It's dismaying and bittersweet that the week in which we celebrate the birthday of celebrated hip-hop producer J. Dilla (February 7th), we also have to reconcile the fact that it was only a few days later that the legend passed away from complications related to lupus (Feburary 10th). In the years since his death at the maddeningly young age of 32, Dilla's cult has grown significantly, but this posthumous appraisal is definitely not without good reason. It was even while bed-ridden in a hospital suffering from the disease that would take his life that Dilla crafted the exquisite opus Donuts, a superb statement that focused on Dilla's rabidly growing innovations as a beatmaker and a forward-thinking master of craft who's artistic career was cut infuriatingly short. Thankfully, Dilla left behind a strong body of work stretching back into the 90's, one which has been evaluated in the ensuing years as one of the most distinctively consistent and inventively soulful in the pantheon of hip-hop. Like his friend and colleague Madlib, Dilla was one of the most visionary of the post-90's golden age of beatsmiths, with both using their worship of giants like Pete Rock, Large Professor, DJ Premier, and the DITC crew (Diamond D, Showbiz, Lord Finesse, Buckwild) as a starting point for a distinctively original and personal sonic template that shined as the obvious progressions from this revolutionary era of hip-hop. His drums and his basslines have a legendary funk that made his singular work a perfect fit not only for many MC's within the hip-hop community, but also for a good handful of soul and R&B acts as well. Dilla was one of the last great hopes for hip-hop in a period marked by an increasingly commercial crassness, where big business and trend-chasing began to stifle the progressive spirit set forth in years past. His passing was beyond unfortunate, but thankfully, a strong backbone of fans indebted to his work keep this genius's body of work visibly lauded for what is sure to be years and years to come.
Below are some highlights, many overlooked, from Dilla's 90's career (then producing under the name "Jay Dee"). Part 2, looking at the 00's, will follow next week.
1st Down - "A Day Wit The Homiez" (1995)
Although the Payday imprint was responsible for such cult hip-hop classics as Showbiz & A.G.'s Runaway Slave and Jeru The Damaja's first two albums, they seemed to drop the ball when it came to the early careers of some eventual hip-hop legends (see also Mos Def's trio Urban Thermo Dynamics having their solid 1995 album for the label scrapped in spite of two singles being promoted). 1st Down was the duo of Detroit stalwart Phat Kat and Dilla himself (then going by the pre-Jay Dee moniker of John Doe), who saw this 12" pressed on the label and then....nothing. It's a shame as "Day" is a wonderfully smooth lost gem with Dilla making deft use of both a loop of Joe Sample's familiar "In All My Wildest Dreams" (most famously sampled on 2Pac's "Dear Mama") and some added flavor from The Brothers Johnson's "Tomorrow." An early notable glance of greater things to come.
Janet Jackson featuring Q-Tip - "Got 'Til It's Gone (Ummah Jay Dee Revenge Mix)" (1997)
Infamously bilked out of production credit by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis for the album version of this late-period Janet hit (though those guys were fooling nobody as the track had the obvious fingerprints of the late-90's Ummah vibe all over it), Dilla's idea of vengeance was to blatantly outdo his original. As nice as the original track is, this remix ups the neck-breaking thump and ambient atmosphere to an absurdly euphoric degree. Absolutely untouchable.
Busta Rhymes - "So Hardcore" (1997)
Busta was on his way to pop stardom when his sophomore LP When Disaster Strikes dropped, thanks to the ubiquitous "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See," but even as his albums in the subsequent years became more and more uneven and pop-minded, he always turned to Dilla for a few unequivocal highlights. "So Hardcore" had a dusty, dank grittiness to it unbecoming of many of Dilla's other productions of the time, and as such, it's an overlooked highlight in his 90's resume. While most rappers in the late 90's turned to DJ Premier to prove their street edge could coexist alongside their club bangers, Dilla proved here that he easily could've offered a similar service.
A Tribe Called Quest featuring Jay Dee - "That Shit" (1998)
Late-period Tribe always gets overlooked, bogged down by the absurd expectations imposed on the group in regards to how they should follow up two of the most perfect hip-hop records of the 90's (The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders). It seemed initially that Dilla was taking on part of the blame for the change in the group's direction, being he was a new face and all, though in hindsight his handiwork overwhelmingly represented the highlights of the trio's post-Marauders excursions. A new sound, sure, but one which worked in-line with the group's confident creativity. "That Shit" is a rare jam sadly relegated to a Funk Master Flex compilation in severely truncated form (removing Phife's entire verse for some reason). A promo 12" on Loud was released and is definitely worth seeking out.
Phife Dawg - "Thought U Wuz Nice" (1999)
Even greater growing pains befell the Tribe brethren when the group disbanded, leaving Tip and Phife to traverse an increasingly commercial-minded hip-hop landscape cold to most forms of innovation within the genre. While Tip infamously applied parts of the "if you can't beat them, join them" maxim to his initial solo jaunts, Phife stuck to his guns, though his lone solo LP was received lukewarmly. Dilla stuck by both Tip and Phife in the breakup fallout, and on this non-album b-side he provides the "Five Foot Assassin" with a soulful guitar lick that melds seamlessly to his characteristic kicks, giving Phife space to feel at ease with his easy-going persona.
Slum Village featuring Kurupt - "Forth & Back (Unreleased Original Version)" (1999)
One of the absolute best uses of Tom Browne's "Funkin' For Jamacia" in a hip-hop track, Dilla strips the bassline down to a breezy thump, crafting a party anthem that was simultaneously as cerebral as it was physical in a time when club music was frequently watering itself down to simple cliches. While the album version of "Forth" was a tight slab of stark minimalism, this version is eons ahead, which makes it all the more frustrating that it never saw official release. UPDATE (2/10/12): This version was finally released commercially in 2010 on a quasi-reissue of the group's classic album Fantastic Vol. 2 entitled Fantastic Vol. 2.10.
Black Star - "Little Brother" (1999)
Chopping up Roy Ayers' "Ain't Got Time" into a shockingly seamless gem of melancholy groove, Dilla outdid himself on this classic Black Star rarity provided to the Hurricane soundtrack. For some insight, ?uestlove of The Roots relays the story behind this track, expounding on the genius of Dilla's production.