J Dilla and the art of computer-generated beats

Wednesday, March 21, 2018 - 11:30am

J Dilla

J Dilla Buy this photo
Wikimedia Commons

You may know him as Jay Dee, J Dilla or even his given name, James Dewitt Yancey, but there’s no denying that the man with many monikers was an undeniable genius. Taking part in the mid-’90s hip hop and neo-soul boom that crafted some of the best music of all time, the Detroit producer is responsible for bringing funk to a new playing field with other legends like Q-Tip and Dr. Dre. J Dilla revolutionized the genre with his incredible take on the art of sampling, bringing a human touch to the computer-generated beats of his era.

His hand in the great music of the ’90s and early 2000s is unmistakable; the laid-back groove of Erykah Badu, De La Soul, The Roots, Slum Village, A Tribe Called Quest, Common and many more owe their unique sound to the collaboration of Yancey and his singular use of sampling and drum machines. Dilla’s influence is found in almost all of current hip hop, living on in the remixes and beats of music mainstays from Flying Lotus to Kanye West and the headphones of millions.

Yancey was born in Detroit in 1974, growing up with his family’s appreciation for music and the deep-rooted traditions of his city. According to his mother Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, her son was musical from a young age, playing with a Fisher-Price record player for hours on end and accumulating his first 45s given to him by family. This laid the foundation for an illustrious career as a producer who changed the hip hop game, starting with the formation of his first group, Slum Village, in the final years of high school with fellow Detroit rappers T3 and Baatin. Their first album Fantastic, Vol. 1 came out in 1996 to critical and local acclaim.

This was a stepping stone toward the greater Detroit hip hop scene, of which he became a lasting fixture. His friendship with producer Joseph “Amp” Fiddler created a fruitful mentorship from which Dilla mastered digital production and created his signature sampling style. From there, his talent could be seen on albums like The Pharcyde’s 1995 Labcabincalifornia, which are still revered today. That style is what sets him apart from other producers of his era — Dilla threw convention to the wind with everything he did, learning techniques from Amp and building off of them towards an incomparable sound of his own.

Amp’s influence on a young Yancey contributed to his affinity and skill for sampling and drum machines like the MPC (MIDI Production Center) in its earliest 60 and 3000 models, a collaboration between Roger Linn and Akai which revolutionized digital music production by giving artists the opportunity to use their own samples in lieu of preloaded drum sounds like those of the Linn Drum. In Dilla’s last interview with Scratch Magazine before his untimely death in 2006, the producer claimed that Amp encouraged him to learn by use and not the manual, saying that “(Amp) was like, ‘I’m not going to show you to work it. You gotta learn on your own.’ He was like, ‘Don’t use a book.’ Ever since this day I never read the books to samplers and all of that, I just try to learn them.”

This on-the-fly education gave Dilla a creative edge to sampling, one of the most prominent signatures of his work being his disregard for a function called quantization, which snaps beats to a more uniform grid. Instead of using quantization to polish his production, J Dilla embraced the humanity of music-making and let the beat take him where it wanted to go. Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson says Dilla’s beat on The Pharcyde’s song “Bullshit” produced the most “life-changing moment he’d ever had,” which inspired him to rethink everything he’d been taught as a drummer. In an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Questlove said that at first listen, Dilla’s beats “sounded like the kick drum was played by like a drunk three-year-old. And I was like, ‘Are you allowed to do that?’”

This stunned response was one of many to Dilla’s unique approach to drums and bass, as he created a signature low-end sound that grooves and flows throughout each of his songs. His work with production groups like The Ummah, in which he worked with A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad and hip-hop supergroup Soulquarians. Dilla’s command of sampling did not only present in his technical skill with machines like the MPC, but also an incredible knack for sourcing jazz and soul records and bringing them to new heights.

This skill for creating incredibly original music out of already existing samples is what put Dilla on the map in the first place, but also what carries his legacy into the present. His last album, Donuts, was released three days before his death from a rare blood disease in 2006, and mostly recorded and mixed from his hospital room. Despite the conditions in which it was produced, Donuts is arguably J Dilla’s most acclaimed and celebrated solo album, a stark example of his skill for creating instrumental hip hop from unique sources and influences.

Some have argued Dilla may have been the last great jazz innovator, as his command and creative affinity for imperfection lifted his music to a level beyond his contemporaries. Whatever one may think J Dilla stands for in the history of hip hop and soul, it’s clear that he was a revolutionary figure who truly shifted how people thought about production. Dilla’s use of technology to further his art is proof of hip hop’s reliance on and celebration of digital production, but also of what it is capable of. Dilla humanized the buttons and knobs of his machines beyond recognition, disregarding norms left and right to create a lasting legacy which lives on in every track he touched. Whatever name you know him by, one thing is true — that James Dewitt Yancey changed the face of hip hop forever.