This past Monday marked the death of hip hop producer extraordinaire J Dilla, a Detroit native who also lived and worked in Los Angeles, cultivating the sounds of such artists as Common, Slum Village, The Roots, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. Dilla put the beats and rhythms of underground hip hop on a mass stage, producing tracks for Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson, and Erykah Badu, all of whom were nominated for Grammy awards in 1997 and 2001, respectively. Dilla even spent his early days working with local L.A. indie label Stones Throw, releasing the solo instrumental album Donuts in 2006 alongside artist/producer, Madlib. The album has been lauded as J Dilla’s opus.
Similar to Berry Gordy’s Motown wave of the 60s, Dilla made the music of contemporary Black artists a popularized form of expression, and that tradition continues today. For your pleasure, I’ve listed the top five most memorable J Dilla tracks, some of which you may not have known he had a hand in creating.
1. “Runnin” – The Pharcyde
West coast artists The Pharcyde dropped “Runnin” from their second album, Labcabincalifornia, in 1995, and it’s been the group’s most recognizable song. Looping jazz samples from Stan Getz, Dilla created a pulsing rhythm emphasizing a coming of age theme from the perspective of a young Black male, highlighting anxieties of celebrity and social responsibility. The track has been used in many soundtracks, including Entourage and 8 Mile, and it’s considered a hip hop classic today.
2. “The Light” – Common
Nominated for Best Rap Solo Performance at the 2001 Grammys, “The Light” featured love letter lyrics over samples from Bobby Caldwell and The Detroit Emeralds. Dilla’s production complemented the lyrical content perfectly, as the sweet, sensual words balanced with the laid-back grooves, providing an overall sexy cool feel. Critics claimed “The Light” as quintessential Common, providing thoughtful artistry to the genre.
3. “Got ‘Til it’s Gone” – Janet Jackson
Dilla produced two hip hop remixes of the Janet track – “Jay Dee’s Revenge Remix” and “Ummah’s Uptown Saturday Night Remix”- each blending bits of neo-soul and mellow baselines with Janet’s soft vocals and the prominent Joni Mitchell loop. The beats have been lauded for their subtle hip hop influences, not at all taking away from the R&B flavor of the original song. I consider the remixes two of J Dilla’s best works.
4. “Vivrant Thing” – Q-Tip
“Vivrant Thing” marked Q-Tip’s debut as a solo artist, branding him as a newly repackaged hip hop/pop persona. The video featured Tip dancing, driving a Chevy Impala, and checking on video girls of the ’99 heyday. Despite the backlash he received for the questionable image switch, the track, alongside B-side single, “Breathe and Stop,” another Dilla hit, charted successfully on the Billboard Top 100.
5. “You Got Me” – The Roots
The fourth single from the band’s 1999 album Things Fall Apart featured vocals from Erykah Badu and Eve, providing the feminine perspective for the love song vibe. It’s groovy, jazzy, and thick with lyrical imagery, making this song a beautiful interpretation of a modern day romance between lovers and friends. Badu and The Roots took home the Grammy that year for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group, most definitely due to J Dilla’s production.
In celebration of “Dilla Day 2014″ Stussy and Pay Jay have teamed up for a third commemorative J Dilla t-shirt. You can check out the shirt here and purchase it as well.
Words: Jane Dubz