How Detroit’s J Dilla Changed Hip-Hop Forever
James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla, would have turned 48 this month. Detroit’s king of all beats showed the world in his brief life that the city’s best musical days are not over, but still to come. J Dilla’s signature style forever changed the sound of hip-hop, neo-soul, pop, and even jazz. The artist passed away in 2006. And his story is so recent that we haven’t had much scholarship on his life – until now.
Journalist Dan Charnas chronicles Dilla’s life and influence in his new book Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented the Beat.
Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, a young Dilla began creating beats on his drum machine in a basement on Seven Mile Rd. Over the years, his work developed the cool, syncopated sound that the author Dan Charnas describes it as “Dilla’s hour”.
“It’s the simultaneous combination of upright and balanced, and it’s really become over the last 20 years a new way for traditional musicians to fill time,” Charnas said. “In fact, I think James Yancey is the first person to step out of electronic music to fundamentally change the way mainstream musicians feel and relate to musical time.”
The young producer was in a league of his own, and it didn’t take long for other key hip-hop players to take notice. Throughout his life, J Dilla has collaborated with an astonishing number of big names in the music industry who have helped propel his career.
One of the most important and influential figures on his path to success was Detroit funk musician Amp Fiddler. The fellow Detroit native quickly became interested in Dilla after seeing the young producer’s unique sampling techniques.
“You realize very quickly that James is self-taught. That he really learns on his own and on an accelerated path, in a creative way, that even Amp, the professional that he was, was in awe of this teenager,” Charnas explained.
Over the years, Dilla continued to work with countless artists who shared Amp Fiddler’s fascination: DJ Head, Proof, Q-Tip, Questlove, Busta Rhymes and many more. But no matter how successful, Dilla’s vision has remained the same.
“James was singular in his compulsion to work on the drum machine, and his friend Frank Bush will tell you that everything else he did, whether it was going to the strip club for evening entertainment, or to buy records, or to buy clothes that made him feel good – it all served to put him in the right frame of mind to make beats,” Charnas explained.
Making music was pretty much Dilla’s whole life, and for a moment it seemed like nothing could slow him down. Then in 2003, after returning from a European tour, the artist was hospitalized in a hospital in the Grosse Pointe area due to poor health. He would eventually be diagnosed with a rare blood condition called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, as well as lupus, an autoimmune disease.
After three years of fighting, the young prodigy succumbed to his illnesses on February 10, 2006. His death at only 32 years old shook the world of music. Fans and fellow musicians mourned the loss of such a great, young talent. But while J Dilla’s time on earth may have been cut short, his legacy in the music world and among his many fans lives on. What J Dilla accomplished in his lifetime had an incomprehensible impact on hip-hop, and his dedication to his craft lasted until his very last days.
“At the end of his life, when he’s in the hospital, he has his drum machine in the hospital with him,” Charnas said. “He really hasn’t gone away. I mean, he worked all the way and tried to innovate all the way. And that’s something that I think a lot of people find great inspiration in.