IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

J Dilla’s turn in spotlight comes after his death

Late hip-hop producer worked with Busta Rhymes, Common
/ Source: The Associated Press

The late hip-hop producer J Dilla was full of unique ideas. But adding Busta Rhymes’ vocals to a track that combined window-rattling bass thuds with a kazoo interpretation of “Flight of the Bumblebee” ranks as one of his oddest musical marriages.

“’I don’t even want you to rhyme,”’ Rhymes recalls J Dilla telling him last year in the beatmaker’s Los Angeles home studio. “’I just want you to wild out, on some charged up vibe.”’

Rhymes obliged, shouting between expletives: “This is an emergency! There’s a fire! J Dilla, that’s the fire!” However, the rapper had no idea it’d be the last time he’d see his friend and frequent collaborator.

Months later and three days after his 32nd birthday in February, J Dilla (born James Yancey) died of complications related to lupus, an inflammatory disease that can affect a person’s blood, skin, joints and kidneys.

The resulting song, “Geek Down,” is a not-quite two minute blast of energy that opens “The Shining,” a posthumous disc of atmospheric instrumental tracks and hypnotic rap songs from one of underground hip-hop’s most prolific beat builders.

The Detroit-born producer, also known as Jay Dee, was highly regarded for creating bottom-heavy, soulful tracks for several R&B and hip-hop luminaries including Common, Erykah Badu and A Tribe Called Quest, among others.

Karreim Riggins, a jazz drummer and hip-hop producer from Detroit, was asked to complete “The Shining” the way Dilla wanted it done. They had already recorded nearly eight of the disc’s 12 songs before Dilla died, and Dilla’s instrumental album, “Donuts,” was actually released just days before his death.

Of “The Shining,” Riggins says, “the plan was to do a lot of old breaks, make it sound live, make people question it like, ’How did you do that?”’

Though Dilla didn’t see the project to its final stages, the disc, released this month, still features his hard-knocking yet soul-stirring sound. The best examples include the jangly rhythms of “Body Movin”’; the seductive “So Far So Good,” on which Common whispers sweet nothings while D’Angelo’s sweetly murmured falsetto propels the chorus; and the swirling synths of “Won’t Do,” over which J Dilla boasts of his insatiable appetite for women.

“It’s a journey,” Dilla’s mother, Maureen Yancey, 53, says. “It takes you from one place to another.”

A life full of musicYancey saw her son through every step of his journey, from encouraging him to take piano and cello lessons in grade school to watching him take his last breath.

Dilla grew up in a musical household. His mother studied opera and sang in a local gospel choir while his father, Beverly Yancey, played bass and sang in doo-wop groups. Maureen Yancey recalls how hearing a James Brown record would get her son dancing in his crib at age 2.

“Even then he had a special appreciation for music,” she adds.

As a child, Dilla began amassing a massive record collection and learning music theory. By high school, he developed his rapping and beat making skills and formed Slum Village, a hip-hop group with some of his schoolmates. His work with the trio gained the attention of more established acts such as The Pharcyde and he soon joined A Tribe Called Quest’s production team, the Ummah.

But it was his work on Slum Village’s “Fantastic, Vol. 2,” in 2000 which made his stock as a producer-for-hire rise dramatically.

When he first heard that album, ?uestlove, the drummer for The Roots, was amazed how Dilla extracted a human quality out of a drum machine.

“My mission to get accepted by the hip-hop nation was to sound synthetic like a drum machine, to sound like a sample,” ?uestlove explains. “His approach was to sound as sloppy as a real musician. But it was so sloppy, I know he wasn’t doing it by accident.”

For Rhymes, Dilla’s unique musical arrangements inspired some of his most creative wordplay.

“On my first solo album, there’s a cut called ’Still Shining’ where the beat changes every bar or every two bars and it never comes back to the same beat pattern,” Rhymes explains. “I wrote my rhyme so that the syllables would start and end with every way that the beat changed.”

After “Fantastic, Vol. 2,” Dilla left the group and dropped the solo effort, “Welcome 2 Detroit.” He collaborated with fellow MC and producer Madlib on 2003’s “Champion Sound” and produced many tracks on albums by Common, including his biggest hit, “The Light.”

“He just understood me,” says Common, who roomed with Dilla in L.A. before his death. “It was an intangible soul that he had. It was like ... divine.”