Interviewing the late, great J Dilla was the greatest honor I could have ever received during my time writing for RIME Magazine. It was a great experience, needless to say, and it was surreal to say the least. When I began the interview, the fact that I was about to speak with a literal force in music who was equally as elusive as he was indelible was not lost on me, and I was amazed at having such an opportunity. What I remember the most from our conversation was how honest his answers were. He couldn’t think of an answer to one of my questions immediately and told me he’d have to think about it. Most artists would have spit out a b.s. answer, but he really took each and every one of my questions in consideration. That immediately struck me as a testament to his character, integrity and humility. He who literally shook the world through and through from his proud home of Detroit, Michigan. So I present to you, one of my proudest moments of involvement in hip-hop culture:
The J Dilla Interview.
Jay Dee‘s musical beginnings were a bit more formal than his partner’s (Madlib). “Since elementary (school), I’ve always been taking some type of music class,” he explains. “And also in church, taking piano and drum lessons. ” Then the hip-hop bug bit. “When I heard (Run DMC‘s) ‘Sucker MCs’ and (Whodini‘s) ‘Big Mouth’, it made me curious to how the beats were made. Those song were the first time I heard the beats that weren’t melodic – just drums. Being someone who was taking drum lessons at the time, that made me real curious. That led me into deejaying, which slowly led to me doing parties and that led me into production.” It’s a little known fact that Dilla plays quite a few instruments. “My specialties are more drums and keyboards. I play the cello, violin, the trombone… a lot of little weird instruments.” (Listeners got a small taste of Jay’s live side on Welcome To Detroit’s Donald Byrd cover “Think Twice”.)
Jay Dee paid dues doing production for cats like Pharcyde (“Runnin’”, “Drop”, “Somethin That Means Somethin”), Skillz (“It’s Goin Down”, “The Jam”) and countless joints for A Tribe Called Quest (a personal favorite being the monstrous “Wordplay”), but came to prominence as one third of Slum Village, who arrived with the volumes 1 and 2 of the Fantastic series. “Volume 1 came about when I was first working with Tip,” he says. “I used to go out of town a whole lot, so when I came back to the D for a while, cats were talking about ‘let’s put something out, let’s do something’. So, in not even more than two days, they (T3 and Baatin) came over and laid all the vocals to no beats, just a metronome click. After that, I made some joints for two or three days. Everybody was tired, about to pass out. On the fifth day, we went to Kinkos’. It was supposed to be cassette only, something to get some type of buzz.”
It may have been a demo then, but it’s since become quite the collector’s item, bootlegged many times over. It also eventually got them signed, leading to the release of Volume 2. “We made that when everything else coming out was real harsh and hardcore. We always tried to do what everybody wasn’t doing, so that abum was directed towards the females, really. We had a couple of songs on there for the DJ’s and production heads, but the majority of the album was real soft. Then when we came out, finally, that’s when everybody else was doing soft sh*t.” Slum had quite the guest list for that album, including the almighty Pete Rock. “That was like one of my idols. After all those years of buying his stuff and wondering how he chopped this and that, to see him at work was crazy. He’s really, really into his sh*t. He inspires me every day, because I know when I’m sleeping, he’s not. He makes beats all damn day.”
Slum Village’s material was bootlegged crazily while they dealt with label issues, and Dilla’s still wrestling with the bootleg monster as an unauthorized version of Frank N Dank‘s 48 Hours has popped up on the net. 48 Hours came during Jay Dee’s involvement with MCA, and there were actually two different versions. “They wanted a version however we felt, then they wanted a version with no samples at all. The version the bootleggers got a hold of is the one I didnt like.”
Well, Jay’s not dealing with MCA anymore, and has a slew of projects dropping on Groove Attack, the first of which was this year’s Ruff Draft EP. “That was a quickie. I did it in four or five days, turned it in and had wax in ten days. If I’m not doing beats for somebody, I make stuff for me to drive around and listen to, and that was one of those projects. I was just doing me. That’ s why it was called the Ruff Draft EP”. Dilla’s next EP, The Verdict, is on the way.
So what’s on the horizon? For one, Dilla’s doing the majority of Common‘s next album. “We’re going straight dirt!” he exclaims. “We’re going straight back to Resurrection with this one, the ‘Take It EZ’ Common. He’s experimented with a lot of sh*t, so we’re taking it back to the rawness.” He’s also working on Busta‘s next one, which will also include a Madlib beat originally intended for Champion Sound. Other artists include Erykah Badu, Vivian Green and Bilal. “This time around, instead of the token one or two tracks I’m more into doing half or the majority of albums.”
The future holds a lot for the Jaylib team. Stay plugged in and you’ll never run out of ear candy. For now go get a copy of Champion Sound and have at it. Just keep a neck-brace handy – and don’t say you weren’t warned.
Q-Tip | “That kinda changed my whole way of thinking on production. A friend of mine from the D put me up on the whole Native Tongue movement. It was definitely left field.
Pete Rock | “That was just dirty. I bought an SP-12 back then, so I used to vibe on all his stuff. I’m still a fan of Pete Rock. Definitely the gritty sh*t.”
Rick Rubin | “That’ s the old school; the PE joints, the Ice Cube joints. He used to have a thousand elements in one beat.”
King Of Chill | “That’s just… man! The I Don’t Care Audio Two joints, the MC Lyte ‘Stop, Look & Listen’… those were beats that really, really inspired me. They had their own little chapter.”
Prince | “When I found out he played the drums, guitar and everything on his songs back in the day, it really inspired me ’cause I was along the same lines, messing around with a lot of instruments.”
This interview was published in RIME Magazine Issue #8 in 2003.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY J DILLA! THANK YOU JAY DEE.
REST IN POWER JAMES DEWITT YANCEY.