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J Dilla’s music will always sound like the future

today07/02/2024 5

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To the J Dilla super fans, it can be frustrating to see the producer reduced to campfire tale anecdotes and urban legends (including the false story of the title of ‘Donuts’ being inspired by Dilla seeing a Randy’s Donuts shop sign from his hospital window). But whether you believe all the posthumous mythology around him has become too mawkish or not, the way J Dilla embraced new sounds, even when staring right down the barrel of death, remains a crucial way of understanding his artistry.

From Detroit’s finest underground rap producer, inspired by the likes of Pete Rock and Diamond D, to perforating the mainstream with his mind-blowing production for artists including Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson, Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest, Common, and D’Angelo, J Dilla’s music remains futuristic despite nearly 20 years since his passing. And, this is largely down to its structure.

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Most of the drums from his rap production contemporaries were quantized and adhered to the steady 4/4 time signature, but conversely, Dilla trawled out kick drums and dragged hi-hats so each arrived when you were least expecting them. He told bassists to play their notes slightly behind the music to build tension, this “back phrasing” technique (also used by Miles Davis) resulting in rap beats that staggered forward like a drunk walking through a swamp in logger boots. Just like an insolent school pupil, keeping time was a foreign concept to J Dilla.

All these sonic delays, paired with the abruptness of snares that always arrived a second or so too early, meant J Dilla’s hissing, lo-fi beats replicated the feeling of listening to music at the height of an acid trip: a confusing yet transcendent experience, where you temporarily become convinced that music is somehow capable of both slowing down and speeding up simultaneously. Without the need for an illicit substance, J Dilla let us hear rap production from a brand new, psychedelic vantage point — confounding our expectations like it was his life’s purpose. The fact he was also such a colloquial emcee, who could make rapping over such complex beats seem so effortless, is testament to his artistic versatility.

Written by: Tim Hopkins

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