J Dilla: How Hip Hop’s Late, Great Innovator Achieved Immortality Through Music 

I consider myself a child of hip hop–an analyst of lyrics who makes figurative snow angels in contagious beats. This love carried over into my adulthood, when I first learned about J Dilla.

I entered college in search of myself and proudly attended an HBCU (Historically Black College or University.) This was the most influential time of my life, a time where I immersed myself in my blackness and all things relevant to me, from the beauty of my culture to the bliss of my young naïveté.

Most importantly, college was the melting pot of music I constantly found myself reaching into. By the grace of God, I placed J Dilla in my musical rotation, unaware I’d been a fan of his all along. His discography of works included some of my favorite songs from artists I idolized like Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo, Common, etc.

From there, I sought out Dilla’s personal work and again admired him even more. As a founding member of the neo soul and alternative hip hop collective, Soulquarians, J Dilla, along with his peers–pictured above–created music that would live forever.

When Dilla passed away in 2006 due to his battle with lupus, every hip hop head I knew felt the loss. Common and Badu paid tribute to him through song. And while it was nothing short of touching, it only skimmed the surface of the respect and love many had for J Dilla.

When I hear “Didn’t Cha Know” I think to myself, I would kill to have been in the room when they made that magic. For example, when Common and Slum Village heard the “Thelonius” beat for the first time. J Dilla had to make them light up. Every artist he worked with must have epic memories–similar to the one above of–him.

They must remember how they felt when they heard that J Dilla beat for the first time. His music is timeless, it still feels like the first time each time. When I hear a J Dilla track my body reacts, I light up inside, my head bobs, and I can’t help but smile.

Today, we celebrate the birthday of J Dilla. Jay Dee. James Yancey. One man, many aliases. But no matter how you chose to address him, there is no debating his genius.

Listen to some of my personal favorites below (track details via Complex’s 50 best J Dilla Songs) and share you favorite J Dilla memory in the comments.

Come Close (Remix)

Producer: J Dilla
Album: Come Close The Single
Label: MCA Records

Com and Jay Dee perfected the new millennium rap love song with “The Light” in 2000, and Common went back to the well in 2002, this time enlisting The Neptunes for part deux, “Come Close.” Though dope, it didn’t quite pack the punch of “The Light,” so Common grabbed Dilla to construct the “Come Close (Remix).”

Evoking the emotion of one of rap’s greatest love songs, “Bonita Applebum,” Dilla’s remix revisits the sitar throughout. The track would be one of the last meetings of the Soulquarians, even including honorary Native Tongue member Pharrell Williams. The hollow drums and spacey sound effects were the perfect backdrop for another Dilla remix that trumped the original.


Producer: J Dilla
Album: Like Water for Chocolate
Label: MCA Records

While Dilla was best known for his production, he was no slouch on the mic either. He knew exactly how to rock over his own beats, and crafted quality hooks to accompany them. Jay Dee produced the bulk of Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, so it was only right that Common Sense invited Dilla’s crew, Slum Village, to participate on “Thelonius.”

The composition was masterful, featuring a great mix of thumping basslines and bleeding keys—beefed up from a choice sample of George Duke’s “Vulcan Mind Probe.” And it’s not debatable who had the best verse here—James Yancey lambasted imaginary players with the whole, “Numbers look crooked like King Kong shook it” line.

Didn’t Cha Know

Producer: J Dilla, Erykah Badu

Mama’s Gun

Motown Records

Featured on Erykah’s sophomore album, Mama’s Gun, which was recorded during the much-hyped Soulquarian era, Dilla’s signature sound can be found all over the album. “Didn’t Cha Know” was one of Dilla’s many contributions to the project, and even snagged a Grammy nomination for best R&B Song of 2001.

However, the song wasn’t without controversy, as Tarika Blue, whose “Dreamflower” was sampled on the track, never granted Dilla or Erykah permission—a common occurence throughout Dilla’s career, though he usually went unnoticed. A settlement was later reached out of court.

“Didn’t Cha Know” proved that Dilla was more than just a hip hop producer. He could dominate the R&B spectrum just as well, if not better than his contemporaries—many of whom would go on to flat-out bite his sound.

Vivrant Thing

Producer: J Dilla, Q-Tip

: Amplified

: Arista Records

After years as an underground king, Q-Tip was ready for the mainstream success which eluded him for years. Ditching the Tribe, Tip went for dolo, focusing on a solo project that was primarily produced by himself and Jay Dee. The first look from the album was the uptempo “Vivrant Thing.”

It’s subject matter and commercial sound confused many fans, as this was a new Tip, with producer Jay Dee elevating his sound, crossing over to the pop spectrum. Love it or hate it, Dilla’s flip of Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “I Wanna Say” has held up remarkably well. This record still packs dance floors some twelve years after its release.

Got ’till It’s Gone

Producer: J Dilla, The Ummah

: The Velvet Rope, N/A

: N/A

Janet Jackson’s first single from her 1997 album, The Velvet Rope, was surrounded by controversy from the jump. First, Janet and co. were sued by British singer Des’ree for illegally sampling her “Feel So High.” Second, and most importantly, J Dilla was snubbed of a production credit. Whether a simple mistake or the work of music industry shysters, the song was credited to Janet Jackson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—despite having The Ummah’s fingerprints all over it.

Those patented Ummah snares, kicks and burbling bass were all present, plus Q-Tip was featured on the track. It didn’t take long for those in the know to figure out this was the work of Record Industry Rule #4080. Lashing back at those who’d wronged him, Dilla went back and crafted a remix dubbed as “Jay Dee’s Revenge” taking the elements used on the orginal and beefing them up as he skillfully waved the middle finger at a certain production duo from Minneapolis.

The Light

Producer: J Dilla

: Like Water for Chocolate

: MCA Records

Recording during the Soulquarian sessions at Electric Lady Studios in New York, Jay Dee gave Common the perfect soundscape to craft a hip hop love song for the new millennium. Though the song was said to have been inspired by Erykah Badu, Common effortlessly rode that Bobby Caldwell sample all the way to the pop charts and into the hearts of thousands of adoring women—making Common a certified sex symbol.

At the turn of the century, Dilla had mastered his warm and fuzzy boom-bap style of production, and by the time the “The Light” hit he’d reached his peak. The next phase of Jay Dee’s production style was more digital, but this was a welcome goodbye to that era, which also gave Common the biggest hit of his career.


Producer: J Dilla, Madlib

: The Shining


“Baby” appeared on Dilla’s first posthumous album, The Shining, which was about 75% completed at the time of his death. Finished by Karriem Riggins in the summer of 2006, The Shining was a glimpse into the mind of J Dilla, and a clue as to where his sound was headed next.

“Baby” was the last time we’d get to hear Dilla twist a snippet of vocals into something other than its intended purpose. This time sampling The Stylistics’ “Maybe It’s Love,” which he sped up and chopped to say “Baby.” This soulful instrumental was a fitting canvas for Guilty Simpson, Dilla and Madlib to display their distinct styles.

So Far To Go / Bye

Producer: J Dilla

: Finding Forever

: Good Music/Geffen Records

First appearing on Dilla’s Donuts as “Bye,” this instrumental was an incredibly sad listening experience. It’s almost as if Dilla knew he was leaving the earth, and left this gem behind as his final farewell. “So Far To Go” would later appear on Dilla’s first posthumous album, The Shining, featuring Common and D’Angelo.

More than just a song, “So Far To Go” represents the end of an era. It was one of the last beats Dilla completed before passing away, and also marked the last time he’d work with his Soulquarian contemporaries. Heck, it was damn near the last time we heard something new from D’Angelo. It’s only fitting that a producer who brought so many so much joy to the world would sample The Isley Brothers “Don’t Say Goodnight,” for his final goodnight.

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