As February rolled around once again, a month that just so happens to share J Dilla’s birthday, I was once again reminded that there will never be another quite like him.
He wasn’t just a force within music — collaborating heavily with the likes of Erykah Badu, The Roots, D’Angelo and The Pharcyde to name a few — but a force of life itself. Dilla was born James Yancey, son to Maureen Yancey, and grew up in the heart of Detroit, Michigan. It was only after he transferred to Pershing High School that he met classmates Baatin and T3, who together would later become the group Slum Village — a trio that would go on to take Detroit, and soon the greater American hip hop landscape, by storm. With Dilla producing and his two best friends on the mic, their path to legendary status was essentially guaranteed.
But what James Yancey did on this earth soared beyond what could come from his fingertips. In his lifetime, Dilla christened our ears with a catalog that needs no introduction: The Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia, A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life, Janet Jackson’s hit single “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” and Common’s Like Water For Chocolate are just drops in the bucket for hip hop’s most prolific producer.
The music speaks for itself, but it wasn’t just about the beats. He made those beats until he physically couldn’t anymore; until the fingers that so elegantly graced each button on his MPC 3000 stood still. Dilla loved what he did more than anything else, and he rode off into the sunset while all of us were left bobbing our heads, with tears in our eyes.
Not only did he create his own masterpieces, but Dilla’s presence willed his closest friends to make their own. Madlib, American producer and a friend of Dilla, would go on to create Dil Cosby and Dil Withers Suite — two installments that capture Dilla’s very essence, placing it for display on the mantelpiece of hip hop legends. It’s quite possibly the greatest musical eulogy I’ve ever heard.
I heard J Dilla’s 2006 album Donuts for the first time in my senior year of high school. Half-asleep, with my elbows pressed against the lab table at my first period study hall, my headphones blasted “Workinonit” for the first time. From then on, the deeper my ears fell into the tracklist, the more Donuts felt like I’d discovered something I was always searching for.
Even though it was 7:30 in the morning, and I was half-asleep, the tremendous loss to our existence that was Dilla’s passing slapped me in the face. He’s the greatest producer I’ve heard since that moment in time.
Each Dilla track is a branch on the beautiful tree of his life. Although physically gone, he still feels spiritually omnipresent. It never really feels like James Yancey left until you sit back and think about how he’s never going to create another beat of his own.
However, I don’t think any one song of his could ever be his last. With each listener who is inspired to start making music because of him, Dilla’s memory is spiritually pressing the buttons behind another beat. Whether it’s on a close friend or someone he never even knew existed, J Dilla’s impact is incalculable and eternal.