2001) was an American hip hop artist known best for his soulful (and often experimental) productions, but had also dabbled in rapping as well.

The size of his entire discography (officially released or otherwise) is insane, so we're just gonna go over the highlights:

Dilla, who was considered a musical prodigy as a child, got his start in 1992 when Detroit musician and then-keyboardist for George Clinton Amp Fiddler loaned him his Akai MPC, which Dilla learned quickly. By 1995, Dilla (then known as Jay Dee) and fellow Detroit hip hop artist Phat Kat formed the group 1st Down, and were the first rap group from Detroit to get signed to a major record label. But the label folded after only one single was released, causing the group to disband.

By that time, Dilla's soulful beats were gaining notice by some of hip hop's biggest names, particularly Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. This led to Tip recruiting him as a part of The Ummah, a production group that consisted of D'Angelo, Raphael Saadiq, Tip himself and fellow Tribe member Ali Shaheed Muhammad. While Dilla was not often given recognition for his work during his time in the Ummah, he did most of his big-name R&B and hip hop production during this time, which included Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Jon B. and several members of the Native Tongues collective (A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, and The Pharcyde, among others).

In between working with The Ummah, Dilla and his friends from high school Baatin (Titus Glover) and T3 (R.L. Altman III) formed the group Slum Village. Between 1996 and 1997, they recorded their debut LP Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1). But due to a combination of heavy bootlegging and internal politics at their record label, A&M Records, the album did not see an official release until 2005. A&M went under not long after that happened, putting the group in limbo until 2000, when they released the second volume of Fan-Tas-Tic on GoodVibe Recordings. Dilla also became a co-founder of the Soulquarians music collective around this time.

In 2001, Dilla left Slum Village to embark on a solo career, releasing several singles and his first solo album Welcome 2 Detroit. Around the same time, he dropped the "Jay Dee" alias due to often getting confused with rapper/producer Jermaine Dupri, who also went by his initials, and became J Dilla full time.

By 2002, he was signed to MCA Records, and began work on his second album The Diary and producing 48 Hours with fellow Detroit group Frank-N-Dank. Unlike his prior albums, The Diary wasn't produced by himself, but by other producers he respected, such as Pete Rock, Madlib, and a then up-and-coming Chicago producer and emcee by the name of Kanye West. Unfortunately, Dilla's streak of bad luck with major labels would continue, with MCA being absorbed into Universal Records, and all of the work he had done for the label going to waste.

Undeterred, Dilla released the album Ruff Draft overseas while his MCA album was in limbo. The album marked a noticeable change in his production style, retaining it's soulful vibe, but also becoming more experimental, with a clear electronic influence. Later that year, Dilla began doing collaborations with Madlib, which resulted in the two briefly forming the production group "Jaylib", releasing an album together called Champion Sound in 2003. Dilla also continued to release beat tapes up until 2005.

Unfortunately, Dilla was suffering from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura and lupus in his final years, and his health quickly deteriorated between 2003 and 2006, to the point that he showed up at a European tour in a wheelchair in November 2005.

During an extended hospital stay in Los Angeles during the summer of 2005, Some of Dilla's friends from Stones Throw Records brought him a Boss SP-303 sampler and a small 45 record player so he could continue to produce music while in the hospital. Dilla proceeded to begin work on what would become the final album released during his lifetime: Donuts. Reports vary on exactly how much of the album, if any, was produced in the hospital. According to Dan Charnas' biography Dilla Time, the album was born from an earlier beat tape, and edited and sequenced into album form by Jeff Jank of Stones Throw while Dilla was in hospital.

J Dilla passed away in his home on February 10, 2006, three days after his 32nd birthday, and the release of Donuts. Many of his hip-hop colleagues have paid tribute to him in the years since his death.

Albums with their own pages:

J Dilla provides examples of:

  • Alternative Hip Hop: Is technically in this category due to his style of production and status as an indie artist, and often got pigeonholed into it by fans, much to his displeasure. In interviews during and after his time in Slum Village, he often voiced his annoyance with getting painted with the same brush as A Tribe Called Quest because Tribe and SV used drastically different subject matter in their lyrics.
    "[...] That was actually a category that we didn’t actually wanna be in. I thought the music came off like that, but we didn’t realize that shit then. I mean, you gotta listen to the lyrics of the shit. Niggas was talking about getting head from bitches. It was like a nigga from Native Tongues never woulda said that shit. I don’t know how to say it. It’s kinda fucked up, because the audience we were trying to give to were actually people we hung around. Me, myself, I hung around regular ass Detroit cats. Not the backpack shit that people kept putting out there like that. I mean, I ain’t never carried no goddamn backpack. But like I said, I understand to a certain extent. I guess that’s how the beats came off on some smooth type of shit. And at that time, that’s when Ruff Ryders [was out] and there was a lot of hard shit on the radio, so our thing was we’re gonna do exactly what’s not on the radio."
  • Crossover: Dilla (with Slum Village) appeared on "Thelonious" with Common on the latter's album Like Water For Chocolate. "Thelonious" later appeared as a hidden track on Slum Village's Fan-Tas-Tic, Vol. 2.
  • Determinator: And how. You'd think a fatal disease would have at least slowed him down. But no. He was working on two albums (Donuts and The Shining), finished one of them (and lived to see it released), and had completed more than the half of the other album by the time he died.
  • Genre-Busting: He was hip hop and R&B by definition, but his sound was quite experimental, taking cues from soul, electronica, rock, pop, jazz, funk, breakbeat and many other genres.
  • Grand Finale: Donuts, being his most critically acclaimed album and the last he got to see released before his passing.
    • His fourth album The Shining also counts. It was made at the same time, and it was 75% complete when Dilla passed away. As he saw it coming, Dilla tasked beforehand his close friend and collaborator Karriem Riggins to finish the album.
      • More precisely, the last song of the album, "Won't do". After so many collaborations and instrumentals, "Won't do" is all about Dilla : Dilla writing, Dilla rapping, Dilla singing, Dilla producing. Solo. No featuring. It's an awesome way to end the album.
  • I Am the Band: Dilla was a multi-instrumentalist, and often accompanied his samples with his own chords, or replaced the samples completely if clearance issues arose. The best example of a 100% Dilla composition is Common's "It's Your World (Pt. 2)" from his 2005 album Be.
  • Instrumental Hip Hop: Considered to be one of the best producers in this genre of all time.
  • In the Blood: Dilla's mother and father were an opera singer and bassist, respectively. After his death, his little brother John dropped out of university, took up the rap name Illa J and continued his brother's legacy.
  • Jazz Rap: Jazz made up a good chunk of what Dilla sampled in his beats, especially during his time with the Ummah and the Soulquarians.
  • Miniscule Rocking: Save for re-issues of albums that featured his vocals, few of his standalone beats have gone over the 3-minute mark.
  • Once an Episode: Dilla's intro, and variations thereof, as written above.
  • Posthumous Collaboration: Several artists have recorded their own lyrics over many of Dilla's beats over the years, with the approval of his estate.
    • His second vocal album The Shining was only 75% completed at his death, but he entrusted his longtime friend Karriem Riggins before his death to finish the album.
  • Protest Song: "Fuck The Police", which should not be confused with the N.W.A song of the same name.
  • Punny Name/Shout-Out: A track from one of his beat tapes was called "Inhuman Nature". A nod to the Michael Jackson song it samples, and a reference to it's new re-arrangement in the beat.
  • Spiritual Successor: To fellow producer Pete Rock, who was a big influence on Dilla's sound.
  • Supergroup: He was a founding member of the Solquarians, alongside Questlove, James Poyser, and D'Angelo; co-producing nearly every album that came out as part of that collective. His relationship with the Native Tongues, however, is a bit murky. While he was a frequent producer for several Tongues-adjacent acts until his death, and was a part of Tribe's "Ummah" production team alongside Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed, he was never officially said to be a part of the Native Tongues as a whole.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: Donuts. Which led to him naming his final album just that.
  • Trans-Pacific Equivalent: J Dilla and Nujabes are scarily similar in more than just their music:
    • Both were born on the same day and year (February 7, 1974)
    • Both got their starts in the mid-Nineties
    • Both men were acclaimed for their experimental and often soulful styles of hip hop.
    • They've collaborated with many rap artists worldwide.
    • Both of them had unfinished albums at the time of their deaths (Spiritual State for Nujabes, and The Shining for Dilla)
    • And both died before their time and after their birthday. Though Dilla succumbed to his health problems three days after his 32nd birthday, while Nujabes would live on for four more years until dying in a car accident 19 days after his 36th birthday.

Alternative Title(s): Jay Dee