Better than I knew
When Jay Dee died on Friday, it wasn’t the stereotypical rap death, if there even is such a thing. It had nothing to do with bullets or beef or an overly indulgent lifestyle. Dilla died of complications from lupus on Friday, and if the 2004 article quoted here is to be believed, it could’ve been at least partially brought on by the pressure he constantly put on himself, the stress that comes with trying to do expressive work. So if Dilla’s death at the ridiculously young age of 32 may have been an indirect result of the man’s dedication to his craft, that just makes this whole thing even sadder.
I never really checked for the man’s work while he was alive; his stuff always seemed too diffuse and spaced-out to make much of an impression. Listening today, though, I must’ve let the inferior work of his hordes of imitators color my opinion of the man himself. Throughout his career, Dilla pursued a singular aesthetic, expansive and emotional and fluid; I could’ve picked just about any ten tracks he ever made, and it would’ve ended up sounding pretty cohesive. His stuff got more fractured and wispy as time went on, but his main focus never changed much. He took the textured, jazz-inflected boom-bap of early-90s rap producers like Pete Rock and Large Professor as a jumping-off point, taking it deeper and deeper into a low-key, insular place, compositions that always seemed to be just on the verge of falling apart or floating off into the sky. If you look, you’ll find plenty of tributes to the man from people more informed than me, but here are ten songs that will stick with me.
1. A Tribe Called Quest: “1nce Again” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Pretty great as starting-points go. Dilla came into rap with his ideas already fully formed and on display, laying a hard snare crack, burbling stand-up bass, and a few little electric-piano curls under a warm, relaxed Tribe track. Q-Tip and Phife had been rapping over gushy, comfortable jazz-rap tracks for years, of course, but “1nce Again” stands out as being even more gentle and easy than almost anything else in their catalogue. Maybe it’s Dilla’s Midwestern roots showing, but for a mid-90s East Coast rap track, this is awfully heavy on negative space and light on force and adrenaline; it doesn’t work overtime to sell itself.
2. The Pharcyde: “Runnin'” Preview/Buy at iTunes
It might not have been a good idea on the Pharcyde’s part, switching up their frantic irrepressible kids-cussing style for plaintive grown-man laments in the amount of time it took them to record a second album, and it’s not all that surprising that they effectively fell apart soon after. But they found the right guy to help them with it, anyway. “Runnin'” sounds just gorgeous, aimlessly picked acoustic guitars over lightly rattling drums, disembodied “Rock Box” vocals and lonely trumpets buried in the mix. And the group rose to it, muttering and crooning and sighing with the same flair they’d once used to tell jokes about your mother.
3. Keith Murray: “The Rhyme (Remix)” Preview/Buy at iTunes
A study in contrast, Murray’s unhinged speed-rasp over Dilla’s lazily swirling organs and smokey flourishes of electric piano. Murray can be a bit much to deal with over hard, blaring beats, but this track just the right amount of chill to balance his fire, and so his lines come off with a playful intensity: “My hypothesis on this / Is that you niggas better come to terms with my vocabulary quick or get dissed.” Also, it may be helpful to know that Murray keeps it jiggy jiggy jiggy jiggy.
4. Q-Tip: “Breathe and Stop” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Didn’t happen often, but Dilla’s chopped-up-jazz aesthetic could be pop when it had the right huckster selling it. Now that the Q-Tip-selling-out novelty has faded, it’s striking how weird this track is: shuffling upside-down breakbeat and staccato synth blurts and Seinfeld bass-popping, Tip’s voice turned into a hypnotic mantra on the hook. Tip’s horny charisma might’ve registered as a heretical MTV move at the time, but there’s a wide-eyed innocence to it that seems almost poignant today.
5. D’Angelo feat. Method Man and Redman: “Left and Right” Preview/Buy at iTunes
I’m still not quite clear on what role Jay Dee played in crafting D’Angelo’s Voodoo; this Rolling Stone article says only that he encouraged all the players involved to play the songs as loose and sloppy as they could. The album is definitely a diffuse piece of work, the different parts just barely noticing each other, interacting with the vamp of the beat rather than with each other until a sort of unhurried miasmic soup develops. Part of what I like about “Left and Right” is how Red and Meth run through and change all that for a few seconds, forcing knucklehead swagger into the track’s boho glide like they were throwing garbage cans through art-gallery windows.
6. Erykah Badu: “Didn’t Cha Know” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Badu’s Mama’s Gun is as ambitious a piece of work as Voodoo, but her tracks actually coalesce into songs rather than stoned vamps. Here, Jay Dee’s languid bass figure dips underneath rippling bongos and buzzing acoustic guitars. Badu’s coo sounds absolutely perfect. This might be the single prettiest song Jay Dee ever produced, and that’s saying something.
7. Guru feat. Bilal: “Certified” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Even when he was working on hazy R&B masterpieces, Dilla still churned out the occasional banger, like this slept-on gem from Guru’s third Jazzmatazz album. Bilal wraps his helium yowl around a pretty great little hook while Dilla swipes DJ Premier’s piano shards and fleshes them out with strutting live drums and percolating bassline. Even better, he tosses in an atypically great verse in the middle of the song, totally overshadowing Guru’s stilted monotone with a self-assured singsong lope. The impressionistic airy synths at the end of the track are just the icing. I love this song.
8. Common: “The Light” Preview/Buy at iTunes
The lyrics are front and center on this track, and Common doesn’t make anything easy for us. It’s hard to get past all his goo-goo loverman bullshit (“My heart’s dictionary defines you as love and happiness / Truthfully, it’s hard trying to practice abstinence”), but there’s a beautiful track under all that, winding Zapp synths and frisky jazz pianos and nimble scratching. Too bad Common couldn’t give the track the performance it deserved.
9. Jay Dee: “B.B.E. (Big Booty Express)” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Proof positive that Jay Dee learned something from Detroit techno. Dilla treats a Moroder bassline and Kraftwerk synth-strings the same way he usually treats organs and pianos, using them to build sleepy little pools of sound rather than adrenalized lockstep, leaving plenty of room for everything to breathe. I haven’t included much of Jay Dee’s instrumental work here, but that’s because I don’t know most of it, not because it isn’t good. He’s left plenty to dig through.
10. Dabrye feat. Jay Dee and Phat Kat: “Game Over” Preview/Buy at iTunes
Jay’s verse on “Certified” stands out immediately partially because he was generally a truly horrible rapper, clumsy and over-enunciated and almost always just barely off the beat. So the verses from Dilla and Phat Kat aren’t the real story on this song. It’s the beat that matters here; Dabreye takes Dilla’s mellow-psyche-rap aesthetic and applies it to uber-clean synths rather than live instrumentation. Dilla has cast a huge shadow over the production of underground rap, and most of his influence has been negative: guys taking his wide-open dubby lope and used it as an excuse for rote laziness. “Game Over” proves that at least one producer has taken Dilla’s ideas and done something good with them. If we’re lucky, Dilla’s sense for sound will live a lot longer than he did.