• Thu. Aug 18th, 2022

Op-Ed: Why hip-hop beatmaker J Dilla should be as famous as Mozart


Something interesting is happening in the “Progressive R&B” category at this year’s Grammy Awards. Four of the six nominated albums feature songs that bear the unmistakable time signature of a Detroit hip-hop beatmaker named James Dewitt Yancey, known professionally as ‘Jay Dee’ or ‘J Dilla’, who died 16 years ago. , at the age of 32, from a rare blood disease. On the lineup for the upcoming Smokin Grooves music festival in Los Angeles in March, nearly half of the artists were Yancey collaborators or are students of his style.

Both events are a testament to J Dilla’s lasting influence as a songwriter and producer, even though he never had a record that reached the top 20 on the pop charts. At the height of his career in the 1990s and 2000s, he worked with a legion of famous artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, the Roots, Common, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu – often without explicit or full credit. Nor did he reach the success of his more visible contemporaries such as Timbaland and Dr. Dre.

In the years since J Dilla’s death in 2006, his birthday has become an occasion for annual celebrations by fans around the world, his music has been performed for symphony orchestras and he has garnered more media attention than he ever did in his lifetime. The Guardian called out J Dilla”the mozart of hip hop.” NPR announced it as “Jazz’s Last Great Innovator.” His collaborators Questlove, Common and Madlib compared him to Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.

Why does Dilla – whose primary instrument was a drum machine – deserve to be in the same league as these musical luminaries? How does a beat producer fit into our canon? It has to do with our conception of musical time.

European music, whether classical or folk, traditionally counts its rhythms equally, in what we call “straight time”. Each beat is of equal duration.

In North America, an uneven sense of time, developed by African Americans and entered our culture through blues and jazz, has evolved, where rhythms come in long-short, long-short pairs. It came to be called “swing”. Louis Armstrong, for example, is in our canon in part because he helped codify swing into our collective playing and singing.

A graph showing the rate of swing time.

When music is “balanced”, the degree of unevenness varies by performer and performance, making it difficult to document using traditional European musical notation. But these two time sensations, straight and swing, have dominated our popular music for the past 100 years, sometimes inhabiting the same piece of music. In Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for example, around the four-minute mark, the upright rhythms of European opera give way to the swinging beats of American rhythm and blues, journeying 4,000 miles and 400 years in eight seconds.

In 1998, a new time sensation began to emerge from a basement in Detroit, where James Dewitt Yancey noticed that his drum machine, the Akai MPC-3000, allowed him to move sounds in microscopic ways, which which created a disorienting rhythmic friction: not straight, not balanced, but several straight and balanced impulses simultaneously. In the popular music class I teach at New York University, we named this time-conflicting sensation for its ancestor: Dilla Time.

A graph showing "Dilla time" rhythm.

Jay Dee/J Dilla had been playing with error and “offness” in his beats since his professional debut in 1995, but these new tracks from Dilla Time – which have made their way into the world through his informal “beat tapes” and the still unreleased his band Slum Village’s debut album – had a weird, lame, woozy quality to it.

None of this would have mattered if those subversive beats hadn’t been so appealing to other beatmakers and a core group of hip-hop-friendly musicians that included D’Angelo and Questlove, who set stage Dilla’s micro-rhythmic conflict with traditional instruments on 2000’s “Voodoo” album.

Dilla’s beats quickly permeated R&B and pop – Michael Jackson’s latest single, “Butterflies”, was featured in Dilla Time – and by the late 2000s they had begun to convert a new generation of drummers. serious jazz. The “Dilla sensation” is now ubiquitous in jazz clubs and conservatories and has transformed the way traditional musicians approach their instruments. Dilla’s musical ideas resonate in the work of Guggenheim scholars such as David Fiuczynski and Pulitzer Prize-winning pop icons such as Kendrick Lamar. It is a century-old innovation and influence.

Some point out that straight and swing briefly collided before J Dilla, in the work of pianists like Errol Garner. And micro-rhythmic conflicts are present in some folk music around the world. But J Dilla’s genius is much more than his rhythm work. He was a master at sampling harmonic and melodic materials and recombining them with sophistication. He was a virtuoso who could change the textures, timbres and envelopes of sound in emotionally evocative ways. He was, above all, a deep listener, and his own listeners were the beneficiaries of his bionic ear.

It has been said by some that J Dilla “humanized” his drum machine. It’s quite the opposite: he used his drum machine to make a kind of rhythm that no drummer had ever done before. But there is a less conceptual, more human reason why J Dilla is now counted among the greats and why his drum machine is now on permanent display at the Smithsonian, next to Thomas Dorsey’s piano, the trumpet of Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry’s Cadillac and George Clinton’s Mothership. . His harmonies made people cry and his rhythms made them feel free.

Dan Charnas is a journalist and professor at New York University. His latest book is “Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented the Beat.”