photo & text by nacrowe
by the time of his untimely passing in 2006 at the young age of thirty-two from cardiac arrest related to his ongoing battle with LUPUS, LEGENDARY DETROIT HIP HOP producer J DILLA was an INNOVATIVE, highly sought after COLLABORATOR and BEAT-MAKER of the first order whose INSPIRED COMPOSITIONS were appreciated and utilized by the likes of A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, DE LA SOUL, RAEKWON, THE PHARCYDE, D'ANGELO, ERYKAH BADU and COMMON to BUSTA RHYMES, THE ROOTS, EMINEM, MF DOOM, BILAL, REDMAN, MADLIB and TALIB KWELI among many others before and after his passing. his UNIQUE sense of RHYTHM, which he performed by hand on his AKAI MPC3000 sequencer-sampler, made use of disengaging the quantize setting (which when engaged essentially sets everything to a grid).
let's take a moment to make one thing absolutely clear.
J DILLA did not live on the grid. he was his own METRONOME and basically humanized HIP HOP production making the RIGID TECHNOLOGY ebb and flow organically almost like a JAZZ MUSICIAN. he referred to such RHYTHMIC EXPERIMENTATIONS as "drunk funk." his touch is something that has influenced countless producers in his wake, but obviously has not been replicated. DONUTS (STONES THROW, 2006) proved to be his final recording and was created as his DIMINISHED and ENFEEBLED physical limitations rendered him wheelchair-bound as he was losing his battle with LUPUS. the album showcases a SINGULAR composer and BEAT-MAKER at the top of his game (and the profession) as his SOUNDSCAPES and COLLAGES seamlessly transition from one EVOCATIVE aural landscape to the next. it proves that in spite of his physical debilitation, his CREATIVE SPARK and COGNITIVE ABILITIES were as on point as ever right to the end. such can be heard on STANDOUT tracks such as "GEEK DOWN," "TWO CAN WIN," "DON'T CRY," "WORKINONIT," "U-LOVE," "GOBSTOPPER" and "LAST DONUT OF THE NIGHT." my suggestion however is to listen to DONUTS in its entirety as one extended sonic MEDITATION.
it does not disappoint and is a fitting EXCLAMATION POINT on a career and talent cut down way too soon. his legacy is continued by those who take INSPIRATION from his SOUND including current PIONEERING producers and musicians like FLYING LOTUS, PHARRELL WILLIAMS, THUNDERCAT, DANGER MOUSE and TERRACE MARTIN among others. its interesting to consider that in retrospect many critics have considered him to be more of a JAZZ musician than a HIP HOP producer which only further proves his SUBTLE TOUCH and DEFT MUSICALITY that seemingly knew no limitations. his ART very much seemed to be a flawlessly composed, direct EMOTIONAL expression in and of the current moment a la JOHN COLTRANE, MAX ROACH or THELONIOUS MONK.
RIP JAY DEE
photo by nacrowe
MO' META BLUES: THE WORLD ACCORDING TO QUESTLOVE (GRAND CENTRAL, 2013) is a cleverly structured memoir by AMIR "QUESTLOVE" THOMPSON about his experiences and opinions surrounding the music industry and his extended association with PHILADELPHIA, both as a founding member of THE ROOTS and the NEO SOUL scene that originated from their extended family of collabotors. the book gets meta in that QUESTLOVE chooses to allow his co-writer BEN GREENMAN as well as his long-time manager RICH NICHOLAS (who died of LEUKEMIA within a year of publication) to provide extensive commentary throughout the narrative; in essence his memoir is partly an extended argument about what content makes for a compelling memoir.
this dialogue also seems to parallel, in part, his ambivalence towards HIP HOP and its relationship to commerce. there is much discussion about the merits of the two poles of the genre, one being the down to earth tradition that almost serves as an empowering, consciousness-building, almost educational vibe rooted in the work of the NATIVE TONGUES movement. the other being the aspirational, glamorized world of money and power instituted by the likes of BAD BOY RECORDS and their premier artist, THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G.
this fission is exemplified in QUESTLOVE's memories regarding the 1995 SOURCE AWARDS that saw the WEST COAST / EAST COAST feud boil over in public. QUESTLOVE recounts that NAS was up that year for his debut ILLMATIC, which was the epitome and high-watermark of a classic concept of HIP HOP, the idea of a skilled lyricist repping his community over beats that were engineered and labored over to perfection by skilled producers. he was up against THE NOTORIOUS B.I.G. for record of the year for READY TO DIE, which showcased him in music videos with yachts, cars, jewelry and women over beats that were lazily and obviously sampled by PUFF DADDY. BIGGIE won and an era of BLING took over that largely disconnected the music from the audience.
THE ROOTS constantly felt the tug and pull of each and that struggle specific to that era (late 90s and the early 00s) perpetuated itself among them and many others until KANYE showed up and basically (somehow) combined the two. it can be argued we are still living in the KANYE era.
one aspect of this book that annoyed me was the lengths to which QUESTLOVE was preoccupied with reviews by music critics. that caught me off guard, since i always picture THE ROOTS as being the spearhead of a certain conscious subset of HIP HOP artists that occupy a creative space outside of the explicit struggles commerce. other groups like THE FUGEES, DEAD PREZ, PHARCYDE, DE LA SOUL, OUTKAST and A TRIBE CALLED QUEST come to mind that seemed more concern with message and artistry than what a middle-aged white guy a world away from the scene thinks about your album. struck me as very peculiar as it went against what i believed about their brand as fiercely independent artists. this memoir dulled that edge a bit, made me realize that they were not immune from the pressures of the industry attempting to homogenize them, as INTERSCOPE RECORDS executive JIMMY IOVINE seemingly did with their lackluster effort THE TIPPING POINT. i saw them play years ago at teh ROSELAND BALLROOM and they seemed indestructibly powerful and absolutely immutable. interesting to learn that behind the scenes they felt outside pressure to conform to be more like conventional artists like JAY-Z who don't have their cache and drive towards social justice.
i also think this book came out three years to early, as the election of DONALD TRUMP altered incalculably not only the political and cultural landscape, but also the trajectory of JIMMY FALLON's late night gig. at the time of publication FALLON did not have the reputation for being a comedic and political lightweight that he now does. THAT would have been interesting to hear QUESTLOVE speak his opinion on, given his front row seat to the proceedings. also the celebrated figure of PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA is forever transformed by the election of his successor. i would also would have loved to hear QUESTLOVE speak on that topic as well, but alas this book came out in 2013.
interesting book that very effectively communicates the powerful crosscurrents jst beneath the surface in HIP HOP and how such influence artists. highly informative, expertly constructed and very readable. definitely worth reading if you have the interest or inclination.