His dreams were as always big as his beats.
Dilla: One of the Best Yet
02/07/1974 - 02/10/2006
This article originally ran in Pound 32, March 2006. Compiled by: Rodrigo Bascuñán, Luke Fox and Joe Galiwango. Photography by: B+, Roger Erickson and Mpozi Mshale Tobert
July 14, 1999 — Slum Village’s first night in Toronto. Huddled before a tape recorder, before Pound was even a print magazine, the animated T3, the goateed Baatin, and the late, great Jay Dee spoke with excitement about their music and their mission. Sadly, the producer later known as J-Dilla is no longer with us. But we still have his music, and we still have this grainy, old mini-cassette on which the 25-year-old dressed in a collared shirt and Kangol on tilt, chunky medallion swinging, claimed to want to scan Michael Jackson numbers. His dreams were as always big as his beats.
AN INTERVIEW WITH J DILLA
How did you hook up with Slum Village?
J Dilla: [starts rapping] “Started out in ’88/ My man T3 came out (Word up)/ And said, ‘Yo, we gotta get this shit off the mark.’ [Breaks into laughter] But, nah, we met up through high school. I heard about T3 and Baatin, and they were supposed to be the illest emcees at that time. And I thought I was. So, I wanted to challenge them. To make a long story short, we just hooked up after that. The chemistry was right.” Did you have a battle? “No, it’s more of a freestyle cipher. We sounded good together. And ever since that
day we’ve been in the studio.”
Did you have a battle?
"No, it's more of a freestyle cipher. We sounded good together. And ever since that day, we've been in the studio."
When did you realize that you had enough talent to take the rap game seriously?
“I’d say about ’95, ’96. But we been doin’ this. We always wanted to be signed, but we didn’t take it seriously till ’96. Like, we gotta get a deal.”
Your Slum Village album, Fantastic Vol. 2, has been pushed back several times. You’ve changed labels. How frustrating is it, waiting to be set up properly with the right promotion?
“We don’t wanna be Tha Alkaholiks, y’know? Like, dope, but they don’t sell. They got to promote me. I’m not trying to be like Beatnuts or Organized Konfusion—dope-ass groups that never went platinum, that nobody even know.”
What level of success would you be happy with?
"I wanna be up with Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson's shit."
How long have you been working on this album?
"About three years of this particular album, Vol. 2. A lot of the songs are old, but we've been piecing stuff together.
What’s the craziest thing that’s happened in the studio?
“The wildest thing that’s happened in the studio was when Common Sense was there. We was on the town with The Roots, and everyone in Detroit showed up at the studio. It was wild! How did everybody know they was there? That was wild.”
You mentioned Detroit. What’s the hip-hop scene there like?
I just got the Heavy D album, and you have some tracks on there. What’s the difference between producing for your own group and making beats for other artists?
“For our album, the beats that I picked hit me. You gotta do something you feel, something you could listen to for hours. But the beats I used for, say, the De La album, I might’ve just picked from my beat tape.”
What instruments do you play?
Keyboards, drums, and we all sing.
How do you avoid getting labeled as making music for only a certain type of crowd?
“I’ll use Mobb Deep as an example. If Mobb Deep came out right now on some girl shit, some I-love-you-girl shit, niggas wouldn’t buy it. It could be the illest shit, but they would get clowned. I wanna put that [girl song] out first, before the listeners pin me.”
SPEAKING ON J DILLA
Baatin on J Dilla:
“We would be twins, but we’re total opposite twins. We’re like two polar opposites. If you took the symbol of the Pisces, you got a fish going opposite ways. He would be the total opposite way. We all the same but different. T3 would be the middle- man.”
T3 on J Dilla:
“J Dilla is more a titty-bar guy. Baatin is more a café guy. I’m the middle guy. If I’m at home, I might go out with J Dilla, then I might go out with Baatin.”
Since Dilla’s passing, the Pound team managed to speak to some of his oldest friends and collaborators, what follows are their reflections.
Frank ’N Dank
Dilla put two of his oldest friends together to form Frank 'N Dank. The three recorded and toured together for many years.
What was it like working with Dilla in the studio?
“He’s a perfectionist, especially for himself, and the things that he expected to hear were paramount. When you were in the studio with him there was a way that you conducted yourself and a way he conducted himself. It was real loose and free. You could smoke your blunts and have fun, but he was also very strict about how you were supposed to go about your work. His work ethic was very consistent and strong. He could work forever. We would be doing songs for like four or five hours, whole songs. He would lay a beat, go upstairs and take a nap. And when he’d come back downstairs with that blunt he’d want to hear a finished record.”
Why did he work so hard like that?
“Because he enjoyed it. Making beats and music was fun for him. He could do it all day. As long as it wasn’t anything political, as long as it could be just him and the beat, and the things around him that made him comfortable. Having Frank there, having Dank there, his family that he knew was cool. He just loved it.”
Have you had a chance to think about your role in his legacy?
“Not really. It’s been a crazy few weeks. I played my part. The things that we focus on is this guy being our friend. I knew this dude before he had a beat machine. This is just a friend. Beyond the music, I lost a friend. I lost one of my best friends. I didn’t just lose some guy that makes beats. His legacy still has to live on. He did a lot of things while he was here and he left a lot of things for us to do. I just focus on the good times. Music is really just like a point of reference. It was more about the feelings at that time, as opposed to what we actually did.”
Do you think there’s anything that people didn’t realize about him and how he made his music?
“He really really loved the act of making beats, so much so that a finished product had to impress him. He had to impress himself. He could make a beat, we’d be listening to this killer beat, and he’ll cut the machine off. No saving it to memory, none of that, because it aint up to his standard. He was really smart and he just applied it to music and he became a wizard. I’ve seen him do things with the MPC and make shit happen on the fly no problem.
Him and Proof, and a few other beat makers that were around at the time used to have contests. You could pick one record out of the stash of records and you get ten minutes and you’ve got to make a whole beat. No matter what it is, you’ve got to play that beat when the time’s up, he would always kill everybody. It was fun, beats to him was like relaxation. When he was a young kid, he would skip school and just stay in the basement. Just stay there all day. He would skip school to make beats and we would skip school to go listen to the beats that he made.”
What are your favorite beats he did?
“There’s so many. My favourite is a remix of a Brand New Heavies song that he did. I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s so crazy, I think it’s crazy because it’s R&B.”
“Music is just a bonus. We lost one of our best friends. We grew up together, since 1984 until 2006—a lifelong friend. I can’t touch on the music right now, because I still haven’t properly mourned because my friend passed. If it wasn’t for him it would be no Frank ‘N Dank. No Frank and no Dank. That became something that he dreamed, like ‘I’m going to name you Dank and you’ll be Frank.’ It’s a trying time.”
What are your best memories?
“My best memories are childhood memories. What me, him, and Frank did as kids growing up. Music always played a part but it was just a bonus. Some people are fortunate enough to have music around as part of their life. His family sung in the choir at church, his father was a jazz-musician, his uncle was a major DJ so he always had music. That was just the extra part. Us being friends growing up in Detroit on the East side, 7-Mile, Conant Gardens, 6-Mile, 8-Mile, just traveling through Detroit was a hell of a ride.”
Was he musical as a child?
“Yeah, we had music class together. I tell everybody, I got an F in music. When he taught me how to play hip-hop music, I got an A-plus. He showed me how to play the notes in the music theory. That if I wanted to play the hip-hop I had to pay attention to the notes. We used to play the cello together, the bass, the violin, drums, piano, everything. He taught me how to play “Paid in Full” by Eric B and Rakim on the piano.”
How would you describe him as a producer?
“The greatest. You really have to know him to understand why he was the greatest producer. I can only speak for me and Frank, because at a certain point in time, nobody was there but me and Frank when he made all this re- ally ridiculous shit. His mojo was Frank reading a magazine, me rolling up a blunt telling him about our childhood history because they forgot everything and I remembered everything. Those times we had were the most fun. I remember calling niggas on the phone on three-way, letting them hear him rhyme over some beats. We’d have three or four phone lines going on three- way, niggas on the phone that want to meet up at the high school and form a clique—The High Top Society, crazy ass niggas with fades.
I can’t really talk to people about everything and all the sacrifices he made for us. I knew what he did for Slum Village and a Tribe Called Quest, and other artists, but what he did for his two friends Frank and Dank, he brand- ed us. He gave us something that we’ll have for the rest of our lives—the opportunity to do music and to know how to be in the studio and do music a certain way.
We learned from one of the illest producers ever to walk this earth. He was a genius, and I mean that because he was really critical and hard on him- self. And he taught me never to fall in love with a beat because it always can be changed, as long as you have the song. Go in there, get the vocals done, and get out. Do your sixteen bars, and get out of there. We were the ones who created the three minute banger, nobody else. It makes you want to rewind the song like ‘like damn, it’s only that long? Bring that back.’”
What was it like when you recorded “Pause?”
“‘Pause’ was at a time where we were really happy. It was a time where the whole crew was going on tour and I had to clean myself up. There was a certain way that Dilla wanted niggas to rhyme over the beat, the profession- al way. You didn’t really understand at first. After you grew, you understood what it was, he was really critical. It made us who we are; it made us aware of how to do music.
It was so many songs, too many. We would do these songs in ten minutes, a quick verse and a hook, and make classic joints. We did so many songs that I’ve got to go to the vault of 40 or 50 songs, there might even be more.
We would go the strip club seven days a week. Beats and ass. Dilla loved a fat ass that made the beats move. We’d wake up, blaze up, make a beat, go record shopping, go eat, go to the strip club, drink, get some hoes on your lap, go to the crib and bang it out. And make some crazy shit.”
One of the few people with a knowledge of records as vast as Jay's, Egon became a friend to Jay through his work at Stones Throw Records.
“Peanut Butter Wolf first introduced me to Dilla in ‘98 or ‘99, when I was working to reissue Galt MacDermot’s music in New York. He gave me his phone number, and told me to contact him to get him some copies of Galt’s 60s and 70s albums. At that point, Dilla had remixed Busta Rhymes’ ‘Woo Ha’ using a Galt sample, so I figured that he’d be open to the call. But hav- ing been a fan of his music since I first heard ‘Runnin,’ I called him apprehensively—I knew I was calling a legend.
The man I talked to was warm and accommodating. This com- pletely took me by surprise. I’d expected him to resist any at- tempt at conversation, but he went in completely the opposite direction. Turned out he was in New York, recording Common with Bob Power, and he invited me to the studio. Of course he asked me to bring some records, and I happily obliged.
Sitting in the studio that day, I just knew I was in the presence of greatness. It’s weird, being such a fan, and being privileged enough to be invited into the inner sanctum of a world that most people don’t even know exists. We talked for a little while - Bob was being paid by the hour after all - and I made it a point to leave before I felt that I’d worn out my welcome.
After Wolf offered me a position with Stones Throw in 2000, and I moved to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to get to know Jay better. Over the past six years, I got to know his family, be- came close with his loving mother, and realized just how deep his musical lineage struck.
I witnessed some amazing moments - the flurry of music back and forth between he and Madlib that resulted in Jaylib, his performances in front of thousands of people all over the con- tinent, his ever-evolving and never less than genius music. And I never, not once, lost the feeling that I had that first day—that I was simply blessed to be in his presence. I enjoyed every mo- ment I was lucky enough to spend with him.”
One of Dilla’s oldest friends, Phat Kat was the emcee in First Down, Dilla’s first group.
How was it being on the Welcome to Detroit album?
“That’s kind of new. The first recording we ever did was in 1995. We had a group called First Down and we had a single deal with Pay Day records.”
What was it like recording with him?
“We were the blueprint of Detroit hip-hop. All the stuff that I recorded with him was done in one take and it was straight from scratch, made on the spot.”
How was it recording Dedication to the Suckers?
“It came out in 2000. We recorded that whole 12 inch in one night. We started at nine o’clock and we were done by twelve – just in time for the strip club. He laid the tracks and I laid all the vocals. Started at nine, done at twelve, four songs, done.”
Have you ever worked with any other producers that work like him?
“Nah. You can’t compare his work ethic to anybody because this dude makes tracks in ten minutes. Like I said on Welcome to Detroit, “we’re putting flows to tracks in less than ten minutes flat.” That was true. He made that beat in seven minutes, and I laid the track and the song was done in ten minutes. That was the first song recorded for the Wel- come to Detroit. That set the whole precedent for Welcome to Detroit, the whole album was done like that, no messing around.”
What is the reception to his music in Detroit?
“Detroit never supported anything he did. We’ve been doing this professionally since 1995 and we never got support from Detroit, never. We never sold any records in this city and the city never supported us. It’s sad now that my man passed and everyone wants to play an hour of Dilla’s music or do this and do that. Motherfuckas should have been doing that when he was here. Motherfuckas just lost a genius and it’s sad that Detroit really don’t know what we have contributed to hip-hop.”
What is his reception across the world?
“Right before he passed we just did a European tour—me, Dilla, Frank and Dank. And it was crazy because all the shows we did were sold out. Every show was sold out. All the fans knew every word to every song that every one of us performed. It’s depressing when you can tour the world and have fans worldwide and rave reviews for every- thing and come home to Detroit and motherfuckers don’t know who you are and don’t give a fuck. It makes me depressed.”
What’s your favorite Dilla song?
“Right now, I’m bumping the new shit he did on my album. The world is going to know. It’s like he ain’t went nowhere, he’s still producing crazy shit. He had over 6000 beats. He’s got beats to last our kid’s kids.”
Peanut Butter Wolf
The founder of Stones Throw Records, PBW was a close friend to Jay for many years and was instrumental in facilitating much of Jay's recent work, including his last album, Donuts.
"Jay was the rare artist who understood both quality and quantity. People in the art scene are blown away by the amount of incredible paintings Basquiat did in such a short period of time. Jay was the same with the music. He was one of hip-hop's ONLY prophets and acted like one as well. I never saw him brag about his gift or complain about his lack of being in the spotlight. He never even complained to us about the personal pain he suffered battling his illness. I first met Jay in '97, but didn't really get to know him until he moved to L.A. a few years ago. In that time, I was truly blessed to get to know the man behind the music. To get to know someone you admire that much from being afar was a truly awesome experience that most people never get the chance to do. Jay reached out to Madlib and I at a time when he was working with EVERYBODY who mattered in the hip-hop community. He saw a gift in Madlib and accepted him before anybody else would. Out of sheer fear of rejection, we never approached Jay to work. Making the Jaylib album into a reality was really Jay's idea. A lot of other established artists before Jay told me personally how they wanted to work with Madlib and/or Stones Throw, but Jay was the first to actually do something about it and for that, I am forever greatful. I remember him joking with me on the phone early on, 'I'm gonna take you guys on a ride, Wolf. I don't think y'all are ready.' He was right."
Dilla lived with Common for the last two years of his life in a home they shared in Los Angeles. Together, they created Jay's most commercially successful song: "The Light."
"The first J Dilla stuff I heard was things from a beat tape and him just making beats right there when I was around, because he was at Q-Tip's house and I was there to holler at Tip and I heard some beats he had made, and it was some stuff that was going to be used on Beats, Rhymes and Life. Like 'Get A Hold' - ooh! I remember, it was like, 'This is special.' Right during that time, we made some stuff that I was going to use for my album but I ended up not using it.
'96 was when I met him. Man, he just was special; he had something special about him. He was quiet, but he was special. I heard that music and I was like, 'This dude got a whole new thing.' I had his beat tape and I would go play it around The Roots and they would be like, 'Who the hell is that?' And I told them it was J. Dilla. Everyone loved what J Dilla was doing."
"This is how cool Jay was. I was about to start One Day It'll All Make Sense and I was getting some beats and I heard some stuff that I wanted to hook with J Dilla on and he flew out to Chicago - paid his own money and way - and went and laid the music down in the studio for me and whatever I wanted to do with it - I could do. And I took the music and I made some songs but I didn't necessarily want to use them for that album, so that's why they never came out. That was in '96. He just came and laid the music down for me - and it was on his money. I hadn't even paid him yet or nothing; he was just a good-hearted dude. One of those beats Busta used. I forget the name of the song. If I could find those songs, I would be like, 'This is winning the lottery.' But I definitely couldn't locate those reels."
"'The Light' was the first song that we made that was released. Along with that, we made 'Afrodisiac' around the same time. Those were the first songs we made together. It was a situation where we were already working on another song, and I was out in his truck listening to some beats with Frank, from Frank 'N Dank and 'The Light' music came on and he was like, 'Oh my God! What is this?' And I went and asked Jay, 'Is anyone using this?' and he was like, 'Naw.' So we went to his basement and he went and added some drums to 'The Light' and showed me the scratch that he was thinking about scratching in the chorus part and I took it from there as far as where I wanted to go with the song. It was just one of those special moments and you're just very grateful that you were able to be a part of that. 'Cause I just got to hear the song and knew that that was a beautiful song, and then I wrote to it. At first I didn't know if I was going to do a love song of not, because I hadn't did a love song and I was like 'You know what, I just wrote my love song.' Jay loved it and we just recorded it. Man, and everything was so pure and natural. That's why I had 'tic-a-tah, tic-a-tah, tic-a-tic-a-tic-ah,' because I hadn't even finished writing, but I just left the line like that because that take was right and everything was just there for it."
Questlove almost turns out 'The Light'
"At one point they was like, 'You need to take that off the album.' They was just like, 'This song is just aiight.' We had to pay so much for the sample that they was like, 'Maybe you oughta not use that song.' But that song touched so many people. I remember that that was the first time in my career that little young black girls were coming to me and being like, 'Ooh, I love you Common, I love the song 'The Light.' Little young kids, in the ghetto - black kids were affected by what I was doing. It felt good. It had an impact. It felt universal, it feels like a classic."
Other sessions on Like Water for Chocolate
"It was just a process of us going to J. Dilla's basement - I would fly to Detroit - he would come get me from the hotel, we would ride and listen to beats. He would make some and him and Frank would take me to Gameworks, we would go play games. Sometimes he wanted to go to the strip club and I would be like, 'Naw, I don't want to go to the strip club.' Then I ended up going to the strip club a couple of times and I liked it. You know it was fun for that moment. But, it was just a process with J Dilla, we just really became close. Go to the strip club, go to Gameworks, go to the Mongolian Barbecue and the rides from the hotel. It was just all like special moments. When I look back, it was just us living, but now I appreciate that a lot. I remember one time I wanted him and Slum Village to rap on 'Funky for You.' That was the song that I thought they were going to get on and we sat in the studio a long time and they didn't do nothing to it, so I thought they just didn't feel it. So, J Dilla went home that night, he came back the next day, and he was playing 'Thelonius' and was like, 'Yo, we can do this song. This ours. We can do this as a crew cut.' And i was like 'Yes!' And 'Thelonius' become 'Thelonius,' it was special. He had that beat and his chorus on it already. He just popped it in the tape deck and I was like, 'Oh my God.'"
Jay's favourites and his influence
"Jay just did the music. You could tell which stuff he loved. I think 'Thelonius' was one of his favourites, maybe 'Afrodisiac.' I would have James Poyser come out and play over top of J Dilla, it would be stuff that we thought that Jay wouldn't want to sample. Like 'The Questions,' James played the Rhodes on it. But it was J Dilla giving him direction. J Dilla was like the mind behind a lot of Like Water for Chocolate, definitely some of Electric Circus, the mind behind Slum Village, the inspiration for Voodoo, for Things Fall Apart, for Mama's Gun. Everybody was influenced by Slum Village and J Dilla."
"J Dilla lived with me. We lived together in L.A. During the time when he was sick, I started to realize that we had a certain connection. Two years ago, we moved to L.A. You get closed to someone you living with. It just became more about us being brothers than music. He wasn't able to produce as often as he did usually. He was producing though. But we just were together for the friendship. It was a treat knowing I had one of the greatest producers - I could wake up and hear him making beats. That was incredible. To just know like, 'Damn, this dude is one of the greatest.' Like true genius. When I was at his memorial service, you realized that this dude was really somebody special - like one of the greats - like the way we look back at Miles Davis or Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. This dude is one of those people."
"If J Dilla was not sick every day and night, he was making music. He was breathing music. But he became really sick. But he made music - that was his thing.
"He didn't talk about that much. Jay didn't talk a lot about those things. You rarely knew what was going on in his personal life. You would after a while because you knew him, and he would let certain things out but he wasn't that dude that was going to share that type of information with you. I did know certain things, because we close, but I always had faith. Now he at a better place."
Losing a friend
"I'll miss that he won't physically be here to create and continue his dream. Seeing him. Knowing that he right there creating music, doing what he want to do from his heart."
"I think we still got him. We got one of the greatest producers. I think what's significant about this music is that it can be here forever and last forever. So we do have a legacy that we can continue to feel, to listen to, to experience. We just won't be able to hear any new things from him that was ceated in 2006 and beyond. But we still have one of the greatest musicians ever as a part of our tradition. We will keep him music and spirit alive and progressing."