James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla, was a breakthrough beatmaker from Detroit who died of a rare blood disease and lupus days after his 32nd birthday in 2006. He was always a cult figure and could still to be so classy if it makes you feel better about being barely aware of him, as I was when he was alive and that’s my job. But that’s not why Dan Charnas describes his death 100 pages before the end of this exceptional biography. Dilla was never a failure, but now he’s legendary, and Charnas has done well to untangle the ever-changing web of art, money, family and friends that his legend encompasses. That’s not all Dilla’s hour (MCD/Farrar, Strauss & Giroux) hit. Almost incidentally but also crucially, it also lays out the evolution of African-American Detroit’s culture and geography from Henry Ford to Motown to progressive Coleman Young’s 20-year-old town hall through the shrinking that never s only accelerated after Young’s departure in 1994. Dilla didn’t grow up poor, but he wasn’t middle class either, and Charnas diligently traces the story of the changing jobs and stalwart entrepreneurial spirit of a family that never managed to convert their considerable musical gifts into a living wage while imbuing young James with music that proved to be unlike any other.
From a sociological point of view, it is therefore a rich reading. But though it is deeply and vividly reported – Charnas’s wife, Wendy Walters, is a Detroit native who helped a lot – in Dilla’s hour it’s just a context. Dilla’s seismic innovations were rhythmic, so Charnas and Jeff Peretz, his colleague at NYU Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, fashioned a grid-based music annotation system based on rhythm rather than pitch. Even if you don’t act on the “Try It Yourself” invitations that come with these charts – and I know three readers who loved this book, including me, who swore they would but have barely started – be being able to see, physically and schematically, the kind of elaborations and disruptions that made Dilla “the hip-hop producer who reinvented the beat” decisively adds to your understanding.
One way to conceive of Dilla is like the 21st century James Brown, whose edict that every Famous Flame drummed came to fruition with the seminal 1965 beat “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”. This supposed novelty hit presaged a musical world where, in the early 80s, multiple clashing and interlocking rhythmic elements were taken for granted, perceived pre-consciously, so that, like Jonathan Lethem once In other words, “young listeners” lived “entirely in a sonic world of James Brown’s creation”. But as polymorphic as these rhythms were, they were always carried by a determining impulse – a “good rhythm”. In Dilla’s time, this definition of pulse is by no means suppressed. But it’s invariably undermined or counter-embellished by less predictable rhythmic elements that don’t repeat as faithfully as they once did.
The son of a bassist-singer father who made money in the auto industry and a mother good enough to sing in clubs if there had been a livelihood, James Dewitt Yancey had been a musician since his childhood – his father would put him to sleep playing bass on his stomach and grew up in the sonic world of James Brown. Quiet and hyperintelligent as well as a stutterer like his father, he carefully removed the album covers that adorned the walls of his grandmother’s basement, read the notes, and pinned them again. Before there were samplers let alone computer music programs, he figured out how to dismember cassette decks and create painstaking beats by hand on a drum machine. A generous local musician trained him on an Akai MPC60, a revolutionary but primitive MIDI production hub that James learned to, well, play – decelerating samples against the device’s relentless clock, giving extra keys where he felt they belonged, sampling and cutting the sounds he wanted. move. Invariably, the better-educated guys in the room were impressed by this shy kid’s unrivaled talents and the stubbornness with which he stuck to what he wanted when and where. In a phrase worth bearing in mind, Charnas says that Dilla was partly inspired by a rough recording he had heard of a fabricated “party”: “The noise of the error stayed with him. It stuck until he found a way to make mistakes on purpose.
Dilla was exactly the right age to invent hip-hop, and started rapping at an early age and working with other Detroit rappers, some of whom joined him in Slum Village, a group called I’ve Ever Got into me-as fundamental as beats are to hip-hop, rap is even more so, and none of these guys, including Dilla himself, was a master of rhyme or flow. But that matters little in terms of Dilla’s artistic legacy, as Slum Village’s setbacks pale in comparison to the excitement this reclusive young regional beatmaker sparked among hip-hop connoisseurs. Prior to the late ’90s, he had active working relationships with the two smartest movers on the cutting edge of the commercial hip-hop universe, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and Questlove of the Roots. And so in 2000 came the r&b breakthrough Jesus D’Angelo Voodooproduced by a free collective called the Soulquarians led by the two Q’s and Dilla, who months later were also aware of rapper Common’s breakthrough Like water for chocolate. As is natural with the albums you love, I had long heard both in terms of their leaders – the soulful hyperbolist D’Angelo, the diehard preacher Common. Dilla’s hour alerted me to the deft and decisive way the production undermines and contextualizes both types of exaggeration.
Those two albums turned Dilla, who was already paid, into an official big deal—tragically, a big deal that would be dead in six years. While it was definitely his kidneys that killed him, it’s not as if Dilla gravitated towards the typical hyperintelligent introvert’s lifestyle. As soon as he started making decent money, he dove into the Detroit strip club scene. He loved high-end clothes and expensive cars as much as the next rapper. And although he had real relationships, he fucked a lot, fathering a barely recognized daughter and breaking up with the mother of another in a row that didn’t have to be decisive. His mother Maureen, the heroic chief caretaker of his grueling years of decline (with significant financial and other help from Common), had her own stubborn problems galore, and the debts her son had incurred were enormous – it was 2017 before the Dilla Foundation she created had paid off her tax obligations and started paying her heirs instead. But even as life drained him, the legend of Dilla was already turning him into a not-so-secret cult hero, and so there were other sources of income as Dilla tributes and festivals sprang up everywhere. In one resounding case, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture obtained and exhibited its Moog and MPC.
But more important, according to Charnas, was how ubiquitous Dilla’s rhythmic uses have become, not because her death brought musical attention, but because their time had come. There are now multiple musicology theses devoted to variations on the thesis that the European concept of rigid note value only began to loosen up as we all know with ragtime and its myriad offshoots. No doubt another genius would have brought this thesis to life if Dilla hadn’t. But historically, it was a shy stutterer whose father played bass on his belly who launched him into a world charged with determining what comes next.
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