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Dollars to Donuts: The 40 Best J Dilla Songs of All Time, Ranked

From the Pharcyde to Slum Village to the unreleased beat tapes, we dive deep into the catalog of one of the best producers to ever touch an MPC

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s worth stating up top that J Dilla himself would’ve likely had little use for this exercise. In Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm, Dan Charnas’s excellent new book on the producer and rapper born James Dewitt Yancey, collaborators repeatedly tell stories about how quickly Dilla worked, crafting masterpieces in minutes before moving on to the next beat. And when his sound became one of the dominant strains of hip-hop and R&B, he quickly reinvented himself, finding ways to stay a step ahead of his contemporaries. On the surface, it seems paradoxical: An artist whose sound was built upon pieces of the past had little time for looking backward. But for Dilla, the past was just a means to imagine the future. Diving deep into his history—let alone ranking it—likely wouldn’t have sufficed for him.

But the past is all we’re left with. Dilla’s death in February 2006 of complications from lupus and a rare blood disease known as thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura kicked off hip-hop’s attempts to grapple with his legacy, which has only grown in stature over the past 16 years. Charnas’s book is the latest—and likely best—work in that regard. But there’s still a lot of music to sort through: the early work with the Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest, a genre-shifting album with Slum Village, remixes for pop stars and electronic music producers, beat tapes that exist today only in YouTube and Zippyshare links. This list is an attempt to wrap our arms around the wide breadth of music Dilla created in his 32 years.

Before we begin, some important notes: While his influence is felt throughout D’Angelo’s Voodoo, we didn’t include any tracks from that album because he’s not officially credited as a producer on any and his involvement in songs like “Feel Like Makin’ Love” is still somewhat murky. And while we could’ve made an entire list out of unreleased beats, we stuck mostly to official songs, though there were a few notable exceptions. (It didn’t make the list, but the last beat he made before his passing is a must-listen.) What you will find is a wide-ranging, loving look at Dilla’s work. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to revisit some old favorites and maybe discover some new ones. And maybe this look at the past will inspire you to shape a new future. —Justin Sayles

40. “Whip You With a Strap,” Ghostface Killah

It’s telling that, while every other beat on Donuts was given its own title—as they should have been; in nearly every case, the instrumentals function as finished songs—this track appeared as “One for Ghost.” When that promise was realized just weeks later, on Ghostface’s Fishscale, the Staten Island native did right by it, bemoaning the restraint of parents who lacked his mother’s grit. (“Nowadays kids don’t get beat,” he raps, “they get big treats / Fresh pair of sneaks, punishment’s like, ‘Have a seat.’”) This beat also evinces a sort of use every part of the animal ethos: The vocal sample comes from the same Luther Ingram song that provided the backbone of “Gobstopper.” —Thompson

39. “You Can’t Hold the Torch,” Busta Rhymes featuring Q-Tip and Chauncey Black

A deep cut from a mostly forgotten Busta album, “You Can’t Hold the Torch” is part of a lifelong conversation between mentors and mentees, collaborators and fans. Dilla flips the same Minnie Riperton sample that Q-Tip did on Tribe’s “Lyrics to Go” for a team-up with his onetime mentor and another close collaborator in Busta Rhymes. The beat is part homage, part look what I can do, inverting the straightforward groove of “Lyrics” into a sparse, bouncy track. Released four months after Dilla died, “You Can’t Hold the Torch” is dripping with love on both sides of the track—the producer who idolized the rappers when he was young, and the rappers who embraced the producer and watched him grow from upstart to legend. I can’t help but describe it by quoting the title of another Midnight Marauders track: God lives through. —Sayles

38. “History,” Mos Def featuring Talib Kweli

While Dilla’s flip here is tighter and quicker than the expansive Mary Wells original, it also pulls that song’s melancholic undertones to the surface. This makes it the ideal canvas for a Black Star reunion that does not try to sidestep the fact that time has passed, the principals are older, and friends—like Dilla—might not be around to witness it. —Thompson

37. “House of Flying Daggers,” Raekwon Featuring Inspectah Deck, Method Man, and Ghostface Killah

There are a number of moments on Raekwon’s sprawling, mesmerizingly varied Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II when the Staten Island MC is invited to burrow into tight crevices: see Marley Marl’s hushed “Pyrex Vision” or the muted bounce on Erick Sermon’s “Baggin Crack.” But Dilla’s best contribution to the LP is the breathlessly cinematic “House of Flying Daggers,” a track that sounds like the Shaolin of Wu’s heyday had been recreated in Detroit’s unfriendliest night club. Years before this album’s release, another Rae-Dilla song, the Busta Rhymes–featuring “Baggage Handlers,” leaked onto the internet. While that sounded like a (very convincing) tribute to the RZA’s style from around the time of the original Cuban Linx, “Daggers” is a smart triangulation of that sound, the glossier beats from Dilla’s early-2000s period, and the sort of chest-convulsion breathing that he was injecting into tracks near the end of his life. —Thompson

36. “Love,” J Dilla Pharoahe Monch

It is a testament to Dilla’s knack for finding an irrepressible bounce that this flip of two different recordings of “We Must Be in Love”—one by The Impressions, the other by the Five Stairsteps—could turn Pharoahe Monch, a verbose rapper’s rapper given to knotty verses full of cannonading syllables, into an exhorting hypeman. In fact, the Queens MC often sounds like a preacher, sweaty and on the verge of losing his breath, through charmingly buoyant lines like “Impeach the president and his government / I voted for God.” But the effect is more heartbreaking when, during the song’s final verse, he muses about love’s power to “cure a man from all his disease, and from all his sickness.” —Thompson

35. “As Serious As Your Life (Remix),” Four Tet featuring Guilty Simpson

Like J Dilla, the British electronic producer Kieran Hebden—better known as Four Tet—has his own sense of timing. In the hands of a less interesting musician, a track like “As Serious As Your Life” may lock perfectly into place, resulting in something anodyne and ultimately forgettable. But Hebden lets the drums drag behind the infectious bass just a tad, creating a looseness that serves the song. By handing Dilla the reins to remix “As Serious,” he was likely hoping for a willing co-conspirator who could unlock even more interesting rhythmic ideas in the original. Instead what Hebden got back was an almost entirely new track, which uses his bass line as a jumping-off point before launching into a different, pulsating groove with its own push-and-pull. Not that Hebden minded: As Dan Charnas lays out in Dilla Time, he was ecstatic about the Detroit beatsmith’s reimagining. —Sayles

34. “Won’t Do,” J Dilla

Won’t Do” is the final song on The Shining, the album that occupied most of Dilla’s attention during the final year of his life (though Donuts was and remains more celebrated). Its Isley Brothers–sampling beat (and its positioning in the track list) give it an air of surreality, its drums knocking as if through the walls of the afterlife. But in keeping with Dilla’s preference as a rapper, its verses are tauntingly all-id: He drags one, two, a thousand women through the mall, throwing Saks bags into the trunks of Range Rovers, old beeper numbers into the abyss. The closest he comes to a spiritual reckoning is when he accuses rappers of buying their scores in The Source. —Thompson

33. “Heroin Joint,” J Dilla

For all of Dilla’s brilliance, he was never particularly showy as a producer: His innovations are never immediately apparent, often revealing themselves after repeated listens—maybe on the 100th go-round you’ll fully appreciate that lagging shaker or rushed snare. But his beat tapes, particularly the sample-heavy ones, allowed him to flex a little. Take “Heroin Joint,” a rare instrumental that now exists as solely as a YouTube loosie. The song opens with the original sample—an instrumental version of James Brown’s “King Heroin”—left naked for the listener to hear. The loop plays, then the track flips to Dilla’s creation, a seamless chop that transforms the 6/8 timing of Brown’s song to a smooth, 4/4 groove. It’s as if Dilla was saying, “Here’s what I can do,” and daring other beatmakers to match him. Perhaps if he had shown his work more often, we’d think even more highly of him. —Sayles

32. “E=mc2,” J Dilla featuring Common

Donuts gets the attention, but for all of its brilliance (and the marketing might that went into it), Dilla viewed it as a beat tape. The Shining was in many ways the true follow-up to his debut solo LP, Welcome 2 Detroit. Reportedly 75 percent completed when Dilla died in 2006 and finished by friend and collaborator Karriem Riggins at Dilla’s mother’s behest, The Shining finds Dilla digging into futuristic funk like never before. The best, most immediate example on The Shining is “E=mc2,” which began life in 1998 on the famed Another Batch beat tape. There, however, it’s a simple loop of a Giorgio Moroder track. In its final form, it’s a chest-pounding staccato excursion. “E=mc2” marks a rare insistence of Dilla tinkering with an old production and coming up with an almost entirely new work. It’s thrilling, but can’t help but make you imagine where his work would’ve taken him—or at least what that other 25 percent would’ve sounded like. —Sayles

31. “Without You (Remix),” Lucy Pearl

Where some remixes are minor variations on a song’s original version, Dilla’s take on “Without You” is a radical reinterpretation. It takes the R&B supergroup’s sweet, gentle single and mutates it into something sparse, swaggering, and downright mean. In Dilla Time, Charnas reports that Raphael Saadiq, dissatisfied with the mix—or feeling it unfinished—called Dilla on the phone and asked for the song to be fleshed out. Dilla apparently told him to “suck his dick” before hanging up. —Thompson

30. “Can’t Stop This,” the Roots/“Time: Donut of the Heart,” J Dilla

In which the greatest band that hip-hop has ever seen clears out and lets its frontman pay tribute to a fallen comrade over one of his beats. “Can’t Stop This” is more of an homage in spirit—Black Thought never overtly references Dilla in the lyrics, instead unspooling three tight verses that captured his essence. That it happens over one of Donut’s centerpiece tracks makes it all the more special. —Sayles

29. “Gobstopper,” J Dilla

Dilla’s brief, relatively straightforward flip of the horns from a Luther Ingram song is nevertheless one of his most iconic beats, its warmth bleeding through the mix and gluing together the fuzzy sample and the crisp drums. (Its simplicity might be deceptive: Remember how flat Nas, one of the most virtuosic and adaptable rappers in the genre’s history, sounded over it?) Never before had his sirens sounded so welcome. —Thompson

28. “Kamaal,” J Dilla

While so many of Dilla’s beats are remarkable for their fracturing of source material—into small component parts, but also in a way that freed it from any sort of conventional grid—“Kamaal” gives structure and predictability to Gene Bertoncini’s creeping jazz guitar, making for one of the most irresistible pockets in his entire catalog. —Thompson

27. “The Light,” Common

One of the biggest commercial hits of Dilla’s career, “The Light” lives on as one of hip-hop’s finest incense-scented love songs (though, ironically, it’s not the song on Like Water for Chocolate named after incense). It’s stature is largely owed to the beat: While Common’s over-saccharine poetry runs the risk of giving you a toothache—“If heaven had a height, you would be that tall,” etc.—Dilla’s production anchors the track, as he pairs blue-eyed crooner Bobby Caldwell with a hard-hitting drum break. It’s enough to make you pen a love letter to your high school flame. —Sayles

26. “The Rhyme (Slum Village Remix),” Keith Murray

Two different takes on the funk: Erick Sermon’s original production, a slow and sultry flip of Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go” that sounds as though it’s tailor-made to blast out the windows of a Cadillac Seville, and Dilla’s reworking, which is better suited to soundtrack a ride in a space shuttle. Either ride is plenty luxurious, but one’s going to take you farther. —Sayles

25. “The Red,” Jaylib

Champion Sound, the Stones Throw album that combined Dilla-produced tracks with Madlib vocals and Madlib productions that featured Dilla rapping, received middling reviews when it came out and was not the commercial juggernaut that most in the indie-rap world assumed it would be. This is in part because the producer-first, MC-second artists are not natural fits on one another’s beats: Dilla works best with a little bombast behind him, and Madlib’s raps are best suited to his wispiest, barely there crate excavations. But that album’s lead single, “The Red,” is one of the few compelling arguments for this incongruency: Madlib’s raps have plenty of swagger and bite and, when paired to the anthemic Dilla instrumental—and its pulsing, decidedly un-Madlib drums—are made to sound all the more sinister. —Thompson

24. “Dooinit,” Common

Dilla showed up on an album featuring a circa-2000 DJ Premier track and laid down the best sample chop on the project. Don’t believe me? Then watch House Shoes break down the beat here. As the Detroit DJ says in the video, “What makes Jay the best is that he’s just the fuckin’ best.” —Sayles

23. “Love (A Thing of the Past),” Frank-n-Dank

On the surface, the Detroit duo of rappers Frank Nitty and Dankery Harv could be seen as Dilla’s Group Home—the pair of serviceable-at-best MCs that DJ Premier gave an album’s worth of his best production to in 1995. But while Lil’ Dap and Melachi the Nutcracker were often overpowered by Primo’s muscular boom-bap, Jay Dee’s childhood pals knew how to ride his production like few others, never detracting from the proceedings and often adding another layer of texture. (It’s also worth noting they were often a test lab for Dilla experimentation, like when he briefly abandoned sampling for Frank-n-Dank’s debut album, 48 Hours, which proved to be a rare misfire for the producer.) While Dilla’s collaborations with the group aren’t as storied as his work with Slum Village, one could easily construct a classic LP from their loosies. Take “Let’s Go,” a pulsating, futuristic party-starter, or “Ma Dukes,” a sentimental head-nodder—both are among Dilla’s many overlooked gems and hold up against his work for more famous MCs. The best Frank-n-Dank–J Dilla track, however, is perhaps “Love (A Thing of the Past),” a B-side to an independent 12-inch released in 2000. A warm gumbo of bass, keys, and horns over a simple kick-snare pattern, “Love” is infectious. The MCs swagger through the track, too, stopping and starting and playing with rhythm in their own right—not the kind of thing any average rapper with a Dilla beat could do. —Sayles

22. “Love Is…,” Common

While Electric Circus’s reputation has been rehabilitated over the years, it was seen at the time as something of an embarrassment. Be was pitched as its corrective, a return to the earnest soulfulness and true-school rigor of Common’s youth. The plan was for Dilla to be heavily involved in this record, but his illness made that impossible; instead, Kanye West handled most of Be’s production, working on it simultaneously with his own sophomore album, Late Registration, and placing a whiteboard with Be’s track list in his own sessions as motivation to keep pace with Com. “Love Is…” is one of only two Dilla songs on the final version, its beat a masterpiece of economy, each element working together as part of a seamless whole. (It sounds at times like a respirator, or a living organism.) The instrumental is significant beyond Be. Jay Electronica, the New Orleans rapper who refined his inscrutable style by mining leftover Dilla beats in Detroit, recorded one of his breakthrough mixtape songs over it. —Thompson

21. “Reminisce,” Bilal featuring Mos Def and Common

For all of his acclaim as a hip-hop producer, Dilla is often overlooked for his R&B work. “Reminisce” is among his best in the genre: He melds samples from three different songs into one perfect bass line. According to Robert Glasper in Dilla Time, he did it in a matter of minutes. We would all be so lucky to be blessed with that kind of casual brilliance. —Sayles

20. “Sleeping Like a Dog,” J Dilla

This beat, which was never officially released during his lifetime, finds Dilla manipulating a downbeat Beatles cover into something that is both tranquil and playful—the kind of track that could easily support an elegy or the kind of sneering shit-talk he preferred when in the booth. It is also one of those Dilla beats whose drums, which are for once perfectly conventional and curiously forward in the mix, seem to be at deliberate odds with the lushness of what lies underneath. —Thompson

19. “Workinonit,” J Dilla

While Donuts is unmistakably the work of Dilla’s genius, Jeff Jank is the project’s secret MVP. As detailed in Dilla Time, when Stones Throw saw the potential of the beat tape as an album, the producer deputized Jank to edit and arrange the tracks. Short snippets were extended and sequencing became essential. In the album’s final version, only one song is longer than two minutes: “Workinonit,” a track Jank spliced together using two separate Dilla beats that sampled 10cc’s “The Worst Band in the World.” It’s one of the highlights of the tape—a testament to Dilla’s ear and Jeff’s ability to see the vision. Unfortunately, whoever owns 10cc’s publishing couldn’t see the vision themselves. —Sayles

18. “Show Me What You Got,” Busta Rhymes

Dilla’s flip of Stereolab’s “Come and Play in the Milky Night” is among the most inspired of his career, as he reached for a college-rock sample a decade before blog-era rappers were making careers out of rhyming over Pitchfork staples. That Dilla turns something so tender into a banger for Busta Rhymes to growl over only makes it more impressive. —Sayles

17. “Gazzillion Ear,” MF Doom

2009’s Born Like This is the last proper DOOM album, and its technical project is an odd one. DOOM seems bent on scrubbing from his style the more obvious signs of finesse: the bend in his voice, the fluidity, the little injections of other voices. He is instead gruff and guttural, barreling through beats like a mack truck. But “Gazzillion Ear,” a dazzling suite over stitched-together Dilla beats, reveals the raw technique of DOOM’s writing—deadpan jokes made more deadpan than ever, syllables landing as precisely as possible. A tour de force from both sides of the afterlife. —Thompson

16. “Come Get It,” J Dilla Featuring Elzhi

When we spoke last month, Dilla Time author Dan Charnas described “Come Get It” as being “like listening to a train derailing and righting itself over and over and over again.” He’s not wrong. But what strikes me most about this Welcome 2 Detroit deep cut is how Elzhi floats over Jay Dee’s production. While a lesser rapper may have drowned attempting similar verbal acrobatics over such an off-kilter track, El cuts through with the kind of ultra-precise syllable work that made him one of the best indie rappers of the 2000s. The Detroit MC would join Slum Village in the years after Dilla departed the group. Listening to “Come Get It” raises the question of what SV’s ceiling would’ve been had both men been in the fold at the same time. —Sayles

15. “Eve (Remix),” Spacek featuring Frank-n-Dank

One of Dilla’s best remixes turns a generic, turn-of-the-century British electronica production into a slow-funk slop. He also replaces the chorus with his own half-sung vocals. Nothing about this track should work, yet it’s near perfect. It’s an apt metaphor for the Dilla experience: It seems wrong, but in the end, it sounds so right. —Sayles

14. “Get a Hold,” A Tribe Called Quest

Beats, Rhymes, and Life is the first project to include production from the Ummah, the three-man collective made up of J Dilla, Q-Tip, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. The latter two were known commodities and coming off back-to-back masterpieces. The former—the youngest of the trio—was an unknown from Detroit with few credits to his name. So when BRL failed to live up to the lofty expectations set by the early A Tribe Called Quest LPs, the young upstart shouldered much of the blame.

Thankfully, history has rehabbed the perception of BRL, a very good and occasionally great album that doubles as an important historical document thanks to Dilla’s work. He’s credited as coproducer on five tracks, including Grammy-nominated lead single “1nce Again” and the bouncy late-album track “Word Play.” But the best of the bunch is “Get a Hold,” which chops up a bubble gum psych sample, slows it to a crawl, and filters it, making it sound like a Gregorian chant. It’s the kind of work Dilla would later be lavishly praised for. But much like Beats, Rhymes, and Life itself, the producer would have to wait for listeners to catch up to what he was doing. —Sayles

13. “Pause,” J Dilla featuring Frank-n-Dank

True to its name, “Pause” is as much about what’s not there as what is, almost as though Dilla is inventing a rhythm out of the notes he’s not playing. But despite being built around sparse drums and infrequent bass stabs, the track moves like few others in the producer’s catalog. And coming at a time when Dilla was still primarily considered the house beatmaker for the earthy Soulquarians collective, “Pause” showed that Dilla could take all his musicality and make something straight-up knocked. Bump this in your whip, but be warned: It might bust your shit. —Sayles

12. “Thelonius,” Common featuring Slum Village

While Dilla produced or coproduced 11 of the 16 songs on Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, “Thelonius” is the one track that hears the Chicago rapper meet his collaborator more than halfway to Detroit. Com raps the third of five verses, with T3 and Baatin from Slum Village on either side of him. But the song is bracketed by a pair of verses from Dilla himself, the second of which is the sort of cockily base braggadocio that Common was always well-served to flirt with in his own writing. It helps that the beat sounds like REM sleep. —Thompson

11. “Let’s Ride,” Q-Tip

“Let’s Ride” is a joy of a single because of how breezily low stakes it is—and how, especially at the song’s beginning, it sounds like Q-Tip is actually freestyling (see the way, in the video, he delivers the line “Four-point-something with a low ridin’ something,” his head giving a snap of satisfaction as he finishes the half-finished thought). And while some of the song’s source material offers a grim cautionary tale—a tiny piece of ESG’s “UFO” breakbeat triggered an expensive lawsuit—its airy use of a Coltrane cover is inspired, easy listening if that were not a pejorative. —Thompson

10. “Fall in Love,” Slum Village

For years, while hearing “Fall in Love” through speakers and headphones of every kind, I’ve imagined the drums as being played inside a giant cave, each snare hit reverberating in every direction, while the song’s other elements take place on some lower, nearly subconscious plane. It’s a lullaby, so much so that it invites the listener to turn a skeptical ear to Dilla’s earnest, tender hook. —Thompson

9. “Lightworks,” J Dilla/MF Doom

While the Bendix Corporation was not technically a Detroit institution—the automotive and aerospace manufacturer was founded in Chicago and formally established in South Bend—it is the sort of quasi-utopian, quasi-opaque industrial giant that defined his hometown through most of the 20th century. Dilla’s use of that commercial clip at the beginning of “Lightworks” has the same effect as Donuts’ famous reverse-sequencing: It reimagines the past as the future and time as something pliable, another tool. When DOOM rapped on it three years after Dilla’s passing, he underlined the leaning, syncopated bounce that drives the song, leaning into quick, concise phrases that he could push to the back of each measure. —Thompson

8. “Cold Steel,” Phat Kat featuring Elzhi

“Cold Steel” is the platonic ideal of Detroit street rap in the 2000s, an unsparing burst of industrial gray with evident roots in electronic music. This came out right when Elzhi was stealing songs right out from under nearly anybody foolish enough to share one with him, and while he acquits himself nicely here—his barb about “Bush and Saddam imposters” dates the verse amusingly—Phat Kat more than holds serves, making crime detritus like “long barrels with expaaaaansion clips” sound like things he’s inventing on the fly. —Thompson

7. “Drop,” The Pharcyde

The “Drop” video would be a cherished pop cultural artifact even if its audio were somehow erased. The Spike Jonze–directed clip, for which the Pharcyde learned how to rap and perform the song backward (footage which was then itself rendered in reverse—does your head hurt yet?) is one of the signature visuals in rap history. While Jonze’s treatment is certainly visionary, that off-kilter ethos comes directly from the song’s beat, a magnificently dreamlike morphing of a harp sample into what sounds like clay being dragged across space-time. —Thompson

6. “Got ’Til It’s Gone (Ummah Jay Dee’s Revenge Mix),” Janet Jackson

It started on a Minneapolis freeway after a Timberwolves game: The veteran producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were leaving the Target Center when a song on the radio, the Brand New Heavies’ “Sometimes” remix, nearly made them veer off the road. Enamored with the Ummah’s halting bounce, the pair spun up “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” a Joni Mitchell–sampling track they would give to Janet Jackson for The Velvet Rope. Because the imitation was so brazen—and because “Gone” featured a verse from Q-Tip—there were whispers for years that Dilla had been at least a shadow producer on the track. While the man himself stoked these rumors, they weren’t true; when he did get his hands on Jackson’s vocals, he anchored them to a far heavier low end, for a remix appropriately subtitled “Jay Dee’s Revenge.” —Thompson

5. “Get Dis Money,” Slum Village

There’s a deceptive duality in play in “Get Dis Money,” one of the highlights from Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 2. Dilla takes a vocal sample from a bright late-’70s Herbie Hancock song and slows its tempo and pitch by a third, turning a sunny track into something more melancholy. He then places a fat, driving Moog bass line on top. These two elements work in opposition—the sample falls down the scale, Moog moves upward—creating a woozy, infectious push-pull. It’s his version of an M.C. Escher painting, and it’s just as easy to get lost in. —Sayles

4. “Fuck the Police,” J Dilla

In 2001, Dilla signed to MCA. The deal would transform his life: It netted him around $750,000, allowed his extended family members to move into nicer homes, and provided for a studio to be built within his own. None of this could change the fact that he was a Black man living in Detroit. Neighbors scowled at him and welcomed—perhaps encouraged—the police harassment that was only getting worse as his cars got nicer. (In his book, Charnas reports that Dilla began finding anonymous letters left on his doorstep, threatening him to take his family and leave the neighborhood immediately.)

Ice Cube had taken aim at L.A. police by giving their officers psychological complexes and motivations that fit in with his group’s larger sociological arguments, but Dilla cut straight to the point: “We could lose a few of ‘em.” But like N.W.A.’s, Dilla’s “Fuck the Police” retains a strange sense of play. Its skittering drums, adapted from Rene Costy’s “Scrabble,” keep the listener on his back foot, trying and failing to keep up with the shifting pocket. For a song about a seemingly intractable problem, it sounds strangely like a source of constantly renewing energy. —Thompson

3. “Stakes Is High,” De La Soul

Knowing what we know now about Dilla—his affinity for fancy cars, his near nightly excursions to strip clubs, his insistence that we pay Jay—it feels a tad antithetical to his legacy to place De La Soul’s proto-backpacker screed this high on the list. Then again: that beat.

Stakes Is High, De La’s first album made without the guidance of Prince Paul, is an uneven affair that rarely reaches the highs of their first three LPs. The title track is the big exception. Posdnous and Trugoy deliver a state of the union address for hip-hop, railing against the commercialism and hollowness of the encroaching shiny-suit era with all-time one-liners. (Just look at the handful of classic songs that have been built around samples of Pos’s lyrics.) But mid-’90s hip-hop had no shortage of anti-materialism anthems. What makes “Stakes Is High” live on is a young J Dilla’s production, built around an infectious three-bar loop that skirted the conventions of a genre that had previously thought to count in only multiples of four. The song is not only a shot fired in the war against hip-hop’s homogenization, it’s a model for how forward-thinking the music could be, even when it appeals to the most staunch traditionalists. —Sayles

2. “Last Donut of the Night,” J Dilla

The myth of Donuts makes it so it’s impossible to hunt for hidden messages: It was released just days before his death and, as legend has it, crafted in the hospital as his condition deteriorated, and fans wanted to find meaning in every sample and sequencing choice. While Dan Charnas’s Dilla Time makes it apparent the stories don’t line up perfectly with the reality of the situation, death does lurk throughout the 45-minute instrumental project. A scratched Jadakiss vocal is contorted so it sounds like it’s saying “Is death real?” The final track is built around a loop from a song named “When I Die.” Others are named “Don’t Cry” and “Bye.”—Dilla may not have intended Donuts as a meditation, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that death was at the forefront of his mind. Nowhere does that feel more apparent than “Last Donut of the Night,” the penultimate and most evocative track on the album. The violin loop—lifted from a Moments song—is heartrending. The vocal sample—“I give to you”—feels like he’s directly speaking to fans, imparting one last gift before he leaves. It’s plainly beautiful, and his specter looms over it, whether he meant for it to or not. —Sayles

1. “Runnin’,” The Pharcyde

In Dilla Time, Dan Charnas recounts the story of the attempted subterfuge of Dilla’s first major beat placement. As crafted by the young producer, “Runnin’” feels wholly different from anything else from its era, mainly thanks to its unconventional kick drums, which hit in unexpected places and don’t repeat in a discernible pattern. But Fatlip didn’t think they sounded right. So during the session for the song, when the rest of his Pharcyde cohorts were out of the studio, he moved the kicks to fall in predictable places. When group member Tre returned, he was incensed. He and Fatlip came to blows over it. “All this over a beat?” Dilla thought to himself. But when the dust settled, Tre’s viewpoint won out. “We’re not changing it,” he told Dilla. “That’s your signature.”

Dilla would develop many more signatures in the next decade, but that early incident only highlights how strongly people felt about his work from the very beginning. Some didn’t understand it, but others were immediately evangelized. Listening to “Runnin’” now, 27 years after its release, it’s easy to side with Tre and the true believers. Beyond the kick-drum programming, “Runnin’” is built from the stabs of Run DMC’s “Rock Box,” the clarinet borrowed from Woody Herman that becomes a percussive bed, and most of all, the perfect flute and guitar samples from Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfá’s “Saudade Vem Correndo.” It all comes together in one of the most purely beautiful instrumentals hip-hop has ever produced.

From there, Dilla’s star would quickly rise. He’d work in lockstep with Q-Tip for years before stepping out on his own and reimagining what people thought was possible with a digital sampler. He altered the shape of pop and jazz to come, influencing and collaborating with classically trained musicians like Questlove and D’Angelo and later crafting works like Donuts that still reverberate today. But “Runnin’” is the origin story. Tre won the argument, and music was forever changed because of it. Dilla isn’t a legend just because of “Runnin’,” but the legend begins with “Runnin’.” All that over a beat. —Sayles