On February 10, 2006, as the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy were underway, a cold winter swept through the hearts and minds of music lovers. This cold front began in a home shared by MC/actor Common and producer/musician Karriem Riggins in sunny Los Angeles and swiftly moved from city to city and from state to state. The death of the producer, MC, and DJ, James Dewitt Yancey (commonly known as Jay Dee or J Dilla) was this wintry mix that made us stop in our cars, cover our ears, and “Pause” (from Welcome 2 Detroit). This was definitely a “Black Capricorn Day” (remix for Jamiroquai).
For some of us, J Dilla was an unknown yet we may have delighted in the moody sounds of Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun or had previously grooved on a dancefloor to such tracks as “Vivrant Thing” or “Breathe & Stop” on Q-Tip’s Amplified. For others of us, Jay Dee was a somewhat familiar producer because we appreciated Busta’s “Woo-hah!” remix or Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” or the Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” or the video for “Drop” from Labcabincalifornia but we didn’t necessarily look for the next track he may have produced. While for yet another group of us, Dilla Dawg was an integral sound in our DJ sets, car rides, and CD/vinyl collections.
His innate ability to make us bob our head (listen: Slum Village’s “Raise it Up”) or make us go into a meditative state (listen: Common’s “Nag Champa”) was remarkable. There were hip hop producers such as Pete Rock (listen: Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s T.R.O.Y.-They Reminisce Over You) or DJ Premier (listen: Jeru’s Come Clean) that remain arguably the greatest hip hop producers of all time. Yet there was something different or something special in Dill Wither’s sound that made him the best music producer, period.
It was his own soul, not just the sampling of soul music, that we were hearing. Thus when we heard a track by him we connected with him, and he connected with us. Just listen to the tracks that were completed either just before he was admitted to the hospital or while he was interned in the hospital for lupus and thrombotic thrombocytopenic: J Dilla’s “Won’t Do” & “So Far To Go” off of the Shining; Common’s “It’s Your World” off of Be, and J Dilla’s “Last Donut of the Night” off of Donuts and “Sun In My Face” off of Jay Love Japan. Putting aside his own self-proclaimed alter-ego that spit tons of appropriate and in-appropriate braggadocios and “McNasty Filth” (from Jaylib’s Champion Sound) or Common’s and Blu’s flow on their respective tracks, there is a sound in these tracks of deep sadness coupled with thoughtful reflection and triumphant life-closure.
So why do we “fanatics” of Dilla keep beating over the head of those of you who know nothing (or care nothing) of him? So why do we “fanatics” remember a Pay Jay beat profoundly every year since 2006 or at least incorporate one of his tracks in our nightly activities?
Because despite the cold of his death, he makes us remember what it was like to be a kid who still went outside after “Ma Dukes” (from Fran-N-Dank’s 48 Hrs.) wrapped us up in layers of clothing and threw snowballs with “Purple” (a remix for Crustation) fingers with our friends, which my moms then “Whip[ped] Me With Strap” (from Ghostface’s Fishscale). Despite the harshness of the frost, he makes us not be as pompous with our knowledge of “History” (from Mos Def’s The Ecstatic) and politics or our demands for “Soul Power” (from Common’s Electric Circus) or “conscious hip hop” by asking us to simply “rep the real and the raw” because the “Stakes is High” (from De La Soul’s Stakes Is High) for us to see that in every one of us there is a potential “little brother” (from The Hurricane Soundtrack) or “sister,” and all we had to do was listen to their soul. And despite the freezing, a little “Reckless Driving” (from Ruff Draft) is “Okay” (from Frank-N-Dank’s 48 Hrs.) when we are “Stressed Out” (from A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life) while avoiding our inclination to “Fall in Love (from Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 2) because “Didn’t Cha Know” (from Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun) we “Can’t Stop This” (from the Roots’ Game Theory). So let’s “Keep It Moving” (from Busta’s The Coming).
His music begs us to stop complaining about the cold and be one of the “Players” (from Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 2), for real.
On February 10, 2011, Dilla ain’t dead. Just press play….
Rasul Mowatt, aka black
DJ & professor