Alan McGee Remembers Hip Hop Hero J Dilla

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In February 2009  I read a feature in Vibe Magazine about J Dilla's legacy. The timing was poignant, coming just before the third anniversary of his death (on 10 February). It was a sad reminder of the loss of an enigmatic artist who had spent his life avoiding music industry politics.

Like many others, I became aware of Dilla rather late in the game. Born James Yancey, he deliberately engineered a low profile, preferring to focus on music creation rather than self-promotion. This attitude garnered the respect of the hip-hop community; Dilla successfully straddled the underground and mainstream with production for Janet Jackson, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Ghostface Killah and Madlib among others. Despite his prodigious talent and the accolades of his peers, he suffered at the hands of the music industry, losing songwriting credits and having both his MCA solo album and associated productions placed in limbo. Dilla responded with a pioneering album he called Ruff Draft, a DIY limited edition vinyl-only release via German label Groove Attack.

I remember buying the reissued Ruff Draft in 2007 and being shocked by the sonic genius of the tracks. From the spoken-word intro of "sounds like it's straight from the motherfuckin' cassette" to the acid rock of Nothing Like This and the futuristic outer-space dub of Pillz, the release demonstrated a wonderfully inventive approach to beat-making. Ruff Draft paid respect to the originators of hip-hop and early cassette culture, yet Dilla pushed the music forward, like a hip-hop Kevin Shields. His MO was to keep the music as raw as possible, incorporating reverb, heavy rock and psychedelia, all fused with a rough hip-hop grace. Listening to Ruff Draft now, you realise that Dilla, frustrated with the mainstream, had ripped up the hip-hop lesson books and started again, all tempered with his own immaculate production skills. You could hear the same wilfully experimental spirit in his production on Common's album Electric Circus.

Freed from music industry restraints, Dilla hooked up with Madlib for Champion Sound (released under the banner Jaylib), and his association with the Stones Throw label continued until his death from cardiac arrest brought on by a blood disoder, TTP. Dilla's final album, Donuts, is a hyperactive, spaced-out mix of tweaked electronics and hip-hop jams (only one track goes beyond the two-minute mark). Recorded on his deathbed, it's an eerie listen.

Since Dilla's death, Stones Throw and many other associates have been championing to keep his legacy alive. Every February is deemed Dilla Month, and this year sees the release of Beat Konducta: The Dill Withers Suite, Madlib's ode to his friend. Erkyah Badu paid musical tribute with the songs Telephone and The Healer on last year's stunning New Amerykah Part One (4th World War). Dilla's somnambulistic and aggressively hazy music has also found a foothold in the rock world, with Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance, Black Dice, Deerhunter and Four Tet all namechecking him. In a disposable world, Dilla has proven himself a musical alchemist, whose influence lives on equally in hip-hop, soul and rock'n'roll.

Reproduced by Kind Permission of Alan McGee
Read 3756 times Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2015 15:53
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ZANI was conceived in late 2008 and the fan base gradually grew by word of mouth. Key contributors came from those of the music, film and fashion industry and the voice of ZANI grew louder. So, when in 2013 investor, contributor and fan of ZANI Alan McGee* offered his support to help restyle and relaunch the site it was inevitable that traffic would increase dramatically and continues to grow. *Alan McGee co-founder of Creation Records and new label 359 Music..


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