J Dilla: Silent Life Soundtrack Composer
Updated: Feb 9
The week starting February 5th, 2006 was as normal as any other week for me. I was looking forward to my birthday on the 14th and my tax refund that usually was deposited into my account allowing me to ball out for a weekend to celebrate. I would be turning 24 that following week and still getting into the hang of the whole dad thing as my daughter was turning 2 in a few months. I had a steady job I loved, I was living in Nashville for the first time and enjoying everything that I could at that time. The thing that I always enjoy the most is music and that week was special as I was picking up the new J Dilla album, Donuts. It was coming out that Tuesday the 7th but due to payday, I needed to wait until Friday the 10th in order to cop it. Adult Swim had been playing bumpers between their shows with music from it and promoting it like crazy and after getting Jaylib it was pretty much a no brainer to buy anything with J Dilla’s name on it.
That whole week, I looked forward to copping it at FYE since I knew they wouldn’t have it at the Target around the corner from my place. While Target carried a decent selection and discounts on the week of release, Stones Throw never got much love in the store and so I knew to get the good stuff, I had to hit up FYE. I even remember driving down there on the 7th to make sure it was available for me to pick up that Friday and there were plenty to go around so I wasn’t worried. However, I found out later that I had every right to be. Jay Dee aka J Dilla, James Dewitt Yancey died that Friday, February 10th, 2006, 3 days after his birthday; the day Donus was released. I made a point to head right to FYE after work that day in order to grab a copy before everyone realized what had happened. Luckily, I was able to grab my copy and I still own it to this day.
In the following months, I listened to Donuts a lot. I remember Questlove wrote so fondly about Dilla on his MySpace page saying that there are hints that he knew the end was coming and sprinkled little clues within the album. It made me dissect it front to back and appreciate the artistry in those instrumentals. Then I saw the profile on the Stones Throw website about DJ Deckstarr and his infamous “J Dilla Saved My Life” shirt. While I loved the beats I heard, I didn’t realize that Dilla could be life-changing, especially when he was only known for so much at the time. Little did I know that his t-shirt and short story about Dilla would open my eyes to the secret soundtrack I didn’t realize Dilla played in my life.
Since he died there was no shortage of content about him online including his production discography. I knew of his existence for some time but didn’t realize the depths and so many things fell into place when I started to see things about the songs he made. That’s when I realized that I’ve loved Dilla since he produced “Runnin’” for the Pharcyde back in 1995. “Runnin’” was one of those songs that became an anthem for me just like “I Wish” from Skee-Lo. I was in middle school when both came out, moving around a lot (but primarily in Georgia at the time) and those songs resonated with me as a kid who wasn’t the tallest, wasn’t the coolest and just had an inner monologue that sounded like the things they were saying. “Passing Me By” could’ve been pulled from my head so when Labcabincalifornia included “Runnin’” and “Drop”, I felt like I had been found and so much of the comfort of those songs on Labcabincalifornia came from Dilla’s soundbeds.
The next Dilla joint I fell in love with came just months later when Busta Rhymes’ first solo album The Coming dropped in March of 1996 and I couldn’t get enough of the track “Still Shinin’.” The drum pattern was intoxicating as is but everything about that beat drew me in. I remember reading the liner notes then and seeing that Jay Dee had produced that song but it only meant so much as this was the first time that I had heard of Jay. With the Pharcyde songs, I didn’t realize or see that he made them until after he died.
That same year I remember there being a piece in Vibe magazine about The Ummah being a new production team. Jay stood out there as the trio was basically A Tribe Called Quest without Phife and I wondered if that was going to cause friction in the group going forward (another complicated story.) Their first big project was the new Tribe album, Beats, Rhymes, and Life and...it seemed to have divided some fans. This is odd to me because 1) “1nce Again” is a classic record to this very day that Jay directly produced and, 2) so many freestyles were done with the beats from that album for years afterward. I always thought it was weird that people thought the sound was too much of a shift when everyone used their beats for their own gain. Regardless, I loved the album then and didn’t realize Dilla was such an integral part of it. That same year, he produced the track “Stakes Is High” for De La Soul and created another instant classic. I hadn’t even realized it but most of 1996 was consumed by productions Dilla had a hand in. He helped to craft my own tastes in music by being so malleable and not standing out as being easily identifiable that year. He snuck into my subconscious in the best way possible.
Upon further research, I found that he (with the Ummah, mostly) had been the one behind that extra dope Janet Jackson “Got Til It’s Gone” remix, more tracks for Busta Rhymes, the first Slum Village song I heard on the 3rd Funkmaster Flex album, and of course, the supposedly last Tribe album, The Love Movement. The biggest standout was on the horizon, though, as Jay Dee handled the lion’s share of my favorite Common album, Like Water For Chocolate, which includes one of my favorite beats, “Heat” (sidebar: getting the album linked you to the super-specific “Heat” online-only video with lots of skateboarding and breaking. I remember feeling like I was in an elite club watching it. Now it’s on YouTube.)
Through reading through his production credits, I realized that I listened to way more Dilla beats that I knew and most stood out without knowing he was the common denominator. Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, The Roots, Slum Village; Dilla was around so many great musicians for such a long period making things that made my head nod and heart pump over and over again. DJ Deckstarr may have said that Dilla changed his life but I didn’t know he was so much a part of my own! And unfortunately, I came to this realization after he was gone.
In the years since his death, I’ve definitely come to appreciate him more and actively looking out for beats that are still being released. He was obviously a workhorse as I feel that hundreds of his productions have come out since his passing and I’m still hearing things I didn’t know where out there. I love the legacy of production that he left behind and it makes me ecstatic to know that his MPC is part of a Smithsonian exhibit. I could be here for another several days just discussing his production techniques and how his mastery of equipment will be hard to match, even almost 2 decades after his passing. Dilla was a production genius and so many people saw it while he was alive that I’m glad they’re carrying on his work all this time after. He may not be around for his flowers but we’re still enjoying the Donuts.
Happy Birthday to Dilla and play him all year round. If you’re anything like me, you were already and didn’t even know it.