LIVE: DC Loves Dilla, 9:30 Club

by Marcus K. Dowling

At Tuesday evening’s 6th Annual “DC Loves Dilla” tribute, for three hours Washington, DC was the true school hip hop capital of the world. J Dilla is a hip hop notable. Emcees that rhymed over his multitude of legendary jazz oriented and soulful tracks were elevated by them to create hip hop quotables. Cut short by a lost battle with lupus in 2006, James Yancey’s life was devoted to the advancement of rap music. It can honestly be said that Dilla is so fondly remembered because of his connection to the emotional core of hip hop. J Dilla was raised in the era where it was still out in the park and had four elements. Within those parameters, and aided by a slew of classic influences, the producer’s concoctions didn’t so much advance hip hop music as they did elevate the artistry of the genre. Today, top producers are as influenced by getting to drive a fancy car or bedding a hot R & B singer as they are by a sole focus on our beloved genre. When the four elements of hip hop become the 40 elements of hip hop, and include adlibs, autotune and a great team of accountants, something gets lost in the equation. In honoring J Dilla at 9:30 Club, it was less of concert, and much more a successful journey to rediscover the heart of hip hop music.

Host Grap Luva opened the event where solely Dilla produced tracks were on the billing by introducing the band. Jon Laine’s “Players,” a one night only DC based ensemble proceeded to tear down the house with exemplary style, and nobody had even touched the microphone. Band leader Laine banged out an amazingly funky multiple upon multiple bar drum break, and we were ready to begin. That was the nature of the evening. It was jarring, an anachronistic throwback where musicality was as important as lyrical showmanship. Swag wasn’t a statement of culture in this room, but an acknowledgement of talent. Local underground emcee Flex Matthews stood and delivered with his trademark whimsical yet braggadocios flow on De La Soul’s “Stakes is High,” while acts like Gods’Illa, Roddy Rod, Awthentik, soulful vocalists Alison Carney and Maimouna Youssef plus a plethora more truly excelled under the spotlight of highlighting the legend’s stellar compositions.

The highlight of the evening was the performance by Los Angeles rap trio, The Pharcyde, whose most notable mainstream release, 1995’s Labcabincalifornia, featured the group’s two largest chart toppers, “Drop” and “Runnin’ Away,” both Yancey productions. Dilla famously created for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Common and Slum Village, but there was something in the mesh of Dilla’s reserved yet insistent melodies that propelled the vocals of Slim Kid Tre, Imani, Bootie Brown and Fat Lip to international acclaim. Hearing those masterful productions, and then finishing off the night with one of the most iconic hip hop lyrical journeys in the genre’s history, the non J Dilla produced “Passin’ Me By” truly cemented the evening as a pleasant remembrance of the soul of hip hop music.

For three hours last night, 1000 heads bopped in unison to boom baps, horn stabs and delightful melodies. There were no synthetic sounds, sagging skinny jeans or iced out fronts to be had. There were honest men and women perfecting a craft based on the truth of their souls. They were backed by insurgent melodies that made their stories the type of exalted rhymes that create both legend and legacy. I heart Dilla. Even if you’re loving Lil Boosie, Lil B, Lil Wayne or Lil Zane right now, realize that before they could even contemplate doing exactly what they do, that in loving hip hop, they heart Dila too. James Yancey was hip hop, and so much of hip hop was James Yancey. Tuesday night was a New Orleans style memorial for one of the greats. Pause, genuflect and party. Perfection.