J. Dilla changed my life. Let me explain.
I remember the very first time I heard Slum Village's 'Get Dis Money' and ‘Climax’ on the radio. It was the very top of the summer of 2000, back in my hometown of Detroit where I resided at the time. It was such a huge song at radio, and even more special because Slum Village was one of the city's own (shout out to Conant Gardens). My introduction to that song instantly made me want to hear more from this group of guys. Their official “first” album, Fantastic, Volume 2 (there was a Fantastic Volume 1 LP, but it wasn't officially released until years later) was released that same summer, and since I'd already fallen in love with the songs I heard, I knew that I had to make a trip to the store and buy the full album. It was everything I thought it would be.
This is not an exaggeration; Fantastic, Volume 2 is literally one of my absolute favorite rap albums ever, simply because nothing else on the radio sounded like it, so it was very unforgettable. But more importantly because it was a phenomenal body of work that really represented hip hop in a way that was very authentic; nothing about it was contrived. These guys didn't sound like "newbies," and I credit Dilla for that. He was truly something special, and I learned this very early on. Also, the album was released during some of the most indelible times of my life, so I associate that album heavily with certain periods of my late 20s because boy, were those some memorable fucking moments, let me tell you.
Slum Village was still considered somewhat underground at the time, so I still found myself putting people up on them, which is something I really love to do - I love putting people up on to good ass music.
By this time, I had a permanent seat on the Dilla train, and there was no getting off. I then began to pay more attention to what other projects he was associated with, and it was such a pleasant surprise to learn that he'd already worked with some of my favorite artists - D'Angelo, who appeared on FV2, Erykah Badu, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, and Common.
"Oh, so people AREN'T sleeping on Dilla. Oh! This is great!"
So, at this point, I became completely obsessed with all things Slum Village, but specifically J. Dilla. It went from me learning the verses to my favorite tracks on FV2 (which, let's be honest, was all of them), to being able to finally identify their voices on each song. T3 and Baatin never went unnoticed, and I believe that the three of them were the perfect union, but Jay Dee always stood out to me, and I don't think it had anything to do with the fact that he produced the music, but his verses were always my favorite. His rapping style was very understated. Simplistic, but flossy. He never tried too hard. He didn't have to.
So now, The Best Kept Secret EP is released shortly after, and I run to the store to buy that too. Years pass, and the love for Dilla continues to grow. I still played FV2 as if it had come out a week ago, and then, BAM - Jaylib's 'Champion Sound' is released. Jaylib was my official introduction to Madlib, who would later come to be in my top 5 favorite producers ever, and who I plan to one day meet and enjoy a nice bottle of white wine with, as well as a day of listening to his favorite records, but that's a dream for another time.
Dilla was the "Jay" of Jaylib, and Madlib was the "lib." A flawless marriage it was. From there, I began to really get into samples, and I started paying attention to the music. For me, it was all about the music, and how it made me feel.
When Donuts was released, it was one of those albums that spoke to me on a spiritual level. It was released on his birthday, 12 years ago today. Sadly, just three short days later, on February 10th, he would pass away at just 32 years old, after battling a rare blood disease. I don't know - it was something about his passing, and the fact that he was literally on his death bed working on this album that makes it that much more important, and that much more special to me. I will always hold this project the closest to my heart. It's one that I'll never listen to without getting emotional. There’s something to be said about having died doing what you love.
J. Dilla changed my life.
He forced me to listen to music in a way that I never had before. It was because of him that I became interested in what songs rap artists were sampling. I never cared that much about it until I became a fan of Dilla's art. Not only did he make me appreciate music on an entirely unexplainable level, but through him, I've discovered so many of his friends/peers that I had never known before him - Madlib being one of them. Egon being another. Between the three of them, I became exposed to a whole new world of music that I didn't even know existed, and a completely different way of how I listened to this music. Very few artists have had that effect on me. J. Dilla changed my life.
I am a student of music and a passionate listener of it. I LOVE music. I spend hours discovering music by artists I've never listened to a day in my life, and even more hours curating playlists, then sharing these playlists with any and everyone who's willing to listen to them. It brings me an immense amount of joy. I don't just listen to music to pass the time; music is a tremendous part of my life, and to be able to have conversations about Coltrane and Monk and Fela Kuti and Sun Ra and Gap Mangione and Donald Byrd and The Impressions and Ahmad Jamal - it's all because of J. Dilla and the people he has connected me to in spirit.
Happy birthday, James. You are a national treasure. I love you. Thank you for sharing your gift with the world.
Enjoy some of my playlists dedicated to Dilla, like my Madlib & J Dilla Original Samples playlist, or my samples playlist solely dedicated to his Donuts album, and my personal Dilla playlist which features his music, along with the music of those he's produced for, and even some dedications thrown in the mix. For a bonus, check out my playlist of Egon's personal picks that I curated based off all the gems he posts about on his social media accounts. Speaking of, you should probably follow him on Instagram if you're into learning about good music and good wine. He's an enthusiast of both. I hope you enjoy and discover something you love.