Since the producer and rapper J Dilla died in Los Angeles in February 2006, he has become a global icon. An orchestra has performed arrangements of his music, and festivals and concerts have been held in his honor.
In Detroit, a doughnut shop paid homage to his name.
During his lifetime, Dilla was less often the center of public attention. Although he was revered by some of the most formidable names in hip-hop—Common, Erykah Badu, De La Soul, Questlove, and A Tribe Called Quest all wanted to work with him—he was a ranking example of an artist’s artist. Dilla was a music tech head who made new sounds for fellow fanatics but was not as widely known as many he inspired.
Dilla’s Akai MPC3000 drum machine sits in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., not far from George Clinton’s Mothership and Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac. But how many nonmusicians know what that MPC does? Therein lies the difficulty in explaining what Dilla accomplished. Technology made his music possible, and his work involved moving beats and empty spaces around. It’s not as readily graspable as Kanye proclaiming from the mountaintop.
That’s the strength of Dan Charnas’s Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm, a superb accounting of the work (including simple, effective graphics) for a general audience, which brings Dilla’s legacy—and his internalized, clouded self—vividly to life.
Charnas is the author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (2010); he’s worked at Profile Records and teaches at NYU. In Dilla Time, he bears down on the creative process in a way few biographers do. Dilla’s attention to manipulating time and beats was so liberating because it allowed him to create new feelings from old records, pulverizing the sounds to build fresh structures from the smallest particles. “I want people to feel what I feel,” he once said.
He might pull three albums from a shelf, and out of that source material create a killing bass line composed of the chopped-up bass parts of three different songs—all in the time it took to eat a bowl of cereal.
Dilla found rhythmic patterns that are the bedrock of the music and bent them toward freedom, relaxed randomness folded into the sonic architecture in a way that made listeners nod their heads. Not to the beat—to the spaces in between the beats.
He was born James Dewitt Yancey in Detroit in 1974. Charnas offers a revisionist (and accurate) portrait of Detroit in the 1980s as surging with Black entrepreneurial energy and startup optimism. Dilla was raised by a musician father and grew up on music. Charnas tracks him finding mentors and cohorts in a scene that seems stocked with complicated souls trying to hang on.
Dilla’s studio was filled with alien action figures. He struck others as an alien too. Hiding under a hat, he was bossy, yet magnetic. He hated to wait, but he’d make you wait. “Quiet, not humble; cynical, not noble,” Charnas describes him. Dilla wanted to make beats, then go to clubs and shop for records, things that led the way to making more music.
Charnas explores the rise of the neo-soul style (think D’Angelo or the Roots) that Dilla as much as anybody brought into being: an impossibly off-the-beat digital patina that so evoked and commented on raw soul, musicians were soon replicating his digital snare sounds and stacked chords on their instruments.
In 2003, his friend Common suggested that Dilla leave Detroit and move with him to Los Angeles. Dilla had been released from a recording contract, and his commercial prospects were dim. Then he got gravely ill, hospitalized in Detroit with TTP, a rare blood disease that results in dangerous clotting inside of small blood vessels. He went on dialysis once he got to California.
All of this led to music becoming more fragmented and intense—“finding the holy in the broken,” Charnas notes. In Los Angeles, Dilla was diagnosed with lupus. He began working on a late-life masterpiece: the broken, holy Donuts.
The music was staggering: brief brutalist evocations, creating environments that bled sadness and seemed to ponder the idea of transition.
Dilla and his mother had equipment brought into his room at Cedars-Sinai; the work was punctuated by jam sessions with his accordion-playing hematologist. With the help of his friend Jeff Jank, Dilla finished a lonely, empathetic work.
In addition to a calmly magnetic telling of a musician’s life, Dilla Time offers a 400-page history of time. Charnas traces the influence of Black music on pop, zeroing in on the practice of falling behind the beat in jazz, an approach Dilla took into multiple dimensions. He was behind the beat but also in front of it, blurring and cutting off a pulse pattern before you expected it to resolve.
One night, Charnas tells us, Dilla was bowling with friends in Koreatown when a hip-hop artist kidded him, “You’re releasing the ball too early.… It isn’t one of your snares.” There are a lot of good bowlers. But few people anywhere have said as much with a beat.•