Genius is frequently misunderstood. In the case of producer J Dilla, a/k/a Jay Dee, it has been remarkably undervalued. Never mind that Dilla-helmed classics like the Pharcyde’s 1995 “Runnin’ ” conceived the blueprint for the so-called neo-soul movement, keeping folks like India.Arie and Erykah Badu in headwraps and endless supplies of Nag Champa. Dilla—whose summer-soft loops (see Slum Village’s 2000 “Tell Me”) and punch-drunk percussion (see Q-Tip’s 1999 “Let’s Ride”) went on to influence everyone from Kanye West to Just Blaze to Pharrell Williams—didn’t get any real recognition until after his death last February.
Nevertheless, Jay Dee had few peers, if any—the Motown maestro’s humanistic beats were as poignant and tricky to follow as a clumsy youngster’s sun-parched snow prints. While none of the tracks on Ruff Draft (which was previously released on limited-edition vinyl in 2003, and features rhymes from both Dilla and the tough-talking Guilty Simpson) will make the late composer any more popular than he already was, it certainly speaks volumes that four years down the line they still swing like nobody’s business.
A sort of mad maverick beat dentist, Dilla could coax the proverbial peanut butter out of any aged funk jam’s jelly. On songs like the impossibly seductive “Crushin’ (Yeeeeaah!),” Dilla fuses what could be a pitch-shifted disco number with slapdash snares and glimmering orchestration that together solicit an inevitable sort of fried-ice-cream question: How can sounds so supple manage to resound with such boom-bapitude? The cryptic commingling of disparate realms of oomph has long been a Dilla curiosity, but here his compositions are more dynamic. On the moody “Make ’em NV,” a muted xylophone meets a raucous M.O.P. sample, while the synths and clunky drums of “Reckless Driving” evoke East Coast cool but are in spirit hella Detroit, like Saint Andrews and Axel Foley. These multifarious productions are sterling examples of how a pioneering figure can exhibit versatility while remaining perfectly relevant. Finally, we understand.