Stateside Podcast: How Detroit's J Dilla changed hip-hop forever
James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla, would have been 48 this month. The Detroit king of all beats showed the world in his brief life that the city’s best musical days are not in the past, but still ahead. J Dilla’s signature style changed forever the sound of Hip-Hop, Neo-Soul, pop, and even jazz. The artist died in 2006. And his story is so recent, we haven’t had much scholarship on his life – until now.
Journalist Dan Charnas chronicles the life and influence of Dilla in his new book Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm.
Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, a young Dilla got started creating beats on his drum machine in a basement off Seven Mile Rd. Over the years, his work developed the cool, syncopated sound that author Dan Charnas describes as ‘Dilla time.’
“It's the combination of straight and swung simultaneously, and it really has become over the last 20 years a new way for traditional musicians to fill time,” said Charnas. “In fact, I think that James Yancey is the first person to come out of electronic music to fundamentally change the way traditional musicians feel and relate to musical time.”
The young producer was in a league of his own, and it didn’t take long for other key players in the hip-hop game to catch on. Throughout his life, J Dilla collaborated with an astonishing number of big names in the music industry that helped propel him forward in his career.
One of the most important and influential figures along his path to success was Detroit funk musician Amp Fiddler. The fellow Detroit native quickly took an interest in Dilla after he saw the young producer’s unique sampling techniques.
“It becomes clear very quickly that James is an autodidact. That he really is teaching himself and on a path of acceleration, creatively, that even Amp, the professional that he was, was in awe of this teenager,” explained Charnas.
Over the years, Dilla would go on to work with countless artists that would share Amp Fiddler’s fascination: DJ Head, Proof, Q-Tip, Questlove, Busta Rhymes, and many more. But no matter how successful he became, Dilla’s vision remained the same.
“James was singular in his compulsion to work on the drum machine, and his friend Frank Bush will tell you that everything else he did, whether it was to go to the strip club for entertainment in the evening, or to go record shopping, or to buy clothes that made him feel good–all of it served to put him in the right headspace to make beats,” explained Charnas.
Making music was virtually Dilla’s whole life, and for a while it seemed like nothing could slow him down. Then in 2003, after returning home from a European tour, the artist was checked into a Grosse Pointe area hospital due to poor health. He would eventually be diagnosed with a rare blood disease called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, as well as lupus, an autoimmune disorder.
After three years of fighting, the young prodigy succumbed to his illnesses on February 10, 2006. His death at just 32-years-old rocked the music world. Fans and fellow musicians mourned the loss of such a great, young talent. But while J Dilla’s time on earth may have been cut short, his legacy in the music world and among his many fans lives on. What J Dilla accomplished in his lifetime has had an incomprehensible impact on hip-hop, and his dedication to his craft lasted until his very last days.
“By the end of his life, when he's in the hospital, he's got his drum machine in the hospital with him,” said Charnas. “He really actually didn't fade away. I mean, he worked to the very end and was trying to innovate until the very end. And that is something that I think a lot of people find great inspiration in.”