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 speaks to the enormous staying power of Dilla’s work, long after the man himself is gone.
One of the things that continues to amaze me about J Dilla (and there are many) is that for a man who passed away over eight years ago, his influence is felt as much today as it was when he was alive, if not more. His aesthetic can be heard in the work of underground producers like Ta-ku, Knxwledge and Freddie Joachim; rappers like Joey Bada$$, Childish Gambino and Drake name-check him in their lyrics; onetime collaborators like Madlib, Karriem Riggins and Waajeed continue to take what they learned from him and apply it to their own work. And this doesn’t even take into account the steady stream of his beats and recordings that have trickled out of the archives over the years.
What I’m always amazed by are the tributes. Every year, sometimes in that first week of February, sometimes for no reason at all, another batch of covers, arrangements, and reworks are released, performed by musicians across styles and genres. That so many different artists can find that sort of inspiration in Dilla’s work demonstrates how classic his music truly is, because it has that sort of flexibility. A sampling of my favourites:
The Robert Glasper Experiment – “Dillalude #2”
As suggested by the title, this isn’t Glasper’s first crack at the Dilla oeuvre: Dillalude #1 is a more traditionally jazz approach included on his album In My Element. This time around, Glasper brings the full powers of his Experiment to a suite of “E=MC2,” Busta Rhymes’s “Show Me What You Got,” Slum Village’s “Intro,” and “The Look of Love,” and Common’s “The Light.” It’s a masterful performance, and I’m not ashamed to tell you it’s giving me chills as I write this.
Bullssazo – “Time: The Donut of the Heart”
All I know about Bullssazo is that they are a Korean band who took one of the most yearning songs on Donuts and turned it into a five-minute shoegaze jam that’s somehow more wistful than the original. And how cool is that?!
Flying Lotus – “LTWXRMX”
Flying Lotus has been a disciple of Dilla since his days as an intern at Stones Throw (he’s got a remix of Slum Village’s “Fall in Love” under his belt as well). Dilla worked the Raymond Scott original so well it’s impossible for anyone to hear it without thinking of him, so FlyLo unleashed an entirely new beat with sketches of the Donuts classic throughout. An impressive reminder that honoring a man’s memory doesn’t require a slavish recreation of the work he already made.
The Roots – “Hall & Oates”
Four years ago, long before they were the best band in late night, The Legendary Roots Crew dropped a free album of Dilla covers in memoriam of their friend and collaborator (Questlove still considers him his idol and mentor). The selections run throughout the entirety of Dilla’s career, from the earliest Pharcyde remixes to Donuts, but my pick is a cover of one of the most widely-bootlegged unreleased beats, named here after it’s sample source, a tiny snippet of a Hall and Oates live performance. It’s just another example of The Roots doing what they do, going the extra mile to leave you unsure of what’s a sample and what’s not, playing tight as hell, live off the floor as Questlove shouts notes to his bandmates (and apparently gets a call from his dad just before the song ends).
Katy Perry X J Dilla – “Teenage Dream”
Cards on the table: I think “Teenage Dream” is as close to a perfect pop song as you can find, and I don’t even have to argue with you, it’s been proven by science. J Dilla mashups can be a dime a dozen, but they usually stay in the realm of classic hip-hop, fusing Nas or Jay-Z over his beats. I have no idea what possessed an indie DJ named Devon Campbell to mix the entirety of Katy Perry’s album Teenage Dream over J Dilla instrumentals, but I’m grateful he did, because it became one of my favorite albums of 2012.
The true sign of a great mashup is when the two elements used to make it mesh so well they combine into something greater than the originals. This blend of the album’s title track with “Two Can Win” from Donuts sounds jarring at first, but after repeat listens the dissonance starts to work to its benefit and it’s like she was always meant to sing over his beats, and why would anyone doubt it?
J Dilla’s Donuts is available on Amazon, at Bloomsbury.com, or wherever 33 1/3s are sold.