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Reinventing the Myth of J Dilla

Dan Charnas, the author of the new book ‘Dilla Time,’ discusses the life and work of the legendary hip-hop producer and why music journalism doesn’t often allow for this kind of storytelling

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The life story of James Dewitt Yancey—the influential hip-hop producer from Detroit who rose to prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s first as Jay Dee and later as J Dilla—is inextricably tied to the myths told about him. His sense of rhythm and timing is among the most interesting musical innovations of the past quarter-century, influencing pop music and jazz at the same time, but his genius in that regard is often boiled down to a single anecdote: that he shunned the mechanical rigidity of his digital sampler and operated it with a natural touch. A famous story revolves around stolen credit for what would’ve been his biggest hit: Janet Jackson’s “Got ’Til It’s Gone” bears so many hallmarks of a Yancey production—the Fender Rhodes melody, the bouncing bassline, the Q-Tip cosign—that it must have come from his fingertips and not those of credited producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. And the most persistent legend about the producer is the most heartrending—that he crafted his final and most well-known album, Donuts, in a hospital bed shortly before his death in February 2006 of complications from lupus and a rare blood disease known as thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura.

These myths have fed into what is arguably the most fervent cult following in hip-hop’s history. The producer not only inspired contemporaries and countless progenies, but full orchestral productions, while his birthday is marked each year by Dilla Day events worldwide. The religious worship can be best summed up by a saying popularized after his death that adorns thousands of T-shirts today: “J Dilla Changed My Life” (though true zealots may prefer the unlicensed “J Dilla Saved My Life” version). Over his 32 years, James Yancey developed into one of the most original instrumental stylists his genre had ever seen, but in death, he’s become an ideal—a patron saint of the MPC, always deified and often commodified.

On Tuesday, author, NYU professor, and former music executive Dan Charnas will release his new book exploring the stories around Yancey, as well as his outsize impact on music at large and the industrial complex surrounding him. Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm traces Yancey’s life from his upbringing in a musical household where he showed a preternatural understanding of songcraft, through his early work in the industry with the Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest and on to his most renowned works with Slum Village and Common and as a solo artist. It’s also part music history lesson: Charnas goes to great lengths to explain the evolution of rhythm—particularly in Black music in the latter half of the 20th century—and the technological innovations that made Dilla’s work possible.

Dilla Time—the result of four years of work and upward of 200 interviews—places Yancey in a lineage of musical innovators that includes James Brown, George Clinton, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, John Cage, and Roger Linn, in addition to hip-hop pioneers like Pete Rock and Q-Tip. Easter eggs for hip-hop fans abound: A teenage Paul Rosenberg shows up early as an aspiring rapper, while names like Dr. Dre and MF DOOM appear in unexpected ways. (Charnas, who previously wrote The Big Payback, one of the definitive looks at the evolution of hip-hop as a business, also does an expert job at laying out the mechanics of the music industry that made Yancey wealthy enough to feed his car and strip club addictions in the short term, but put a ceiling on his long-term financial prospects, which ultimately manifests in the protracted, ugly probate battle after his death.) Educational without being overbearing, emotional without turning saccharine, Dilla Time is a must-read not only for fans of Yancey, but anyone with a deep love for hip-hop or Black music, full stop.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Dilla Time is how it deconstructs and rebuilds the myth of J Dilla, not unlike how the producer atomized samples and turned them into wholly new compositions. The legendary stories all make appearances—the “Got ’Til It’s Gone” creation, the deathbed Donuts work—but Charnas’s reporting reveals new elements that paint a more human, and ultimately more compelling picture of a man who’s too often been treated like a product, not a person. Charnas, however, says he went into the process hoping to confirm these stories before his reporting led to a more nuanced version of history, something he credits to his sources’ openness. “You see the humanity in everyone, and I especially see the humanity in James,” Charnas says. “To the credit of the people who I spoke with, including the family, they were scrupulously honest, even in conflict with each other.”

Charnas spoke with The Ringer recently about the work that went into creating Dilla Time, as well the state of hip-hop journalism and why deeply researched works like his other recent biographies matter in an era defined by brand management and social media. To hear more of this conversation, listen to this week’s episode of The Ringer Music Show, and for more about Yancey’s work, check out our ranking of the top 40 Dilla productions.

In the 1990s, you crossed paths with Dilla, who was then producing under the name Jay Dee. How did that come about?

I was an A&R and promotion person for Rick Rubin’s label, Def American, at the time. I signed this incredible MC, Chino XL. And I remember at one point trying to sign the Pharcyde and not getting them. We loved their producer, J-Sw!ft, who was so integral to their sound. We heard J-Sw!ft left. So Rick and I are trying to sign J-Sw!ft’s label. In the meantime, I’m going to Mike Ross, who’s the head of Delicious Vinyl, the Pharcyde label, saying, “What’s the Pharcyde going to do?” And Mike Ross says, “Oh, don’t worry about it. They found this kid in Detroit named Jay Dee.” Like many other people in L.A. at the time I said, “Jay Dee? Detroit? What hip-hop has come out of Detroit?”

The only thing that had come out at that time was you MC Breed from Flint, and Awesome Dre back in the ’80s. But when we all heard [the Pharcyde’s song produced by Dilla] “Runnin’” for the first time in ’95, we knew that that was true. We knew that he was special. When Chino and I started working on his second album in ’98, ’99, we decided that we would go out there to Detroit and work with James. I think we went out there for three days and worked on two songs.

What was that experience like? This was ’98, ’99 so it was a few years after the Pharcyde and early Tribe stuff, and at the time he was forming the Soulquarians collective with the Roots, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and a few others. Did you understand where he was at in his career at the time?

He had been plucked out of obscurity by [A Tribe Called Quest’s] Q-Tip, who got his demo through a connection with Amp Fiddler, who was Jay Dee’s mentor in Detroit. Q-Tip essentially wasn’t his manager—he was just an evangelist for the kid. He brought his tracks to De La Soul and to the Pharcyde and to Busta Rhymes and to Mad Skillz, and Dilla became essentially a part of the Native Tongues collective in the 1990s. Then Q-Tip and Ali started this production collective called the Ummah and invited James to be a part of that. And so that was the point at which I finally got my first Jay Dee beat tape. This beat tape released in ’98—now called Another Batch—was the beginning of a whole new phase in his career and his sound, and what I later understood was an actual revolution in rhythm.

He was always very loose and free with his rhythms, and on some tracks he didn’t quantize, which means he didn’t nail his notes to this machine grid, but this was something completely different. And it wasn’t until we got back from Detroit that I started listening to the tracks over and over again that I began to understand the level of subversion.

What struck you about those innovations?

One of the most important mixing environments is your car. I remember sitting in my car in the driveway, listening to the mixdowns of this song called “Don’t Say a Word.” I had this beat tape for nine months and now it’s finally a song, and I’m like, “Wait a minute. What’s going on with those hi-hats? They sound off. Are those swung?”

I couldn’t figure it out, so I went into my house, into my studio, loaded it onto my digital audio workstation on my computer, lined up the waveforms with the grid and realized, “No, the hi-hats are completely straight. The snare is coming early, which is making everything else feel off and woozy. Why is he doing that? How is he doing that? And why do I like it?” Very shortly thereafter, you begin to hear this same rhythmic feel on records by Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, Musiq Soulchild, Floetry. Then you’ll hear it on Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies,” Brandy, and then it’s everywhere.

The book does an excellent job of breaking down both the biography of Dilla’s life and his innovations. Why was it important for you to tell the story from both perspectives?

One of the things that disappeared from a lot of music journalism is the mechanics of music. We talk about persona, we talk about personality, we talk about biography, we do get into cultural context a lot, but the actual mechanics of how things are made gets lost. With Dilla, it was like the most we could hear was, “Oh, he doesn’t quantize.” I wanted to show folks that it was so much more than that and that this is how it actually works musically. But then above that [I wanted to explain] this is why it’s an innovation of centenary proportions. It’s on a par with Louis Armstrong or James Brown or Billie Holiday, or Coltrane or a Monk or Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington. That’s the level of technical, formal sophistication that this innovation is on. I know that might sound weird to folks—“He’s just a beatmaker,” and that’s how he thought of himself. But he didn’t know the music theory implications of what he had done and probably couldn’t imagine this world that we live in now, where you go into jazz conservatories and people say, “Oh, Dilla Feel. Let’s do it in a Dilla Feel.”

I’m not sure there’s ever been a figure in hip-hop that’s inspired such cultish worship. Even someone like Madlib or the late MF DOOM—they both have so many fans and have received so many accolades. But with Dilla, during his lifetime, other artists talked about him with a cultish-like worship, and then after his death, it exploded to another level. What was it about him that inspired this?

I can’t say that it was the musical innovation, because I don’t think people really had wrapped their heads around it. I think that there’s also parts of Dilla that are hugely emotionally evocative, just as a beatmaker. People were being affected by his music emotionally during his lifetime. And then when he died, suddenly there’s this whole other story. Donuts, his final musical act, very much played into that. It struck some kind of chord in our culture. It does turn a lot of people off. “Oh, what’s the big deal? What’s the big deal about Dilla?” And I get that. One reason I wanted to get mechanical in this book was to say, “Listen, we may not have articulated this reason, but this is the reason that he continues to have musical resonance.”

Then there is this other part of Dilla, which is the religiosity. And I think that has a lot to do with what he does with harmony, what he does with sonic texture. There is this kind of melancholy in his beats that comes from the dualities where he’s playing something in a major [key], and then it goes to minor, and then it goes to major again. In the same way 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds just resonate with Beatles songs, Dilla just has a certain resonance. But there hasn’t been a lot of articulation around it.

The creation of Donuts—that it was made on his deathbed—is one of the many myths around Dilla that you tackle and somewhat dispel in the book. Did you go into this thinking it would play out like this?

I actually wanted to confirm some of them. I really wanted to know what happened with “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” and I didn’t know what I was going to find. I didn’t know what I was going to find with Donuts either. I just wanted to talk to people and find the story. Another one was the story of his father, Beverly Dewitt Yancey—there’s this story all over the internet that he ghost wrote “It’s a Shame” by the Spinners, which was written, at least according to the credits, by Stevie Wonder, Syreeta Wright, and Lee Garrett. And I couldn’t find any confirmation from anyone involved with the record [that Beverly Yancey wrote it].

There’s symmetry there, of course. “Got ’Til It’s Gone” is a very popular Janet Jackson song produced by Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Alex Richbourg. And the story that they have given is that they made it after listening to a Dilla remix of a Brand New Heavies song called “Sometimes.” The legend around it, though, was that this was actually a Dilla production because it had the hallmarks of a Jay Dee beat. In the book, there appears to be evidence that Dilla himself helped propagate that story, but no evidence they stole credit from him.

Well, let’s just say it this way: Q-Tip is on record in 2009 saying that it is not an Ummah production. Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam are on record. I spoke directly to Alex Richbourg who told me about the entire evening when they first made that track, and I don’t talk about this in the book because this happened after, but I got the multi-tracks too. So, unless Q-Tip, Alex Richbourg, Terry Lewis, and Jimmy Jam are all involved in this very cruel lie, I don’t see the evidence for it. But then there’s the other questions: Why would James tell that tale? And that is, to me, the most interesting story. Why would he say that he did it? And that’s what we get into a little bit in the book.

Was it hard to tell some of these stories like that?

There are people who are very invested in the myths. Do I come out and say, “Damn it, he didn’t do it”? I don’t really phrase it like that, but what I try to do is present the evidence to the reader and let them understand what the stakes are, what the facts are, and just hope people want to live in the reality rather than live in the myth. But again, as you know that’s a big part of Dilla.

I dealt with this on a smaller scale, for example, when I was writing an obituary for DMX. He was a very complicated figure, as many people know. But in some ways, it’s easier to discuss his documented drug misuse than his history with dogs, which isn’t as cut-and-dry as “he loved them.” Things like that often get left out of the stories as we’re telling them.

As with many things in our culture, we have a capitalism problem and we have a white supremacy problem. The capitalism problem is that the economics of journalism really no longer engender the kind of reportage that makes for this kind of reported biography. It’s hard to do so if you’re lazy. If you’re mercenary, you’re not going to do it. It looks lovely when the book comes out, but so much work goes into it to make it as close to right as you can. That’s hard to do for anybody and I’m lucky to be in a situation where I could at least survive while doing that. The other part is a lot of music journalism has devolved into persona and personality rather than the mechanics of music, because people have forgotten that. That’s important. And that it’s sampled music—very few people have an understanding of what it takes to create sample music or what the mechanics are. The other part is the white supremacy problem, which is: Black artists don’t get these kinds of treatments often.

Then there’s the other thing where there’s an impulse to protect people, which I completely understand. I don’t know, if let’s say Chris Brown was beloved—

Well, there were Chris Brown gatekeepers. His stans or whatever you want to call them,

No, that’s it. Stan culture is different from fan culture. When I was growing up and listening to music, a fan was like, “I want to know everything I can about this artist. Good, bad, ugly, I want everything.” What a stan wants is worship. What a stan wants is, “I don’t want to hear that. Don’t say that. Let’s pray. Yass.” That’s stan culture and that’s, again, part of this capitalism problem that we have for better or for worse.

Have you followed the story around Paul Cantor’s new Mac Miller book?

I’ve heard a little bit of it.

The family basically came out and said that they did not participate in this and Paul did not speak to anybody immediately close to Mac Miller, while at the same time throwing their support around a different book, which was done with their blessing. It scares me because this book is being attacked by Mac’s fans—they’re treating Paul and this book as persona non grata, despite it being a deeply reported, journalistic work. How do you avoid situations like that when you are telling stories about an artist as beloved as J Dilla?

What I’ve tried to do is maintain good relationships with members of his family and be transparent with them as much as I can in a way that doesn’t give them control of the material. I think an authorized biography is very complicated and could be compromising in terms of telling the truth, especially if there’s so much conflict around a story. And it ain’t merch. It’s supposed to be a scholarly, journalistic, academic-level work. So I try to be empathetic, I try to be honest, but not having read any of the Mac Miller stuff, what I will say is this: I think [Dilla Time] would’ve been a very different kind of book if the family hadn’t been open.

You were one of the first journalists at The Source magazine back in the early ’90s. Publications like The Source, XXL, and Vibe still exist, but they don’t occupy the same place in the culture or pursue the same types of stories they did decades ago. There’s obviously a lot of great hip-hop journalism that happens these days, but I’m curious about what you think hip-hop is missing without these publications functioning as they once did.

Capitalism does not allow for very strong journalistic institutions across the board. I think hip-hop has lost a lot of that, but in particular because it’s become mainstream. You had the problem of magazines that hip-hop had created like The Source or Vibe or XXL competing with larger magazines for artists who had graduated from hip-hop into the mainstream. And then after that, you had a weird parochialization of hip-hop, where the hip-hop press was very distinct from the Black press, because Black press was very conservative in the ’80s and ’90s—Ebony and Jet were not covering hip-hop, did not really understand it, and were not of that generation. But as Black media grew, it began to subsume hip-hop. “Hip-hop” became “hip-hop and R&B” and we lost a lot of those independent institutions that were able to look at this thing with a little bit more complexity, both from a mainstream side and from the African American media segment.

But again, it also comes back to: People don’t report as much as they used to. That said, we still have great journalists like Jeff Weiss, who wrote this piece on Drakeo. [Editor’s note: Jeff Weiss is a contributor to The Ringer.] We have people out there doing great work. A lot of them are out there on their own doing great work. We’re trying all of us, as journalists, to maintain some of the ethics of our craft. I just remember I didn’t like it back when I ran a bunch of websites for Interactive One for Radio One in the early 2010s. We were so dependent on publicists for story access like, “Yo, report around these people. Report around them in circles and circles and circles.” And then they have to talk to you. That’s what a reporter does.

It’s our job to tell the story ethically and truthfully and to fact-check, but we have to tell the story. You see what happens in our society when we don’t, when we let the Twitter mob rule. That’s what the Trump presidency was. That’s what’s dominating our politics now, all this disinformation. Let’s get the story, do it ethically, do it with empathy. But let’s get the story.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.