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BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time: J Dilla

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#9 – J Dilla (AKA Jay Dee)

By AMIR SAID (SA’ID)

J Dilla. Master of styles, one of the leaders of the second major sampling phase.

From his professional start in 1996 with his group Slum Village, J Dilla had nearly perfected the mellow and spacey (alternative) organ bass-stab and keys sound that many would wind up biting unmercifully years later. By 2000, however, his style and sound, as well as profile, had grown tremendously. Though he still used the organ and snapping snare sound, Dilla post-Fantastic, Vol. 1 was an exploration in a deeper level of chopping.

J Dilla is one of the greatest choppers in beatmaking history. Often, new beatmakers fail to realize how intricate the process of chopping and looping can get. Then, they listen to the likes of DJ Premier and J Dilla, the latter chopping and elongating phrases usually in the most unlikely ways yet always funky. Also, where many beatmakers have struggled to work warmth into their beats, Dilla was a master at it, crafting beats that were infused with warmth. And perhaps before anyone else had figured out how to smoothly match samples and keyboard (patches), Dilla was already pioneering that.

Any discussion of J Dilla must be tempered with the utmost respect. It’s not just because of his tremendous talent or the fact that he was loved and respected by everyone who knew him, but also because for many, his death feels recent. That said, I’m compelled to address one point that is regularly raised by J Dilla fans. A number of people believe that J Dilla is the #1 beatmaker of all time — period, no debate. Sorry, but I can’t get with any discussion that’s closed to debate. Now, the debate notwithstanding, Dilla’s connection to A Tribe Called Quest is always raised as one of the biggest pieces of evidence in support of his claim to the #1 all-time spot in beatmaking. While his work with The Ummah (the production team made up of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and J Dilla) is certainly something worth examining, it’s important to remember that Dilla’s work with the collective came three years after the first three Tribe albums were already recorded and released. Which means that J Dilla shares no credit in the Tribe sound that was developed and codified three years prior to his production debut in 1996 with his group Slum Village.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that J Dilla, more than any other beatmaker on this list, often receives the greatest number of (sometimes head-scratching) superlatives or highest level of hyperbole. Listen, I don’t think that Dilla’s place in history ever needs any defending. He’s one of my personal favorites for sure. But I’ve heard and read some of the most bizarre defenses from people when expressing why they believe he’s the #1 beatmaker of all time. For instance, his work being interpreted by a classical ensemble does not point to his genius. Groups like The Black Keys and El Michels Affairs interpreted RZA’s beats; and there are number of different bands outside of hip hop/rap who’ve long-stated that RZA and DJ Premier’s work influenced their play. Still, one person’s re-imagination of another’s work doesn’t point to the prior’s genius. Some of Dilla’s work is genius. But I find that some of the work of a number of beatmakers on the BeatTips Top 30 list is something that qualifies as genius as well. What Kev Brown does on an MPC is genius. RZA’s un-stuck, off-beat timing is genius. DJ Premier’s formula is genius. Large Professor, DJ Khalid…genius… Point is, there isn’t one lone genius in the art of beatmaking. That should objectively be respected.

That said, however, Dilla developed his own style and sound around 1996, and he created another one not more than five years later. It is my belief that both styles and sounds (the mellow organ and filtered bass sound and the soul sample-intricate chop sound) will live on as two of the most important contributions to the beatmaking tradition. Furthermore, as J Dilla died far too soon, he left behind a catalog of unheard beats that, hopefully, will make their way to the public in coming years. How that translates to his legacy is yet to be seen. But if J Dilla’s beat for Raekwon’s “House of Flying Daggers” is any indication, Dilla might be climbing up the BeatTips Top 30 list.

J Dilla is also a leader in the beat instrumental/producer album realm. His Welcome 2 Detroit and Donuts albums are classics that, just like Marley Marl’s and Pete Rock’s earlier producer albums, have helped paved the way for future beatmakers to make “placements” for themselves.

Finally, here again we have yet another beatmaker who also rhymed. (This is especially important to point out, because in today’s scene, far too many beatmakers don’t believe that they could also be rappers.) While J Dilla didn’t rhyme as frequent as some of the other beatmaker/rappers on this list, he was still good on the mic nevertheless.

The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

J Dilla Beats (Songs) Recommended for Study:

SPECIAL NOTE: Listen to Slum Village’s first two albums Fantastic Vol. 1 and Fantastic, Vol.2. Fantastic, Vol. 1 was not as polished and seemingly as groundbreaking as other releases of the same era; remember ca. 1996? Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s The Main Ingredient had already dropped, three A Tribe Called Quest albums had already dropped, Nas’ Illmatic had already dropped, Mobb Deep’s The Infamous had dropped; etc. Still, on Fantastic, Vol.1 J Dilla introduced a style and sound that would go on to become one of the most copied styles and sounds in beatmaking history. And on Vol. 2, he upped the ante with his trademark off- and elongated phrase chopping. After those albums, then listened to J Dilla’s Donuts album.

“Workinonit” – J Dilla beat by J Dilla

“One” – Jay Dee (AKA J Dilla) beat by J Dilla

“Raise it Up” – Slum Village beat by J Dilla

“Runnin’” – The Pharcyde beat by J Dilla

“Waves” – J Dilla beat by J Dilla

“House of Flying Daggers” – Raekwon feat. Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, Method Man, and GZA beat by J Dilla

“Everybody Get Up” – Frank-N-Dank beat by J Dilla

“The Light” – Common beat by J Dilla

“Fall in Love” – Slum Village beat by J Dilla

“Dilla Says Go” – J Dilla beat by J Dilla

“Stakes is High” – De La Soul beat by J Dilla

“Give It Up” – Jay Dee (AKA J Dilla) beat by J Dilla

“The Diff’rence” – J Dilla beat by J Dilla

“Players” – Slum Village beat by J Dilla

“Eyes Up” – Slum Village beat by J Dilla

“Climax” – Slum Village beat by J Dilla

“Thelonious” – Common feat. Slum Village beat by J Dilla

“Think Twice” – Jay Dee (AKA J Dilla) feat. Dwele beat by J Dilla

“What’s It All About” – Slum Village feat. Busta Rhymes beat by J-Dilla

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About Author

Amir Said (aka Sa’id) is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of BeatTips. A writer, publisher, and beatmaker/rapper from New York, Said is the author of a number of books, including ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ ‘The Art of Sampling,’ ‘Ghetto Brother,’ and ‘The Truth About New York.’ He is also a recording artist with a number of music projects, including his latest album 'The Best of Times.' Follow him on Twitter at: @amirsaid and @BeatTipsManual

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