Welcome back to Dilla Week, in celebration of #93 in the 33 1/3 series, J Dilla’s Donuts by Jordan Ferguson (out now!). Today, Jordan talks about lessons in life and music courtesy James Yancey.
In my experience, there are two types of hip-hop fans: one type appreciates the music as it is, and is content to enjoy it on its own merits; the other feels compelled to dig into the workings of the music, to discover the sample sources and investigate how DJs and producers have used them to create something new and original. No one approach is better than the other, but I’ve always fallen in the latter. It’s just how I’m wired.
To me, the greatest thing about hip-hop (or any form of sample-based music) is that it provides dual levels of enjoyment: not only do you get to love the new work that initially catches your ear, you get the added bonus of discovering the original work as well. Almost everything I know about funk, soul and jazz stems from my love of hip-hop, and how producers have reconstructed those songs, J Dilla being no exception. So I thought I’d take the opportunity today to shamefully confess five artists I would never have known existed if Dilla hadn’t taught me.
Sampled: “Saudade vem Correndo” on “Runnin” by The Pharcyde
As mentioned earlier this week, “Runnin” is the song that brought me back to hip-hop, its melancholy acoustic guitar unlike anything I’d heard in a rap song before. It’s taken from jazz saxophonist Stan Getz’s collaboration with Brazilian guitarist Luiz Bonfá, a lovely piece of bossa nova that’s since become a staple of my Sunday morning brunch preparations, and made Getz one of go-to jazz musicians when browsing record stores.
Sampled: “The Visit (She Was Here)” on “Get a Hold” by A Tribe Called Quest
The Cyrkle were a little-known folk-rock band from Pennsylvania who notably opened for and shared a manager with The Beatles. This song is an early example of Dilla’s keen ability to isolate the best part of a song (in this case the “drifting back” vocals), filtering and shifting the pitch down, and adding some neckbreaking drums to make something with a similar emotional feel to the source while remaining wholly its own. I never would have guessed that something as moody and bass driven as the Tribe track had its origins in a sweetly acoustic song about love and regret. I grew so fond this song I bought it on vinyl when I found it in a dollar bin.
Sampled: “Open Your Eyes” on “The Light” by Common
Some believe “The Light” is the best song Dilla ever produced. We could debate that all day, but it certainly marks the pinnacle of his first production phase, thick with bass and layered with keys. I might have known Caldwell’s other heavily-sampled classic “What You Won’t Do for Love,” but I never knew the man’s name until I became obsessed with knowing where that sample for “The Light” originated.
The other great thing that happens when you learn about sample sources, is that it’s like you’ve been shown a secret handshake known only by like-minded fans. I mention in the book that when a DJ played this song at Dilla Day Detroit 2013, it brought the house down. Where else would that possibly happen?
Sampled “Swahililand” on “Stakes is High” by De La Soul
Let’s pause here for a moment to appreciate the type of brain that can listen to a song almost ten minutes in length, zero in on the perfect five seconds of it (eight minutes in, no less), and loop it to perfection. Dilla is not alone in this regard (truthfully the first person to leave me slack jawed for this sort of thing was DJ Premier from Gang Starr), but the “Stakes is High” flip gave the perfect sense of gravity to De La’s calculated takedown of 90s-era hip-hop, and clued me in to one of the most innovative and important jazz musicians in the history of the music.
Sampled “Come and Play in the Milky Night” on “Show Me What You Got” by Busta Rhymes
I know I should end with a Donuts sample (it would have been “Maybe” by The Three Degrees) but given my affinity for Britpop in the late-90’s, I’m ashamed I never knew this band ahead of time. Sure I knew the name Stereolab, but I couldn’t tell you a single song or even describe their sound; I think I’d long had them confused with Spiritualized. Now they’re the essential accompaniment for my rainy reading afternoons.
How they ever crossed J Dilla’s path, who knows, but it’s a testament to his refusal to place any limits on how he made his art. No one was messing with Stereolab, yet he took it and looped it into a head-nodding masterpiece, perfectly paired to the unique rhyme schemes of Busta Rhymes.
And these are just five among dozens. At rough glance, I have maybe seven hundred J Dilla beats, remixes and bootlegs in my music library (and nowhere near all of it), each one with secrets and waiting to be discovered if I choose to. Eight years after he passed, and he’s still got lessons to teach me.
Anyone interested in starting his or her own education would do well to spend an afternoon with Waajeed’s brilliant “Bling 47 Dilla Breaks” series on YouTube. If you’re into this sort of record nerdery at all, they’re essential viewing.
J Dilla’s Donuts is available on Amazon, at Bloomsbury.com, or wherever 33 1/3s are sold.