On his final album, Donuts, J Dilla faced his mortality and coiled what was left of his vital signs into a seismic suite. Completed on his death bed during the closing hours of a life cut criminally short, Dilla’s swan song(s) weren’t merely the gold standard of hip-hop, underground or above it, but arguably, the genre’s final push past the dusty soul and funk flips that had defined it up until his arrival, and well beyond his departure.
Par for the course, he’d perfected the imperfect and capped an era in 43 minutes. But it didn’t take long for subsequent generations to tap the endless beat batches stowed away in (our) forums and proto-blog backalleys. Those tombs remain a writ of passage for the sub-culture of diligent crate-diggers and dynamic doers that would eventually carry his torch (or at the very least, warm their hands by its fire.)
With The Soulquarians objectively defunct by the end of the 2000s — The Roots spread between NBC and the album they can’t finish; Erykah Badu practicing unconditional love to a problematic degree; Talib Kweli waging holy Twitter wars; Yasiin Bey stuck in post-retirement-pre-comeback purgatory, D’Angelo working his way up the Rockstar Games ladder, and Q-Tip doing whatever Q-Tip does between occasional blips on the radar — the organic orchestrations of a Motor City marvel had effectively been buried under the radio-ready algorithmic assemblies of the early 2010s.
Somewhere between Stones Throw’s rebuilding efforts and the dawn of the “lo-fi-hip-hop-to-study-to” age, a swell of savvy young samplers and swing specialists stepped in to fill the void. Anchored by SoundCloud’s democratizing publish-at-will platform, the bedroom beat breed — Kaytranada, Knxwledge, Phoelix, Mndsgn, Nelson Bandela, Jon Bap, Illingsworth, and the like — had access to the vault and an outlet that wouldn’t (immediately) strike down their work. Now in full bloom, the fruits of Dilla’s disciples have not only a home, but a dedicated community of researchers, analysts, and ears, above all. And if we’ve learned anything at all from this watershed half-decade in music, the pinnacle of production still haunts even the most decorated producers of our day.
So instead of another round of living and posthumous catalog excavations, on what would have been the pioneering producer’s 45th birthday, we’re tracing the threads out from a legacy that’s altered every brain it’s touched. Not remnants of a faded star, but the planets newly forged of the raw and revered elements dispersed by its collapse. We’ve compiled selections from modern masterpieces — from To Pimp a Butterfly, blond(e)d, 99.9%, Choose Your Weapon, Yes Lawd!, Black Messiah, You’re Dead!, A Seat at The Table, Piñata, Telefone, and, of course, a grip of below-the-radar beat tapes — into an examination of the peerless producer’s impact on the post-genre age.
Listen to the Disciples of Dilla playlist below, a collection of songs from the last half-decade or so that cite Dilla either directly or by way of interpolation.
Hit the link to subscribe to Okayplayer’s Spotify channel for more sequences inspired by the late J Dilla.
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