Hip-Hop Still Runs On Dilla Time

In a new biography, author Dan Charnas dissects the soul of the gifted and complicated Detroit beat guru

J Dilla (Image: Wikipedia)

J Dilla was such a prolific beat maker and artist that it takes a book to see him in full. 

Dan Charnas’s Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm was released to glowing reviews in February. The accolades are well earned. Though Charnas initially planned to co-author a book with an NYU colleague, Dilla Time is a rich, thorough biography, with some outliers from that initial proposal—we learn, with graphs, just how differently the producer approached rhythm (he would keep one element regularly paced while slowing another, the contrasts striking sparks), and the early history of Detroit is illustrated with maps. 

But it’s the bio that absorbs. As a biographer, Charnas is careful to present these actions in context—and at times, Dilla was, frankly, a lout: slapping his first girlfriend, spending more time at the strip club than with his kids. But he was also young and learning—by the end of his way-too-short life (he was thirty-two when he died of Lupus in February 2006), Dilla had done a lot of maturing; as Charnas points out, traveling, among other things, will do that to a person. Nor does the author shy away from the intra-family battles that followed Dilla’s death.

Charnas’ first book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop, established him as a scrupulous and sharp-witted historian who brought to life a central argument—that to discuss the business of hip-hop was to discuss hip-hop, period—that promised something a lot drier. (My favorite story, out of dozens of candidates: In 1983, the producer of a hip-hop talent show taking place at Radio City Music Hall meets some of the older women working for the venue, and discovers that they think something called “break dancing” meant that “people were literally going to break things onstage.”) 

A professor at NYU/Tisch’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Charnas’s research is particularly effective here. He speaks with dozens of collaborators, friends, and family members, and his portrait is rounded and whole, doubly impressive given the dearth of the producer’s words on-record. (Dilla recorded fewer than twenty interviews with journalists during his lifetime.) Charnas also slays one of the more romantic and pernicious myths surrounding the producer—that Dilla recorded the final album released during his lifetime, Donuts, while in the hospital. (It was actually made from an earlier beat tape, with Jeff Jank, an employee of Stones Throw, the label that issued it, extending Dilla’s original loops.) 

Particularly as Dilla Day events proliferate globally and as his musical stamp spreads further—Kendrick Lamar’s work with Terrace Martin and Thundercat, both of whom were directly inspired by Dilla, is the most obvious example—the deeper understanding of his music that Charnas provides only grows more necessary. I spoke with him in early June.

 

In the book, you use the term “progressive dance classic” without identifying the term as Detroit-centric, the mark of a true Detroit-phile. It’s a DJ-centric term, often denoting European new wave and synth music, and the techno inspired by it. What was your sense of Detroit as a taste locus, as a sensibility, when you first met Dilla? 

One of the things I feel that is important to do is to call things by the name that people call them. When you talk about the scene from which all of these DJs and producers and dancers came, they call it “progressive dance.” It was the catch-all phrase that Detroiters use for stuff that sounded like the future—a future that they inhabited. 

So, for me, it was important to say that progressive dance began its own flavor of electronic music that came to be called techno [in Detroit], just as the New York variant came to be called electro, just as the Chicago variant came to be called house. But if you talk to a lot of Detroiters, they’ll say they made house—so all of these names are fluid. I do think there is a difference between house and techno because it’s the difference between the church and the factory, sonically. But there is a lot of crossover. 

Back in the nineties, I knew that there was this thing called techno. But I also knew that not much shit came out in Detroit, especially in the genre that most concerned me, which was hip-hop. I knew about Awesome Dre and the Hardcore Committee, and I knew about MC Breed from Flint. And that’s it. That’s why Dilla was such a surprise. 

I remember having a conversation with [Delicious Vinyl co-founder] Mike Ross, being very concerned, as his friend and a fan of the Pharcyde: What’s the Pharcyde going to do now that [Delicious Vinyl producer] J. Swift is not around? And he’s like, “Oh no, there’s great kid from Detroit.” Like, Detroit? I mean, he might as well be from Albania, as far as hip-hop is concerned. Of course, we didn’t know that Detroit had a scene—a thriving one. Detroit was—relative to the other areas that I was trying to sell record in—a backwater. That omission was on all of us. But it was, thankfully, Q-Tip who really enabled the world to see that there was not only something going on in Detroit, but there was one particular genius working in Detroit. And that genius became apparent to us over the course of years.

 

Questlove told me how J. Dilla turned him onto Daft Punk. House and techno are very close together in Detroit and Chicago both and became more separated out beyond those cities. How would you describe James Yancey’s musical relationship with them? What has listening to him taught you about hearing those kinds of music?

There’s a guy named Marco Mello who has a series on YouTube called AnecDope. He actually got a story [about] Daft Punk that I didn’t even know: James had sampled Daft Punk for “Raise It Up” without permission. [[Actually Thomas Bangalter’s “Extra Dry,” from 1995’s Trax on Da Rocks EP.]] Daft Punk basically loved it but got a remix out of Jay Dee for one of their songs, [“Aerodynamic (Slum Village Version)”]. That began the relationship, and it was one of, I think, mutual respect. The fact is that Jay Dee was much more popular at that point than Daft Punk—this is pre-Coachella. So, I am kicking myself for not having that story in the book. Maybe I can find a way to shoehorn it into the paperback. 

You have to understand, there was an incredible amount of animosity between the dance music crowd and the hip-hop crowd. I’m talking about mostly young Black fans, participants. I went to college in Boston, and a lot of the Black fraternities would throw these dance parties and it was very anti-hip-hop. These were young people, 18-19-20-21, but hip-hop was seen in many ways as kids’ stuff. 

 

What years would these be? 

Late eighties: ’87, ’88, ’89, so this is really not long after the emergence of “Jack Your Body” and all that stuff. They saw house as the more adult, sophisticated thing, and hip-hop was just this kid shit. That animosity continued after I moved [back] to New York in ’89, ’90. 

I signed this group called the Art of Origin, which was Kerri Chandler and Derek Barbosa, a.k.a. Chino XL. And Kerri had this dual life. He very easily transitioned musically: he did great deep-house stuff—he had his own sound, which is, of course, now legendary—and then he did these amazing hip-hop tracks that are a rival for anything Jay Dee was doing. I mean, Kerri Chandler, if he had stayed in hip-hop—he could have been star either way. 

Chino hated the house stuff. I think partially he hated it because it took his partner away from him. But also, there was this real animosity. There was a homophobia that went along with it. There was the fact that it was much easier for house to get played in the clubs, much easier for house to get played on the radio. And house was seen by hip-hop as having less substance.

When I interviewed people in Detroit, I would always ask the question: “Did you guys hate techno?” “No!” For everyone, it was like, “Do you want chicken or steak?” It wasn’t a cultural battle. The way that Derek Harvey—Dank—describes it [was]: “I was a dancer. I had a cassette tape. On the A side, I had music that I could Jit to,” which was techno stuff. “And on the other side, I had hip-hop, which I could breakdance to.” And that’s most people in Detroit, because it was homegrown. Most people in Detroit did the Jit, which was in many ways seen as the poor cousin to the more highfalutin, bourgie side of progressive dance. Obviously, after years, those walls came down a little bit. 

Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, The Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm by Dan Charnas

You could have gone all kinds of ways with some of the information you had. James behaves badly at times. James does immature shit at times. You present all of that very straightforwardly. There’s no moralizing, but at the same time you are not running from it. This is the first book you’ve written about one person, so I’m curious how your approach to depicting him evolved as you wrote.

When I began this book, it began with a smaller idea—a little science book about music that essentially explained the genius of Dilla in ways that people had not explained him before. Because I knew his life and his legacy and things around him were so fraught with conflict, I did not expect to write the biography of Dilla. 

I wanted to do as good of a job as possible, though. So once people started talking, my reportorial muscle took over. And if a question popped up, I had to try to answer it. It’s my programming, it’s my prime directive, whether the question is: What was DeWitt Yancey’s early music career like: Did he actually have anything to do with “It’s a Shame,” like people say? What was Dilla’s sister like? What was his relationship with her like? Who was Dilla’s first girlfriend? We had never heard anything from any of his paramours prior to this, other than Monica Whitlow saying something in Vibe. We hadn’t seen nothing. And it took me months and years to be able to cultivate those relationships. But all of that yields information. 

We all are complex individuals. Especially in our culture today—Dilla died at the birth of social media . . . 

 

In 2006, so exactly at the birth.

Right. And social media begat Stan-dom. 

The difference between fandom and Stan-dom to me is that the fan wants information as much as they can get. When I loved the Beatles, I bought every fucking book, record, movie, whatever I could find. If somebody wrote something on John Lennon—“John Lennon did this, John Lennon did that, John Lennon taped a Kotex to his head”—I wanted to know about it. 

The Stan does not want information. The Stan craves worship, which is very different: “We don’t want to hear about that. We just want to praise.” That was part of what shaped the posthumous side of Dilla. And then, of course, there are people who are very invested in having Dilla be Saint James. 

I found that there is a fatigue now, among people in his family and his friends, of all the lionization—that people did want to speak their piece, people did want to talk about James the person, not Saint James. 

That doesn’t mean that people were out to get him. Maureen is the person who told me that Dilla hit his first girlfriend. She wasn’t hiding that, to her great credit. When I actually ended up talking to Angie—thank God she wanted to talk to me—the first thing she said was, “First thing I want to say is I think Jay was a genius. I always thought he was and I still do,” so she could tell me her truth. That truth didn’t alter the fact that he was a genius. So that is my attitude. Like, her attitude is, “Just because he did this or did that, because he was had sexist attitudes, because he didn’t take care of his kids, whatever it was, it doesn’t make him not a genius. It makes him human.” 

 

You mention that Dilla sometimes took credit for making the beat for Janet Jackson’s “Got ’til It’s Gone.” Maybe I read this wrong, but you seemed to leave it an open question.

I guess some of the things I say quite softly, that maybe I don’t say definitively, but what I did say in the footnote: I have found no, zero, corroborated evidence for James’s claim. None of his friends have any evidence. In fact, everybody who is undeniably involved with the song—you can’t deny that Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam were involved, you can’t deny that Q-Tip was involved, you can’t deny that [drum programmer] Alex Richbourg was involved—every single one of them deny, do not corroborate James’s story. 

 

It sounded like something he said out of anger or spite or dismissal. 

It was. It was completely passive-aggressive. And I understand. There’s definitely a rationale behind all that stuff. 

Also, after the book came out, I finally heard the multitracks for “Got ’til It’s Gone,” which convinced me even more than it has nothing to do with Dilla. And the real reason is, it’s not sophisticated enough to be a Dilla production. So I don’t think we lose anything by writing this off as a Dilla fabrication. 

Again, he’s a complicated dude. He had a complicated relationship with his mentor [Q-Tip]. He sees his mentor walk into a room with Janet Jackson, and Janet Jackson comes out with a hit record that sounds just like the Ummah made it, which basically means it’s his sound, and he gets nothing from it. Well, he can’t be Jay Dee anyway, because he’s part of this crew called the Ummah, but he doesn’t have the wherewithal to confront his mentor about it, because this is the guy who basically plucked him out of obscurity and saved his life. So instead, he’ll just gripe about it and tell people [yes, when they ask], “You did that song, right?” Why not? Because nobody knows who made what anyway. 

 

VIDEO: Janet Jackson feat. Q-Tip and Joni Mitchell “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”

You write really enjoyably about James and Common going to see The Matrix. Dilla was shook: “The machine world becomes just a cascade of ones and zeros to our hero.” What was the talk about The Matrix more broadly within hip-hop at that point?

I do have one specific memory about this: In 1999, when that movie came out—it may have been before Chino and I went to Detroit together—Chino and I and our girlfriends went to go see The Matrix on opening weekend. Chino, in particular, was really excited to see that. I [thought], you know: “Some stupid action movie, whatever.” But I went because my girlfriend wanted to see it, and he wanted to see it. They’re both Aries, so they get they get to do what they want to do, and the Virgos just kind of follow. 

Of course, the movie is fantastic, nothing like I ever experienced. I remember coming out and us all having a discussion, not about how great the movie was, but what it meant for us as human beings—what the movie was trying to say to us. I remember Chino saying these exact words: “I control the Matrix; the Matrix doesn’t control me.” It felt liberating to him, and for all of us, to think about it that way: “I can see how this whole thing works. And you’re just a bunch of ones and zeros to me.” 

One of the things that I spent time on in my interview with Common was talking about—and it was just an aside—they went to go see The Matrix together. I don’t even know where I picked up that piece of information. He said that James was a man of few words, but he did remember James emerging from the theater kind of tongue-tied. And I know what that sounds like, because if you’ve ever heard Dilla speak, or his brothers speak, when they get excited, there’s a certain cadence to their voice, which is quite beautiful. Common also said that James related to it, not just the premise, but he loved the visual art of it, whether it be the green hue to things or just the care by which things were designed. James really responded to all media, all art. 

When I married into a Detroit family, I married a woman who, on our first date, said to me, “Don’t take the fact that I don’t know much about hip-hop to mean that I don’t respect it.” She, as a Black Detroiter, had very little knowledge of hip-hop that was going on in Detroit. That said, she was completely plugged in to the things in Detroit musical culture that signified Detroit to her. For example, she was the person who turned me on to the fact that The Scene existed, and what that meant to have grown up with that show on TV. Even though she wasn’t a hip-hop fan, she said, “People in Detroit love that the end of that movie [8 Mile]. You remember the end of the movie where Eminem like they all want to go celebrate. And Eminem turns to them and says, ‘I gotta go to work.’ That is the most Detroit moment in that film.” 

 

You know the T-shirt: Detroit Hustles Harder.

Right! And that, for me, isn’t a cliché. It really is that way. 

 

How did you decide to teach a Dilla class in the first place?

I had the great benefit of working for Jason King, who runs the history and writing area of, and is the artistic director, of the Clive Davis Institute [at NYU]. He already put people like Questlove on the adjunct staff. I had been teaching about Dilla as part of my core freshman history course, and [noticed] the reverence, quite oddly, that all these young people had for Dilla. I think it was Jason who suggested that I teach a course on Dilla. It was in the spring of 2017. While I was working on The Breaks, I organized this field trip to Detroit. We did it again in 2019, without the Detroit trip, because that was a little cost-prohibitive for my students. But it was those two experiences—that first experience, really—that convinced me. 

It convinced me that it wasn’t enough to have accurate things for people to read about Dilla in the musical sense—that his output had been reduced to feeling, and that the thing that he did was not-quantize things, so he could just be sloppy about where he put his bass. That is not only inaccurate, but it doesn’t get to why he was important, why it was revolutionary, and why it’s lasted, and why it was new. It wasn’t some recreation of some jazz drummer’s back phrasing, you know? So that was the kernel of anger that, for me, motivated me to continue to write this book against all fucking odds.

 

Did you always know what it was he was doing, as opposed to the misinterpretations you just outlined? Or did it take you a long time to figure this out? 

It took me a while. It took me phases. First there was just liking what I was hearing. I remember getting the beat tape that people now call Another Batch back in 1999, and selecting a couple of beats off of it for Chino. But it wasn’t until I got back from Detroit, while we were mixing the album, that I heard: “What’s going on with that hi-hat? Is that hi-hat swinging? Why is it doing that?”

I put it in my digital audio workstation, Digital Performer, and literally lined the waveform up with the grid so I could see what was going on. And I was shocked when the hi-hats were even, and that the reason that they sounded like they were swinging is because the snare was coming in too early. It was fucking with the mental perception of where things were and what was happening. That was the beginning of me understanding: Oh, the rushed snare

I did not know how he did it. I did not know why he did it. All I knew is that, all of a sudden, [producer] Hi-Tek was using it. Suddenly, it’s in a Michael Jackson song [“Butterflies”]; then it’s in Brandy [“What About Us?”]. All these people were starting to mess with the placement of things. And that’s when the language came about—you know, “drunken,” “sloppy,” whatever. 

In 2005, I wanted to write an article for Scratch magazine about this phenomenon. It was called “Quantize This,” or something like that. Because at that point, I thought it was about not quantizing. But as I began to research and think about it, and understand ways that this stuff happened. Actually, the rushed snare was a remnant, a product of the actual timing functions of the MPC, not their defeat. Because literally, it’s the MPC that enables you, unlike the DSP, to swing things independently of each other or not, and to shift the timing of notes or not. 

That spoke of an intentionality, and that was verified by his closest collaborators to me, that this was also part of his arsenal, not just the quantization. There were some people who were circling around the idea—like, on YouTube, there were these tutorial videos where some people would say it’s sort of halfway between swung and straight. And it’s not, because halfway between swung and straight just sounds like a light swing. It’s actually swung and straight simultaneously, which is a very, very different feeling. So, nobody had ever been specific about that shit.

 

Figuring out that everybody is wrong is a process unto itself, right?

Yeah. That began for me in 2000, with, first, understanding what he was doing, what the mechanics of the drums were; then in 2005, me actually grappling again with this concept and thinking about how it happens. And then hearing little bits of information like when Q-Tip said “swing percentages.” He mentioned some percentages in his Red Bull Music Academy [lecture]. Ahhhhh! It’s this MPC shit! You know, it was even before that, because the rushed snare isn’t played freehand. It occurs in the same place in every measure. That’s not un-quantized.

 

And it’s not sloppy. That’s the opposite of sloppy.

[voice rising] It is the opposite! [catches himself] You hear this? I’m still pissed off about it. [laughs] I’m still pissed off.

 

How did Donuts sound to you when you first heard it? Did you hear it before it came out? Did it seem like a directional shift to you? And did it change for you after he passed?

I did not hear it before it came out, so I heard it along with everybody else. And of course, being a person who was knowledgeable and invested in Jay Dee’s career from almost the very beginning, Donuts was very alienating to me, as it was to a lot of folks who loved the Jay Dee sound. It didn’t sound like the stuff that I knew Dilla for: the Fender Rhodes, the warm bass lines, the off-kilter drums. This was all raw and jagged and underproduced. It felt like he wasn’t doing anything to the material—like he was just sort of looping things. That was the first reaction. 

I have a different conception of what that is now, much different. But it was alienating for me, just as it was alienating for House Shoes. Almost everybody I talked to [laughs] was alienated from Donuts, except maybe for [Peanut Butter] Wolf, Egon, Jank—his California crew. Like, nobody in California [was alienated]. They loved Dilla, and they would have loved anything he did. And they loved Madlib, so they loved the alignment of those two. But I think everybody outside that L.A. crew that I spoke to really had a problem with Donuts when it first came out. 

 

Did it shift for you after he died, the way that I think it did for a lot of people? Did his death force you to hear it differently?

Yeah, it did. First of all, as someone’s last testament, you cling to: What were their last words? We never ask what their what their words were a year ago. It’s the last words that get the importance. But I cleave much more to The Shining as the last word, because that was the last last word. 

Donuts was in some ways more accessible to folks, because it was completely instrumental. It lacked words, and therefore people could project what they wanted onto it. Like Dilla himself, a complete cipher, so it’s easier to have a relationship with something that’s not telling you what it is. “Won’t Do,” his last opus, told you exactly who he was in every dimension. It told you who he was as a producer, as an engineer, as a singer, as a songwriter, as an MC, as a person, and as a persona. “I want to fuck five bitches at the same time”: That’s not as easy to project sainthood onto. But it is every bit as much as James, and maybe more so, than Donuts.

 

You wrote that many of the Dilla-related tributes the year following his death were “impromptu acts of creation without commercial purpose.” Was that groundswell surprising to you? Or did it seem inevitable?

I’m sort of like the frog in the soup—the frog in the water as it’s slowly starting to boil. I was mostly happy and delighted to see how resonant he continued to be: “Of course it should be happening. We should have an orchestra of one hundred people recreating his beats. Yes, I want to hear every beat he’s ever done. Yes, his drum machine should be in the Smithsonian.” I wanted people to see what I saw and was always glad when they did. 

The only disconnect for me was, “Motherfucker did more than not-quantize shit.” Talking about him not quantizing, and everything’s sloppy, was so fucking trivializing to him—and racist, whether people understand it or not.

 

That’s right: “He’s natural,” that sort of shit.

[derisively] “So natural. What a great feeling.” Yes. “All instinct.” God, right. “Dilla wouldn’t hurt a flea.”

 

The book has been extremely successful. It’s a bestseller. You’ve retweeted and re-posted things from various people: Here’s the book in a video. Here’s this book in this bookstore. Here are all these people reading it. That’s got to be very satisfying.

It is. You know what it’s like: Writing a book is like rowing yourself in a little rowboat into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; trying to go from Brazil to Portugal. It’s very lonely. And there’s no thanks for it. And there’s not a lot of money for it. And you’re just happy to see some people on the far shore when you finally get there. I was never expecting the social media side of this thing, the way that the book is sort of treated like a totem. 

The thing that I was the most anxious about, and the thing that I am most grateful about, is that Detroiters feel seen, and like the book. They know that the book was made for love, made out of love for where they are. I don’t care what any reviewer from the New York Times or whatever thinks as long as I’ve got that. That’s the thing that matters the most.

 

 

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Michaelangelo Matos

Michaelangelo Matos is the author of Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year (Hachette, 2020). He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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