J Dilla's Last Album Is Both a Debut and a Finale

Ma Dukes and curator Timothy Anne Burnside in 2014
Ma Dukes and curator Timothy Anne Burnside in 2014
Jati Lindsay

In 2004, James "J Dilla" Yancey moved from Detroit to Los Angeles with almost nothing. The influential producer, rapper, and musician had just experienced one of the best and worst years of his life: He toured Europe, had his second child, and lost a record deal with MCA. A basement flood destroyed much of his recording equipment, and he was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that would, two years later, lead to his death. When he lost the record deal with MCA, he lost the opportunity to release The Diary, the album of Dilla rapping over beats from elite producers of the early aughts — including DJ Madlib, Pete Rock, House Shoes, and Supa Dave West — and he felt the blow acutely. In Los Angeles he could collaborate with Madlib, his musical kindred spirit, and he would have the support of his independent label, Stones Throw. His roommate Common was already headed west; at his urging, Dilla followed, hoping to redeem himself and his music.

The move would usher Dilla into the third phase of his career, capped by the stunning instrumental album Donuts, released days before his passing in February 2006. But the move also meant leaving behind his hometown, much of his gear, and the master tracks of what would have been his solo debut as a rapper, which were gathering dust next to his water-damaged Lonnie Liston Smith LPs.

Now, Dilla fans will finally get the chance to hear The Diary. Twelve years after Dilla pulled down the storage unit door in Michigan and ten years after his death, Nas appeared on Zane Lowe's Beats One radio show with a major announcement. His label, Mass Appeal, in collaboration with Pay Jay Productions, would release the long-lost J Dilla album in April 2016: The Diary. "He's rapping his ass off on this record," Nas told Lowe before debuting the album's first track, "The Introduction," a certified head-nodder with a gurgling electro beat and percussive, boastful bars, produced by Dilla and fellow Detroit native House Shoes.

Dilla's career arcs like a donut. His early sample-based independent work created opportunities for his mid-career mainstream success with live instrumentation. His move away from the mainstream toward independent late-career releases became a full-circle return to heightened sample-based work. Today, looking back, The Diary is the album that could have opened his circular career up, offering an opportunity to see his music as an ongoing process, one that can still evolve a full decade after his death.

After Dilla's early beats for Slum Village — four-bar loops of rare groove records — caught Q-Tip's attention, he brought him on to co-produce the last two A Tribe Called Quest albums. Such mainstream exposure brought work with Common, the Pharcyde, Erykah Badu, and Janet Jackson — beats that created the sonic palette of the neo-soul movement and scored the man multiple Grammys. So when MCA signed the "most influential unknown producer" to a two-album deal, they expected more of the same.

But Dilla never did the same thing twice. He wouldn't talk about a beat he made three months ago, much less sign a deal to repeat past work. He was mercurial, irascible, a homebody in his basement studio always looking for the new. He used his platform at MCA to collaborate with his favorite producers as a rapper/MC. The result was a set of tracks that interpolated Gary Numan's "Here in My Car," shouted "Fuck tha Police," and swelled with Kraftwerk-ian vamps. The Diary did everything but sound like Dilla's past. And it baffled a label looking for a redux of Common's "The Light." MCA shelved it, then folded. Dilla left Detroit, and would go on to create his career-defining sound: his full-circle return to the micro-chopped production style, mincing samples — soul, electro, art-rock — and jauntily reassembling them into off-kilter sound collages.

Listeners in 2016 might find themselves in MCA's position in 2002. If they know Dilla, they know him for his beats. But he is underappreciated as a rapper, his gift not in his punchlines or bombast, but in his ability to find crevices in the beat. Listen to the way he double-dutches in and out of the arpeggiated guitar in "The Anthem": "I blaze for the cake with a case of the black/One straight to the face with the ace to the jack." Music journalist Ronnie Reese, who wrote the liner notes for The Diary, explained that Dilla used his voice "like an instrument...not so much for storytelling, but as another piece of the music." And Dilla's MC'ing shows his lineage. His mother, Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey, reared her son on the tradition of African-American music, with James Brown dance parties in the living room of their Conant Gardens home and jazz tunes as lullabies before bed.

Since her son's passing, Ma Dukes has worked tirelessly to maintain Dilla's legacy. Via the telephone, she explained how important it was for her to expose Dilla to as much as possible, musically. She explained that she is "at work making sure people realize who Dilla was before the Donuts years...I want to bring them in tune with who he was earlier." She wants to emphasize that he was a trained musician — cellist, pianist, guitarist, drummer — and a trained vocalist. The Diary does just that, adding nuance to his MC'ing.

The Diary is both a look back and a jump forward. Trying to imagine the album in Dilla's discography as a 2002 release raises questions of what might have been: Dilla on a Dre beat? The Jaylib as a mainstream release, not overshadowed by Madvillainy? There's also the question of what might have been lost: The release of The Diary would likely have meant no Ruff Draft, the album about his frustration with the mainstream music industry.

The Diary sent Dilla to California, away from the mainstream, and into his late-career transcendent idiosyncratic work. Now in 2016, it's a call to re-evaluate him as an MC. His legacy is now on a wider timeline and in greater context. When the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in September, visitors will find Dilla's MPC and his Moog synthesizer. Timothy Anne Burnside, the Smithsonian's popular music historian, acquired the pieces. For her, "it's not just the far, far away past [we're interested in], but the recent past, and the present. We're also looking at, let's say in the past ten years, who are the people that will be recognized in fifty or one hundred years for their contribution?" That's Dilla. He converses with all the music that came before him, jazz and rare groove and new wave, to create a forward-thinking sound. And Burnside is making sure those conversations continue long into the future.

When Dilla raps on "The Introduction" that he's "been observing the game/Came to save it now," we can hear it as a promise and a recap. Like Janus, he's always already looking forward and back. It's fitting that Dilla has an album released months before his equipment is preserved for posterity in the nation's most prestigious museum. His genius lay in collapsing and extending time. The Diary, both a debut and finale, does it again. When the album is released, we'll have one more waltz into the past and the future with Dilla.


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