Will the Real J Dilla Please Stand Up?

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Art by Amar Stewart

“When I make my music, I want people to feel what I feel; I want them to feel that energy that I was (feeling), whatever it was. That’s all it is, ’cause I make it straight from the heart, so for it to be taken as anything else is crazy.” – J Dilla; Eindhoven, Netherlands (2003)

There’s no question that James Dewitt Yancey aka J Dilla has a place in the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop producers, but where Dilla’s beats and production are placed upon some kind of golden pedestal (and rightfully so,) certainly it was the content of his lyricism that gave more insight on Dilla’s life as he knew it and the resulting person he was. Blood in, blood out, J Dilla was a Detroit cat and he made his music for Detroit cats, but what might have been misconstrued is this whole idea of J Dilla as some kind of angelic semblance for hip-hop, when at the heart of it, shorty was just a thug as much as the next man coming out of Detroit’s rough streets.

Not belonging to the lyrically-conscious Native Tongues East Coast brand nor the hard, mainstream Ruff Ryders type of hip-hop, Dilla’s joints fell somewhere in the middle because Detroit was somewhere in the middle: Motown’s birthplace was stricken with poverty, violence, and police brutality and that’s what Dilla knew.

Take into account “Fuck The Police.” Above Records was compelled to add in an intro separating the label from the song’s content, obviously preceded by its title. In an interview with Ma Dukes, she revealed that Dilla took the basement because he was tired of the random searches and run-ins he had to endure on a day-to-day basis for living three doors down from a police station and for being black. FTP was the end result and he took to chastising Detroit’s corrupt police officers:

“Yea, don’t they know its dangerous in these streets?
Dont you know its gangs of us that roll deep? 
Nigga!
We OG’s fill up the whole jeep, nigga
Hell wit the flows,and deal with the beats nigga
Hell in the Rover, its over homes we hold deez
The reason we hold beans it’s no peace in the streets
With the police in the streets,
Yo 
it’s cops that owe niggas 
dough for O’s and ki’s
It’s more than a beef with five-oh
In the streets with the five-oh its a game of survival duke,” – “Fuck the Police,” J Dilla (2001)


And that’s not to say that J Dilla was an outright gang banger, but that’s just how life was back in the streets of Detroit in the mid-90’s, and that’s a natural key in any artist’s creative process, drawing on personal experience and giving something palpable for listeners to grasp onto. It’s just that in Dilla’s case, amid the innovative beats and production that he was known for, his lyrics were overshadowed, and perhaps the person he was, was lost among them too.

His brand of soul sampling drew automatic parallels with A Tribe Called Quest and Native Tongues, yet time and time again he revoked the Q-Tip/J Dilla comparisons in interviews, especially in his beginnings as Slum Village with T3 and Baatin:

“I mean, you gotta listen to the lyrics of the shit. Niggas was talking about getting head from bitches. It was like a nigga from Native Tongues never would have said that shit…It’s kind of fucked up because the audience we were trying to give to were actually people we hung around. Me, myself, and I hung around regular ass Detroit cats. Not the backpack shit that people kept putting out there like that.” (- J Dilla, The Lost Interview (2004), XXL Mag.)

From the beginning Dilla wasn’t ’bout that backpack life, and time and time again he tried to reiterate that he didn’t want to be lumped into that world of conscientious boom-bap type of hip-hop despite the rapid succession he saw with the collaborative efforts he made with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Madlib, Common, the Pharcyde, De La Soul, Erykah Badu, House Shoes, and even his own idol Pete Rock. His beats made him his fame, but his raps helped keep him grounded back to Detroit.

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Art provided by Stussy

Throughout his “Ruff Draft” project with Groove Attack Records – a direct result of his folded album with MCA Records – Dilla enters his songs with:

“For my real niggas only, straight cassette shit,”

And continues on to talk about whoever and whatever, all like-minded in that it was straight from the ghettos and for his boys:

“Gotta go and get these nuts,
Yes it reads cheese or bust,
Dilla with the gangsta shit,
Now let me say it again, and say it with feeling,
Dilla with the gangsta shit, here to spit the flame
here to get the bank and split
here to twist the dank and hit it
Here to twist the game, here to flip this change spend it,” – “The $,” J Dilla (2003)


This isn’t to take Dilla down from any worshipper’s makeshift Dilla-throne, but more of a place to take a step back and think about how fans consume their idols – their art, their habits, their mentality, their culture, and how those components shaped them and their creativity. But as a fan you have to remember that they are people too; they have flaws, they have histories, they have their own trials and tribulations that they just managed to transform into mediums that most of us aren’t necessarily capable of. For Dilla, his music wasn’t just a way to hone his environment but to also take him out of it, turning Detroit struggles into music that only people that have lived in his world would fully understand; a world with no backpacks and boom-bap.

To really listen to any music can require the ability to garner a certain depth of translation – whether it’s picking apart the lyrics and dynamics of an album or picking apart its creator’s brain, music will always remain subjective. That exact subjectivity hardly remains up for the artist or the self-proclaimed critic to decide, but to the consumers that determine what art can decipher. It’s the consumers that can make or break you.  They can martyr you or condemn you. And depending on the light shed upon him, for J Dilla, it can be both.

“Let’s do it worldwide, show that shine,
Get the cash, and flash like Kodak blind ’em,
If I get the urge to splurge or bling I do it,
It’s nobody’s concern, they ain’t got a thing to do with this,” – “Make ‘Em NV,” J Dilla (2003)

Nina Tabios

Nina Smoove aka Champagne Ninang. Certified hooligan. $F Bay Area born and bred.

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