We celebrate the late great beatsmith J Dilla this week— and for many fans, a month—because he entered the world on February 7th, 1974 and made his departure February 10th, 2006. Although J Dilla’s legacy in hip hop culture—and music in general—is cemented and indisputable, I get uneasy around this time of year. Twenty nine days of real respect for an individual or idea is truly not the way to appreciate; I have the same conviction for Black History month, which is also happening now; ideally, we would not let a day go by where we don’t bask in Jay Dee’s greatness, as he influenced a large percentage of the hip hop artists we listen to daily. But still, this is not what has me uneasy about J Dilla week.
Mentioning that you are celebrating J Dilla week to a room full of hip hop purists can lead to one of two scenarios: 1. The birth of joyous, nostalgic conversation that sparks memories and experiences, builds knowledge, and creates respect between fans; or: 2. A negative, often elitist “you weren’t there” response, where individuals seek to one up each other, label others as bandwagon jumpers, or display near primal-territorial sentiments for music that is “claimed” for certain fans and not others.
Dramatic as it may sound, this is the way things often are behind the scenes of J Dilla’s legacy. It is notable, as the rift I’ve seen between J Dilla fans is unlike any other artist who has left the world too soon. For many, it is not enough to simply be a “fan” Jay Dee. A friend of mine once told me that he was afraid to talk about J Dilla around “hip hop heads” because he did not become a listener until after 2007. His love for the music was constantly put to a pop-quiz by “true fans”. This is not the way to maintain a legacy.
I have been a fan of J Dilla since my junior year of high school—so, 2004. Still for three years I didn’t know I was a fan until I one day put the puzzle pieces together, and realized that despite the fact that The Ummah was a group, the Ummah was J Dilla’s sound. I started making beats around that time as well. Throughout my first four years of beat construction I swore by DJ Premier, and you couldn’t tell me that he wasn’t the greatest producer of all time before I angrily threw a heavy AC adaptor in your direction. Mind you, my beats were not too great, and I kept my craft to myself and a few friends for about 5 years before anyone knew that I was into production. It wasn’t until I truly started hearing the music, truly grew as a beatmaker, truly started to become a connoisseur of hip hop, truly began to grasp sound, technique, and style, that I began to see the beauty and genius in J Dilla’s work, and, acknowledge him as the G.O.A.T. In that sense, J Dilla is a beatsmith’s beatsmith. Many producers would agree that it takes a trained ear to appreciate his beat technique. So it can be said that for a long time, I simply was not mature enough to appreciate his work. But by no means does that equate to sneaking through the backdoor of the proverbial hype bus.
There is no difference between loving the music as a fan and loving the music as one with a trained ear. In fact, nothing makes me happier than to share a J Dilla beat secret with a fan who doesn’t listen with a microscope to every bar—it may take their Dilla joy to the next level. And that is how we should celebrate a legacy—by sharing. Pete Rock said it best on Brian Atkin’s Dilla documentary, Still Shining:
“It’s a sad thing today that we lost him. We lost not only a good guy— good person—but we lost a great big icon to this music. A lot of people are gonna get to know his music more because we’re gonna keep it alive”
So the next time you hear a beat with obvious J Dilla influence, or spot a person with a “J Dilla Saved My Life” tee, don’t snarl. Just think about all of the records we find at the bottom of dusty dollar-bin crates recorded by artists whose dreams and legacies never made it that far, and be thankful.
Below is a track I did for a collaboration tribute project in 2008, which I did for a friend of ours who passed in a car accident. I was listening very heavily to Dilla at the time and his music was really one of the most comforting things. Don’t Cry popped up on my shuffle one day and I was immediately inspired to do this song, “Good Vibrations”
Written by: Sev
Photo by: B+