Detroit’s James Dewitt Yancey is known by many names:
Or just plain Dilla.
To hip hop heads, he’s mostly known as “The Best To Ever Do It”. By “It”, they mean to produce beats that were ahead of its time and still able to sound fresh. Meticulous in his work, Dilla created pieces almost non-stop. Most may know of his work from Common’s “The Light”, Erykah Badu’s “Didnt Cha Know”, or from his own group Slum Village. However there are some that people aren’t too familiar with as tracks are still being discovered even after his death in 2006.
In honor of his birthday on Feb 7th, here are seven tracks I think more people should be aware of. Showing the range of this producer who can go from making you bounce to rolling up that good good, these tracks will give more insight as to why he’s one of the greatest producers to grace a MPC. So get ready to turn it up a little louder as proceed with some of the D’s finest.
When I first heard this, it was on the Hot 97 Stretch and Bobbito Show aka the B-Side in 1996. A Tribe Called Quest (along with Consequence) were on to promote the upcoming release of their fourth album, Beats, Rhymes and Life. All three emcees took turn dropping four bars, with Q-Tip acting as conductor. However the best part of the freestyle is when Monie Love straight blazed the mic, out-rapping her male companions.
Bling 47 released the track in 2004 on the second volume of unreleased Jay Dee instrumentals titled Vintage.
2) Doo Doo
Also from Vintage, this hypnotic beat is just beautiful. Complete with chopped chord changes and a driving beat, this is a personal fav of mine.
3) Take Notice
This track is mostly known as an interlude on the 2003 Ruff Draft EP. When re-released in 2007, it was later found out the interlude was indeed a true song. Using the drums from a famous British icon and combining it with a prog sample, it was the perfect introduction track for a young hungry emcee by the name of Guilty Simpson. Contrary to what one may think, his name was not an ode to OJ Simpson, even though it did become the title of his Madlib collab album. [Reason for the title: Madlib = Otis Jackson Jr or OJ. Get it?]
4) R U Listenin’
This track is off his brother Illa J’s 2008 album, Yancey Boys. What’s really ill about this track is his idol, Pete Rock, also had a similar beat. The Pete Rock version was used for Tribe to freestyle on Hot97’s Future Flava. You can hear the similarities, showing the master and the student were at one point on the same wavelength.
This is from the Dill/Madlib sessions. “PopShit” didn’t make their Champion Sound album, but this beat is crazy nonetheless.
6) Glamour Sho75
First heard on one of the many (bootlegged) beat-tapes Dilla sent to shop around his music. For those that got their hands on one, it was like ChristmasKwantivus. Sampling a little known track from a female sibling of an iconic family, Dilla was able to chop it up into this craziness. Punctuating the beat every now and then with “Oooooh…Baby”, this quickly became one of my go to’s when someone wants to go deeper into his catalog. Play the original, then the track, got ’em.
It was later released on the sub-par 2009 Jay Stay Paid album.
From the first volume of the Jay Dee Instrumental series, comes this treasure. This was the first beat I heard that made me say “aHA!” I’ve always enjoyed his production on various projects, but this was when I finally got it. The rapid hi hats, the bassline working in sync with the kick, the elongated sample, I understood the awe his beats inspired from his peers. This was the same reaction I had when I heard Prince bootlegs for the first time. You just get it.
“Flyyyyyy” became another Jay Stay Paid track with his brother on the vocals.
Honorable Mention: Purple (A Tribe Called Quest Remix)
Between the years of 1996 – 1999, Jay Dee was part of a production crew with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad called The Ummah (arabic for “Brotherhood”). They did remixes for such artists as Michael and Janet Jackson, Brand New Heavies, and Keith Murray. Most people assumed Q-Tip did most of the production, but it was really Jay. This track is one example, hence the mislabel.
Jay Dee turned this ragga-flavored trip hop song by Brit group Crustation into a sultry smoky track that some play when puffing on that herb. Another personal favorite Dilla track.
Hopefully these seven tracks and the one honorable mention will start you on your journey through this man’s wonderful work. Really a pity we only realize one’s “genius” once they’re no on longer with us. If you’re in the New York area, come celebrate James Yancey’s legacy February 16th at the 8th Annual Donuts Are Forever at the Brooklyn Bowl. Not able to make that, go to the J Dilla Foundation Facebook page as they have a list of events happening around the world.
Happy 40th, Dilla. We love and miss you.
Special Bonus: Here are the Roots doing a special cover of some of Dilla’s tracks