Sixteen years on from his tragic death due to a rare blood disorder at thirty-two years young, the late J Dilla still feels somewhat misunderstood.
The Detroit hip-hop icon is celebrated for his pioneering production prowess and surreal, shape-shifting beats, but his personal story certainly lacked a definitive telling. Sure, there are numerous rappers, producers, musicians, writers, and tastemakers who breathlessly pledge their allegiance to the Church of Dilla, yet in the mainstream zeitgeist and scholarly journals alike, the artist formerly known as Jay Dee remains an enigma, more niche player than household name.
An exhaustive new book released on February 1st, Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm by Dan Charnas, seeks to correct that course and tell the essential, unabridged tale in all it’s revolutionary rhythmic glory.
In just about a decade of musical output, J Dilla, born James Dewitt Yancey, was responsible for helping shape the sonic blueprint of several of the most iconic artists in hip-hop and R&B. His run of collaborations reads like a list of legends from modern day Black music: A Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, De La Soul, The Roots, Busta Rhymes, Common, Bilal, The Pharcyde, Mos Def, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Janet Jackson, and the beats go on and on.
Yet during the first few years of his tragically short career, J Dilla—then known as Jay Dee—was not always properly credited for his pioneering work. More often than not, he found himself “smothered in brotherhood” for a variety of reasons, be they perceived, legitimate, contractual, or just communication breakdowns. This sort of slight seemed to hover over his career and dog J Dilla for the rest of his days, as he remained determined to get his rightful credit, dap, and paychecks until the bitter, brutal end.
Even in death, his own legacy, estate, and posthumous releases have been shrouded in conflict between collaborators, heirs, and lawyers, in addition to elitist attitudes, relationship disintegration, and a proliferation of misinformation. It seems it was high time and long overdue for somebody to step up and finally set the J Dilla record straight, for both the heads and the annals of history. But who would dare accept such a bold mission?
Enter Dan Charnas, author of the 2010 book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, a thorough examination of the culture from the inside out, one that Questlove and Phonte have both crowned as “a bible.” Charnas is himself an OG who has been writing about rap since the very first issue of The Source, the periodical whose word was proverbially bond in the hip-hop world for well over a decade.
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Thirty-plus years ago, the young scribe doubled as a mailroom guy at Profile Records, and soon transitioned to record label executive, working A&R for Rick Rubin at Def American. Charnas even had a brief foray into making this kind of music, for a short time producing records for New Jersey-based emcee Chino XL, an adventure in storytelling that found Charnas and the rapper visiting J Dilla (then Jay Dee) in his Detroit basement studio just before the millennium.
More recently, Charnas has been a full-time professor at New York University, teaching to undergrads at the Clive Davis School. Since 2017, he’s led a course of study on the work of Mr. Yancey. This class gave birth to an idea to write a book about the producer, a project initially conceived as a “short science book” that would focus on unpacking the abstract nuts and bolts of Dilla’s work with samplers, drum machines, and breaking down how he created sound art.
Over the course of four illuminative years, things done changed. And the bar? The author went ahead and raised it up considerably, conducting nearly 200 interviews to inform what eventually became the expansive Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm, via MCD Books. The juicy fruits of these laborious efforts lie in a wide-ranging, 430-page biography devoid of hagiography or stannery and instead replete with maps, charts, graphs, and a comprehensive listening guide.
With the subtitle The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm, the book makes a bold claim, and the stakes are indeed high. The basic premise is partly an artist biography in the traditional sense, a comprehensive dive into J Dilla from family, friends, collaborators, imitators, and champions of his genius, not to mention the raw details regarding the debilitating illness that slowly, savagely took his life.
Dilla Time slots Yancey in a generational lineage of pioneers that includes Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, George Clinton, Prince, and even a Roger Linn, in addition to hip-hop legends like Q-Tip (who first “discovered” Jay Dee) and Pete Rock (young James’ producer idol).
This narrative is seamlessly interspersed with encyclopedic musical analysis of the highest order. Readers get a deep, intentional vision-quest into the magic that surrounds the J Dilla sound, dispelling many myths while correcting the record with dedication and detail. Scenes from his nascent efforts as an inspired teenager making cassette pause tapes, to his time at Camp Amp (the Detroit home studio of producer/multi-instrumentalist Amp Fiddler), to his learning to work the SP-1200 and MPCs 60 and 3000. We learn about “straight” versus “swung,” notes nailed to a grid, deceleration, shifted timing, filtered basslines, his diabolical sampling modus operandi, precisely what “non-quantized” really means, and how this concept was anything but the Dilla cheat code many people thought it to be.
This engineering/technological minutia is delivered in layman’s terms. Dan drops the science like it’s scalding, and does so in a language that just about anybody can easily understand.
All of Charnas’ diligent reporting is set against historical and foundational backdrops like the city of Detroit and its unique culture and community, the complicated Trans-Atlantic journey of polyrhythms, and the technological evolutions of samplers and drum machines. Early in the narrative, these three concurrent threads that help define Dilla’s artistic DNA dovetail in brilliant fashion as Charnas uses the topography and layout of Detroit’s cityscape to illustrate music theory, eventually unspooling into a procedures specific to Dilla’s avant-garde innovations.
This literary device functions as a stunning rollout, incorporating both anthropology and musicology, an engrossing display of scholarship that gets its hooks in you while setting the tone and trajectory of the stirring story to follow.
Once I had read through and absorbed this particular passage, I could not put the book down.
For the rap nerds and Dillaphiles, Charnas takes readers inside a plethora of the producer’s most crucial collaborations. Dilla’s embryonic lair in the Yancey family’s basement in Conant Gardens. Primordial Slum Village studio sessions at RJ Rice’s in Detroit. Inter-band fistfights recording The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” on Delicious Vinyl. Production squad The Ummah’s inception, explosion, and dissolution, and how it affected Dilla’s relationship with Q-Tip moving forward.
We get to be a fly on the wall for the Soulquarians era at Electric Lady Studios in New York City for the making of D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, and Badu’s Mama’s Gun. The day-to-day details of Dilla’s time living with Common in Los Angeles, working with Madlib and the cats at Stones Throw, the making of his swan song album, Donuts, and just about everything and everybody in between. Readers tag along on legendary Dilla pilgrimages to New York City in the early days, Philly bro-dates and record store missions with DJ Jazzy Jeff, then later Europe and Brazil with the homies.
In diving into Dilla’s kaleidoscopic, voluminous catalog of releases, beat tapes, bootlegs, overseas rarities and the like, Charnas does not let anything get by him – with regards to the music James made, who he made it with, and precisely how it was executed. He tunnels from the inspiration to the samples, the equipment to the cannabis, and oscillates even further into the Church of Dilla and its mythical abyss.
Charnas crafted a book that thoroughly examines the production wunderkind’s idiosyncratic, unicorn methodologies and cherished collaborative connections. Yet the journalist’s efforts blossomed into something that reaches far deeper, at times gets darker: an emotional roller-coaster that unveils a beautifully-human portrait. Dilla Time probes as far as any fan could ever hope for, and doesn’t duck the tough stuff either.
Charnas somehow manages to cover nearly all the bases, nooks, crannies, detours, and rabbit holes, even the quiet stuff that many prefer not to speak out loud. The producer often felt like he did not receive the appropriate credit for his contributions, nor for creating a style and sound all his own. Beginning with Jay Dee’s experience in The Ummah production clique and later, to a lesser extent, in The Soulquarians. The sticky situation with regard to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis on Janet Jackson’s “Got Til It’s Gone”, among other similar Dilla industry frustrations, are unpacked with appropriate care.
Troubling rumors and accusations are investigated with transparency, be they financial, medical, or even domestic, each specific instance or event reported in respectful yet thorough detail. The author writes honestly—and, occasionally, painfully—about Dilla’s relationships with the mothers of his children, and his two young daughters. We get an intimate peek into James’s close-knit bond with his own mother, whom he called Maureen, but whom the rest of us affectionately know as Ma Dukes.
By no means is Dilla Time an easy read. There are nightmarish tales of his rugged bout with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura and lupus, detailing excruciating hospital experiences, a possible misdiagnosis, and Dilla’s own fears foreshadowing his eventual demise. After his death, the author confronts some painful realities with regard to the estate, leftover tax debt, and in-fighting between the heirs, some folks talking out of turn, plus lawyers, lengthy lawsuits, lost albums, and all the bullsh*t that has dogged Dilla’s legacy since he passed away in February 2006.
The persistent negativity and conflict in the wake of his death are almost a bit too much to bear, but now fans—and even his friends—are able to better grasp the fissures and disconnects that have occasionally drowned out the air-horns and accolades that deserve to rain down on Dilla unabated.
Among generations of family, dozens of friends, fans, disciples, label reps, lawyers, rappers, peers, and competitors, not all of their memories, opinions, narratives or motivations would necessarily align, and yet the author was able to extract potent recollections from nearly every relationship of any consequence during James Yancey’s short time on Earth. It’s a delicate dance only made possible by the author’s unwavering integrity and transparency, as evidenced by his meticulously-footnoting every last discrepancy—no small feat.
Despite the avalanche of posthumous deifications and numerous blog examinations, annual tribute sets and birthday parties, and countless shout-outs and send-ups across all of hip-hop and around the world, until now there was no definitive book about the man himself, nor his outsized (and underappreciated) impact on Black music over the past quarter century. Heretofore, there lacked a linear tracing of his rhythmic revolution, an anthropological guide, from ancestry to the contemporary, for those who have studied his blueprint, absorbed a bit of his brilliance, and then proudly carried the Dilla baton into the future.
Naturally, the scope of this book stretched out far beyond one man’s life and career. Charnas wove in numerous elements and developments that were crucial to contextualizing the events described: The work of Roger Linn advancing electronic music technology. The Neo-Soul phase and craze that swept Black culture. Dilla’s fondness for Detroit strip clubs as a test lab for his bangers. The advent of the internet and groundbreaking Okayplayer website, and how that community (and others) coalesced around the Church of Dilla. Wherever James Yancey went, and wherever the story unfolded, Charnas followed along, dutifully chronicling the details with pointed accuracy and passion, no holds barred but no bullsh*t either.
In that regard, I found Dilla Time to be nothing short of a holy scroll, a bold, brilliant testimony, a clinic in dot-connecting, musical-mapping, and hip-hop nerd sh*t. The story woven within is a profound portrait of a confounding pioneer, a thorough education, rumination, and stimulation, a game-changing historical document and love letter to a lost prophet.
This intimate, honest profile is the definitive J Dilla tome, an illuminating, intoxicating, and sobering sojourn into a man’s life, legacy, artistic contributions and musical revolution by way of groundbreaking productions, prolific output, ever-loving communities, and the seemingly-infinite reverberations of his genius.
“Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm” by Dan Charnas was an instant New York Times bestseller, posting in the #4 slot in Non-Fiction after it’s first week of release.Order your copy here.
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