restricted access For Dilla’s Sake and the Love of Donuts
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369 W ith his legacy complete, and that smile just a memory that beams from the cover of Donuts, we can now exhaustively examine J Dilla’s catalog, attempt to categorize the rhythms, and confidently assess his value to this art form. It’s not so much about what J did for hip-hop as it is what Dilla did for music—and not just modern music, I’m talking centuries’ worth of sound. You see, you only get one of each individual human being: one me, one you. There’s only one of each of us, whether we seize the days of our lives or not. Nobody’s normal. You only get one. James Yancey, Dilla’s real name, seized on every breath he was given in life, right up until his death in 2006 at age thirty-two—just three days after his birthday and the release of the aforementioned opus, Donuts. No bloodshed, no overdoses, no shady circumstances . Instead, Dilla was sick with a rare blood disease. It was absolutely devastating to anyone who had befriended Dilla in real life or connected with him via headphones, especially considering all the incredible compositions he created in a very brief time—far too brief. He was quietly charismatic and exceptionally clever. You only get one. Your brain—the unique nerves, synapses, and blood swimming in your skull—processes music in measures. Dilla loved to mess with that. Using the vehicle of soulful exclamations and outbursts, Jay Dee, later known to the world as J Dilla, would unexpectedly pause and inject a drug in split-second doses—yelps, choruses, an eighth step—when your brain least suspected it. In his own avant-hip-hop style, J sewed pieces together, ends to middles, beginnings to silence, fuzz to flourishes—no mindless looping of the chorus from an R&B chart topper for five minutes.J dug deep.And if he couldn’t find it, he’d play it his damn self. With musical roots that included a classicalmusic -inclined mother, a jazz-musician father, and a grandfather who played piano for silent films, Dilla took to music from the time he was a tot.Dilla cut his chops on piano and cello before developing a musical literacy that led him to drums,flute,and guitar.Davis Aerospace Technical High School developed his mathematical mind that would eventually make his sound so unique. He started messing around with a neighborhood musician named Joseph “Amp” Fiddler. Eventually, he began to lock himself in the lab at Amp’s house, rather than the ones at Davis HS. He discovered digital machines and manipulation. That was it. This kind of pissed off his beloved mother,Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, but it’s since been worked out. She appreciated and supported his talent and now preserves his spirit via the J Dilla Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to music programs in inner-city schools across the nation. After more than a decade as a fan, I still can’t wrap my head around the J Dilla sound. It just For Dilla’s Sake and the Love of Donuts Shane M. Liebler 370 Hıp-Hop, GheTToTech, DonuTs, and Techno Dreams was—and is—so different in a genre that rarely surprises in the modern era, save for a few lyrical luminaries. I’m continually impressed at how fresh this stuff still sounds. His voluminous, headphonefriendly catalog remains in heavy rotation. And then there’s the man himself, James Yancey, twenty-first-century troubadour: J played pop-culture strings in a far more advanced style than traditional DJs. Hip-hop fans and hipsters alike relish the obscure sample and award it five-star ratings and coveted buzz. Jay dug deep in the crates no doubt, but the shit he came up with mesmerized. Always armed with a solid boom-bap backbone, his sounds exploded with calculated spontaneity. James Yancey, composer: A simple hip-hop producer can put any random soul hook to a beat. J wove audio fabric thick with color and complexity. Some of it was just straight-up weird, but it was always wonderful. Any producer can splash paint on a canvas and make it sound beautiful. J lovingly stitched together meditative grooves, carefully selected clips, and simply shared his love of sound with the world. Live and direct. From Detroit. James Yancey,ambassador: My first introduction to Jay Dee came by way of A Tribe Called Quest,my first and all-time favorite hip-hop band.Upon...

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