If you’re a Hip-Hop head, then chances are you know why this week is so special. Not only is the late J Dilla’s birthday on February 7th (as well as the late Nujabes), but this week also commemorates the anniversary of his death just 3 days later on the 10th. Furthermore, the 7th also marks the date that James released Donuts, his final album, which he finalized from his hospital bed just days before his passing. J Dilla’s legacy has been honored for years, with many more to come for good reason. His sampling and production were extraordinary, creating a sound as iconic as his story. You may think you’ve never heard of J Dilla. But, chances are that you most likely have listened to a track produced by his ingenuity and just had no idea. He was never one to put himself in the spotlight. His style was just…distinct. His talent was enough to earn respect from some of the most influential rappers, singers, and musicians in music. Honestly, it’s pretty likely that he had an impact on some of your favorite artists. So, to celebrate J Dilla and what he did for Hip-Hop, I’ve found some of my favorite references honoring the late producer.
When thinking about Dilla, it’s hard not to think about Detroit and how he represented the city. As a result, it’s only fitting that some of Detroit’s most incredible rappers have mentioned the producer on several occasions. One artist is Eminem, who recruited Detroit natives Royce the 5’9″, Big Sean, Dej Loaf, Trick Trick, and Danny Brown to hop on his hometown anthem, “Detroit vs. Everybody.” When listening to Eminem’s music, it’s not too often that you’ll find the intense rapper singing another person’s praise. If anything, he’s probably talking shit. Yet, he makes Dilla’s influence known when he raps, “I still never ABC this shit. Mainstream appeal, but the skill is what made me iller. Since before they called Jay Dee ‘Dilla,’ I was daydreamin’ one day I would be the shit.” The line references Dilla’s infamous name change from Jay Dee to J Dilla, acknowledging the duration of his legacy in the industry, both past and present. And although it’s meant to boost Eminem’s credibility, it exemplifies that even putting your skillset close to Dilla’s shows what kind of level you’re on.
Big Sean maintains the Detroit energy as he namedrops Dilla in multiple songs. However, his most impactful quote is the track “No More Interviews.” In the song, he raps, “I’m from the ground up like a ground-ball play. I’m coming from the underground like it’s Groundhog’s Day. I’m talking so underground that when I talk about J/I might mean J Dilla, R.I.P.” When the nickname J gets thrown around in Hip-Hop, it typically references Jay-Z. In this instance, though, Big Sean references J Dilla through the same alias, who was always thought of as your favorite artist’s artist or something along those lines. He was never known as a mainstream artist, but his name is significant to Hip-Hop lovers. I imagine that is even more true for someone from Detroit. As I mentioned in the introduction, it’s not a common household name. And yet those who do know it know just how important it is. The song outlines Big Sean’s new focus on the actual music side of the industry rather than the antics, so there’s no better name to use than a name as integral and humble as J Dilla’s.
While J Dilla’s impact was felt tremendously throughout Detroit, it reached far beyond that. Rapsody recruited Mac Miller for her track, “Extra Extra,” with the two calling attention to their partnership to show just how powerful they are together. Mac opens up the song with his verse, rapping, “the boy be riding tracks like a freight train, wishing I could have Mac Miller produced by J Dilla. Saluting all the legends that gone, just know we miss ya. Extra, extra, read all about it. Hard beats and boom bap, I’d die without this Hip-Hop.” I think this is a prevalent sentiment that many younger rappers share, as Dilla died tragically early in his life at the age of 32. Given just 10 or 15 more years and there’s no doubt that he would have collaborated with some of these artists to create some magical music. Still, unfortunately, the timing just didn’t work in their favor. We’re lucky that there are still unreleased beats of his being discovered, but I think a lot of artists feel the pressure when touching a masterpiece like that. The juxtaposition of that line and just using Dilla’s name out of those who passed in Hip-Hop show that he really is synonymous with the culture for a lot of people. For many, J Dilla is Hip-Hop.
Joey Bada$$ was one artist bold enough to use a J Dilla beat, which he references in his track, “Christ Conscious.” In the song, he rhymes that he’s “a microphone killer, specially when my head is gone off the liquor. Give me that beat, and I’ll put you next to Dilla.” That line is about his song “Like Me,” which features Dilla’s production. Joey recognizes how much of an honor it is to not only have his own voice over one of those beats but for anyone else to have any type of credits next to Jay Dee. By sending Joey a beat, you’re literally going to be in a catalog alongside Dilla, which is absolutely dope as fuck. It’s also a pretty clever play at words, as putting them next to Dilla could mean killing the beat because Joey went so hard on it. But that’s a bit of a more morose interpretation. Either way, having a Dilla credit on any project is one to be excited about.
In his song, “GP4,” Logic outlines the respectful protocol for asking permission to use a J Dilla beat. He starts by rapping, “I just texted Erykah Badu, to let her know what I’m gon’ do. Sample ‘Dreamflower’ by Tarika Blue, that’s cool with you?” Can we first talk about the subtle flex of just texting Erykah Badu? Wow. “Dreamflower” refers to a track by Tarika Blue that J Dilla sampled in Erykah’s “Didn’t Cha Know.” Logic utilized that in his song, “Indica Badu,” which was largely inspired by Badu and Dilla. He continues on to clarify, “I mean she don’t own the sample but she might as well, ’cause her and Dilla paved the way for all I got, and, well.” I think that line shows just how high of an esteem Dilla and those he worked with were held to. That era of Hip-Hop, specifically the Soulquarians, was elite, and I think they influenced the culture a lot. No matter the official protocol, Logic was going to make sure he paid his respects, and I’m sure if Dilla were alive, he would have approached him as well. It also goes to show how sacred Dilla’s production is considered. You treat his beats like they’re a manifestation of Dilla himself because, essentially, they are.
The spirit of J Dilla humbled even the most outspoken and arrogant of artists. But, to see them so full of admiration may be one of the most beautiful aspects of his life. In his track, “Walkin’ On Air,” Rick Ross analyzes his music career. He shares his regrets, expressing, “all I ever wanted was to make scrilla, have a recordin’ session with J Dilla.” I imagine that if a lot of artists had that chance, quite a few of their songs would have a very different feel. Artists like Rick Ross don’t typically have Dilla-type beats in their arsenal, but knowing that the influence mixed with the lyrical ability is there opens up a world of possibilities. To have an artist like Rick Ross use a line this vulnerable in a song that focuses on flexing his own strength shows the degree to which he admires the late producer.
Another artist who’s not the quickest to sing praise is Pusha T, and his line in “Intro (Darkest Before Dawn)” lets that be known. As he’s rapping about being the hardest in the game, he continues on to say, “me and Tim, it’s coming, it’s gonna kill ’em. The only great I ain’t made better was J Dilla. Now we breaking new ground.” I would argue that that bar speaks volumes. Pusha T has worked with some of the top artists and producers in Hip-Hop, so to say that he heightens their craft is a bold statement. It’s controversial, but it’s in line with Pusha’s track record. It’s no surprise. However, using Dilla’s name of all of the incredible talent in the industry is very high praise because Pusha is basically saying that he’s untouchable. Essentially, Dilla didn’t miss out by not making a track with Pusha simply because he couldn’t get any better. That’s a huge compliment, especially coming from someone as confident as Pusha T.
Other artists have tried to carry on J Dilla’s name, primarily by utilizing his production. In Immortal Technique’s “Toast To The Dead,” he focuses on Dilla’s passing, using one of the producer’s beats to serve as the canvas. He pays tribute to him by rapping, “J Dilla’s still alive as long as his music is. A toast to the dead, for rap legends and pioneers. Your legacy won’t be forsaken as long as I am here.” This is clearly literal because Immortal Technique used Dilla’s beat for this song. Moreover, by using Dilla’s music, his name gets passed on to generations who may not have been around for his life, primarily when artists use bars like these. Additionally, Dilla’s family has struggled significantly with artists using his beats without permission, causing them to miss out on royalties. By getting clearance on the samples and ensuring the Yanceys gets their royalties, Dilla’s family can focus their resources and money on things like the James Dewitt Yancey Foundation, which uses J Dilla’s name to make a positive impact and pass on his name to the youth.
And yet, no other artists can capture the essence of J Dilla quite like his frequent collaborators and close friends, especially those also in the Soulquarian movement. Eminem recruited Black Thought and others to hop on Busta Rhymes’ “Woo-Hah!! Got You All In Check,” re-naming the track “Yah Yah.” Black Thought reminisces on his prime days with The Roots during his verse, rapping, “used to be the bad lieutenant with M-Illitant, spillin’ over fabulous jams my man Dilla sent. Rap speak for me, I am the ventriloquist/that brother you spoke of, it just wasn’t as dope, was it?” Referring to himself as the bad lieutenant, he also brings up M-Illitant, also known as Malik B, one of the fellow founding members of The Roots. There’s no doubt that some of Hip-Hop’s greatest artists used Dilla’s beats. And yet, I think his music was most closely associated with the artists under the Soulquarian age, especially as he was considered one himself. The fact that people as prominent as Questlove and Black Thought, who are some of the most musically knowledgable human beings, thought J Dilla someone to admire, says everything that needs to be said.
In Q-Tip’s “Life Is Better,” he lists some artists and producers who inspired his sound and music career. After dedicating almost a whole verse to this, he caps it off with the question, “where my n** Dilla at? S.V., uh, uh, where my n* Dilla at?” J Dilla was considered Q-Tip’s protege, so to hear some of the final lines in that verse dedicated to him is meaningful. This song was released only two years after Dilla’s passing, so it was still fresh. His presence was still felt even if he wasn’t physically there. The acronym S.V. refers to Slum Village, the Hip-Hop group that J Dilla was arguably the heart and soul of. Although those two lines are quick, they represent their relationship and the amount they learned from one another despite the mentor-mentee type of friendship they had.
Another artist closely associated with J Dilla, particularly the last few moments of his life, was Common. The two were best friends, even living as roommates when Dilla was terminally ill. Common talks about their friendship quite a bit in his music, and the brotherhood they had always shines through. In “Rewind That,” he outlines their timeline together, detailing how they met and some of the things he wished he did differently. He dedicated the second verse of the song to Dilla, rapping, “this one’s for my man J Dilla, as I say these words my eyes fill up. Cuz wasn’t non’ realer than James Dewitt Yancey.” During the verse, he first recounts, “in Q-Tip’s basement, I first met Jay Dee. I still remember the first beat he played me. He came to the Chi, laid three that was crazy. Didn’t even know me and gave ’em to me for free.” As he continues to describe some of their memories together, the tone starts to shift the more he approaches the topic of J Dilla’s illness. He confesses, “it was hard for me to come home everyday and see my homie Jay’s life fade away. I stayed away some times, in other words I ran. Til one day J brought me this TV stand. It was a gift so I couldn’t refuse it. It came from his heart, I regret I didn’t use it. The lupus got worse and, for what it’s worth. I wanted him to have a Grammy before he left this earth.” Those lines demonstrate the absolute love he felt for his friend, but also the vulnerability and helplessness he felt in watching Dilla pass. It shows a different layer that other songs can’t portray no matter how much they respect James as a producer. This song doesn’t show what it meant to lose J Dilla, the producer, but James, the friend.
Similarly, Common teamed up with J Dilla’s younger brother, fellow rapper Illa J, on “Quicksand” to honor the late artist. As listeners, we get another perspective in Illa’s verse when he raps, “I heard a hater say I’ll never be more than J Dilla’s little brother. I’ll never be more than an insignificant other. I’ll never be more than a video stand-in, but here I am still standing.” The Yancey family does so much to keep J Dilla’s name alive, but I can only imagine how difficult that must be when you’re also an artist. To grieve while constantly dealing with comparisons must be a frustrating way to have to navigate the music industry. But Illa J continues to create and make his brother proud, earning his own respect in the Hip-Hop community.
The last song comes from another artist we lost far too soon. Phife Dawg passed at the age of 45 from Diabetes just 10 years after Dilla, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have the chance to collaborate and create monumental music together. In his track, “Dear Dilla,” Phife Dawg speaks to Jay Dee from a letter he wrote to him, discussing the impact of his passing on him personally as well as how it affected Hip-Hop. He opens up the song with an interlude in which he says, “Dilla dawg, I had a dream about you fam. It’s 2005, we in the same hospital room. You on one side, I’m on the other. I’m stressed out, but what gave motivation was you pullin’ out that MP, and bangin’ out some bangers as usual. Nothin’ ever phased you fam, and for that, I miss you.” That interlude pays respect to the incredible hustle that went into creating Donuts and the way that story would forever go down Hip-Hop history. Being physically there to witness something like that would be the ultimate motivation. While continuing to speak to his late friend, Phife says, “Dilla dude still crackin’, they wish to be like you. Producer extraordinaire, knowing their beats be recycled. But on your worst day they couldn’t mess with you. Cats makin’ T’s in remembrance of you, least they could do is give your fam a dime or two. This man gave his heart, this what the fuck y’all do? But yo, don’t stress, word bond, we got you.” This song painfully shows an emotion that isn’t commonly linked to tributes: raw anger. We see the frustration that the Yancey family and Dilla’s friends have, even to this day, from not seeing all of the money tied to Dilla’s name. A lot of the songs and merchandise were meant to be done out of love and respect, yet his family still has to fight for its rights. His friends saw his music getting ripped off rather than honored, which must have been painful. Phife gives us an incredibly intimate look into how Dilla’s death impacted those closest to him, illustrating the level of grief they felt when he passed.
There are hundreds and thousands of other songs I could have mentioned. I kept thinking of artists I should have included because of how highly they spoke of Jay Dee. Dilla’s name has been echoed throughout lyrics and felt in beats, whether they were renditions of his own or influenced by his groundbreaking style. Although his legacy lives on with a world of respect tied to his name, it’s hard not to think of where Hip-Hop would be today if he were still alive. Would he have retired at his prime? Would he have a comeback so monumental that every blog was reporting on it? Would he have continued to revamp his style to keep up with trends? Or would he still have the same exact signature style? It’s hard not to speculate, but it is truly a gift that we still have his music to remember him through and that new music is still being discovered. It’s not just Hip-Hop that reflects on Dilla. Bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and artists from other genres have sung about his impact on music. I think it’s the general consensus to say that we are all extremely thankful for the beats he shared with the world. Please donate to the James Dewitt Yancey Foundation straight through their Instagram if you can do so. The organization works to keep J Dilla alive.
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