On the Legacy of J Dilla with Jordan Ferguson



In 2003, Stones Throw Records flew photographer Brian “B+” Cross out to Detroit to snap some promotional photos of J Dilla, who was then working on the Jaylib project. If you follow this sort of thing, you know these photos: the blue and orange ensemble, a pinwheel cap for the Detroit Stars, the city’s Negro League baseball team, cocked on the side of his head. Classic material. In one of these photos, Dilla’s flipping the bins at Car City Records. Now closed, Car City then was an institution in St Clair Shores on Detroit’s East side, just south of Clinton Township, where Dilla was living at the time. The illness that would take his life is already manifesting inside him.

In 2015, disillusioned with the ephemerality of streaming, I bought a turntable and became a record collector in my late thirties. While these days I find myself mostly enamoured with Japanese pop and jazz fusion of the 1980s (that’s a whole other thing, ask me about it sometime), I started buying records like I imagine anyone who grew up on a musical diet of Detroit radio stations would, and used hip-hop as my guide. Any song I loved that wafted across the river and through my stereo speakers in neighbouring Amherstburg, Ontario guided my buying philosophy. If a sample had ever  caught my ear, I would track it down (this, oddly enough, is also the practice that brought me to Japanese pop and jazz fusion of the 1980s). In my small but meticulously maintained collection, there is a single album purchased from Car City Records. I know this because it still has the price tag on it. A copy of the 1976 album Valley Land by the jazz pianist Walter Bishop Jr, purchased by J Dilla for two dollars and eighty-three cents, later bought at auction by a friend and given to me as a birthday gift, notarized certificate of authenticity and all.

I don’t listen to that record often, hardly ever, if I’m being honest. It’s always been a weighty experience. Every time I drop the needle, I start mulling over what about it appealed to Dilla, what drew him to it, what he heard in it, and what he didn’t. What was it about this record that put it in his hands before it ended up in mine? The open piano chords on track one, begging to be chopped and flipped? The tonal echoes of Ahmad Jamal’s The Awakening, that staple of hip-hop jazz production? Was it simply that Bishop was just too fly on the album cover, all crocheted cap and bug-eyed sunglasses, his Sherpa-lined jacket hanging open, his elbow propped on the knee of his leather pants, a relaxed smirk on his face looking positively unbothered? Anyone would buy that record for $2.83.

I ask these questions every time I listen, even though I know I will never get the answers. It’s one of the ways I still find myself searching for him, like many of us still are.

Two ways of saying the same thing. The first, unknown in origin but falsely attributed to mythic scholar Joseph Campbell and shonen manga-ka Eiichiro Oda:

Through action, a man becomes a hero.

Through death, a hero becomes a legend.

Through time, a legend becomes a myth…

Fifteen years since we lost him. More than enough time for mythmaking.

It’s a slippery notion, legacy. Legacy seeks to cement greatness, yes, but it also seeks to decomplicate; to distill a person into an idea and to etch that idea into a collective memory. Jay Dee, lover of weed, trucks, and strip clubs; son, brother, father of two; blessed not only with the promise of musical genius but the work ethic to fulfill that promise; prone to fits of anger and annoyance like any other human being; he begins to blur around the edges with every passing year. What emerges in his place is J Dilla, more than a man, Smithsonian-enshrined, a vehicle of the Divine, liberating rhythms from metric time on wings of light and blessing our ears with every holy tap on the pads of his MPC. He who is known as The Changer of Lives. Legacy seeks to deify, to transform a person into a story, and what truth can stand in the face of a good story?  Dilla is cited as a forerunner of everything from left-field to lo-if. Fans (sometimes me) often link him as a spiritual comrade of the beloved Japanese beatmaker Nujabes, whom he shares a birthdate with, and also died young. That he had little to no connection to these people and genres in his lifetime, matters as much as whether he actually made Donuts from his hospital bed. The story wins, of course it would. 

Eothen Alapatt, aka “Egon,” onetime manager of Stones Throw Records and creative director for DIlla’s estate told Rolling Stone in 2016, “Dilla was a different thing when I was working with him. He was a man, I knew him … and now he’s a legend and he means something different. I’m still having a hard time wrapping my head around that …”

This sounds bleak, I’m being bleak. I don’t intend to be, honestly, and I don’t intend to, nor am I in any position to, criticize how anyone celebrates the man’s life. But for me, personally, as more time passes, it feels more important to remember the complexities of the man who made so much of the music I hold the closest.

Two ways of saying the same thing. The second, from poet and author Hanif Abdurraqib:

The world is not done with you even when you are done with it.

The world has never been done with James DeWitt Yancey.

When a genius such as his is cut short, it can be a struggle to let it rest. There’s a hunger, a completionist impulse towards exploration and discovery: there must be something left to unearth. The fact is, where Dilla is concerned, we’re running out of mysteries.

As of this writing, there are over a dozen posthumous releases that bear his name, most curated from the beat tapes rediscovered in a forgotten storage unit, many identified only by their filename or batch number (“DD.004,” “Jay Dee 54” etc). 

In an interview with Forbes, Egon said of these releases, “Some are of … mixed legitimacy, repurposing music previously sold or licensed by Dilla for new collaborative projects without estate involvement … The great majority are just straight-up illegitimate.” 

It’s been established that Dilla wasn’t especially precious with work he felt was finished, but we also know he often made beats for practice that were never intended for public consumption, even if they did eventually end up released. The rights of artists to control how their work is used after they pass is an evergreen philosophical debate, with some taking unconventional measures to ensure they do. If it’s unclear whether DIlla wanted this music out, and it doesn’t even serve to benefit his family, is there any argument to be made for its release? I’m not sure that there is.

One release that isn’t illegitimate is The DiaryThe Diary is Dilla’s infamous “lost” album, recorded for and shelved by MCA  Records in 2002, bootlegged and shared online in some capacity pretty much ever since.

As Egon told Rolling Stone, “[It’s] the last record that he actually wanted out — i.e., he said, in his own words, this record should come out during his lifetime. The last one.” That “actually” is doing some heavy lifting there. So is “last.”

I always meant for my 33 ⅓ to include an epigraph. I love epigraphs. I even had one chosen, but couldn’t clear it in time. It’s from Michael Chabon’s novel Telegraph Avenue. In the scene, our two main characters, co-owners of an Oakland record shop, are reconciling after an argument. Nat, the offender, has brought Archy, the offended, a peace offering from a local bakery:

“[Archy] opened the box, surveyed its contents like he was taking a first look at a crate of fresh inventory, there being, of course, as Archy often explained to Nat, a profound spiritual analogy, hole and all, between donuts and vinyl records.”

Thing about donuts (and Donuts) is that the loop they form is infinite, but it is also closed. The release of The Diary closes the loop, and places it as the period at the end of the sentence, the final sentence, in the the musical story of J Dilla. This is a sobering thought, because it means truly, for real this time, there is no more. No more storage units filled with burned CD-R’s and floppy discs; no more loose freestyles on the b-side of a blank cassette. So can we accept that? Can we be satisfied? Can I put on my copy of Valley Land and enjoy it on its own merits without using it like some flimsy codex for deciphering the musical mind of a genius? Can we, can I, stop searching for him?

Fifteen years after Donuts, I think that I can. Not because he has nothing left to teach me, actually the opposite. I don’t feel the need to catalogue and inventory every second of music he ever made because the body of work he meant to leave behind, his intended legacy, remains a text rich enough to continually support close listening, analysis and celebration. There are still so many unexamined sides left on that diamond, waiting for people smarter than me to illuminate.

“J Dilla Changed My Life.” Looks great on a t-shirt. I know, I own one. But the verb tense never sat right with me, because it implies the process is complete and not ongoing. The fact is, with every listen, with every reminder of the challenges he faced and fought against, J Dilla changes my life. 

Jordan Ferguson lives and works in Tkaronto/Toronto. In addition to J Dilla’s Donuts, his writing has appeared in The Wire, Bonafide, 33 ⅓: The B-Sides and the Red Bull Music Academy. He is the co-host and producer of the Geekdown Podcast and can be found online @jordan_ferguson

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