‘Dilla Time’ Author Dan Charnas on Why J Dilla Is In A League Of His Own

Dimas Sanfiorenzo Dimas Sanfiorenzo is the Managing Editor for Okayplayer. He specializes…
J Dilla
Before J Dilla, musicians either played straight time or swing time. Dilla created his own time, which clashed both to create something disjointed, but also beautiful and purposeful. Photo Credit: Gregory Bojorquez/Getty Images

We spoke to Dilla Time author Dan Charnas about his extensive new book, J Dilla’s complicated relationship with Q-Tip, and why he wants to recenter Slum Village and Fantastic Vol. 2 in the Jay Dee legacy.

In the summer of 1999, Dan Charnas and pugnacious rapper Chino XL traveled to Detroit to work with a burgeoning producer named Jay Dee. They met the young producer at his makeshift studio — aka the basement of his house — which was located in Conant Gardens, the neighborhood Jay Dee, who would later switch his moniker to J Dilla, grew up. 

“It was Jay Dee, Common, and me,” Dan Charnas, who at the time, was a Warner Bros. record executive working on Chino’s sophomore album, I Told You So, said. “Chino has his arm around me and tells Dilla, ‘Yo, you don’t understand, this little kid right here, you’re his favorite.’ But I didn’t know he was John Coltrane at that time.”

That initial meeting — which resulted in the deep album cut “Don’t Say a Word” — sparked a 20-plus year journey for Charnas. In the decades that followed, Charnas would go from being an early admirer of Jay Dee to teaching an entire course at New York University about the influence of Dilla’s methods to writing the definitive biography of the legendary producer. Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm (out February 1st, via Macmillan) is a rigorous examination of the life and influence of one of the most important figures in music history.

Charnas, who previously wrote The Big Payback (an essential history of the business of hip-hop), has a tendency to go big. He spent more than three years writing and reporting Dilla Time, interviewing over 200 close friends, family and collaborators. The end result is an epic: one that blends the history of one man, a city and music. 

Before Dilla’s death at the age of 32, it was mainly close friend Questlove spreading the gospel of Dilla, mostly on the Boards of #ThatSite (or this site). Since 2006, and the mythical reputation Dilla’s final release Donuts has garnered, there has been a growing movement to crown him as the greatest hip-hop producer of all time. There is an issue here — there are hip-hop producers and then there is Dilla. 

“He’s not a top or a best, he’s an only,” Dan told Okayplayer during a Zoom interview in mid-January. “He’s the only producer from the electronic music world to literally change the way musicians count and approach their instruments.”

Charnas’ book is presented as a biography but it’s really an argument. Before Dilla, musicians either played straight time or swing time. Dilla created his own time, which clashed both to create something disjointed, but also beautiful and purposeful. He did it using his MPC, but he was so effective at it that live musicians soon adapted his practices. To make his argument, Charnas uses graphs and DIY instructions any musical novice could understand. This clarity is why, ultimately, Charnas’ argument is a very convincing one.

“You can see what Dilla time is. I can put a grid in front of your face and help understand what straight time is, what swing time is, and what Dilla time is, and then you really understand we’re talking about something that’s centenary,” Charnas said. “This puts him in a whole other category in terms of his achievement.” 

We spoke to Charnas about his extensive new book, Dilla’s complicated relationship with Q-Tip, and why he wants to recenter Slum Village and Fantastic Vol. 2 in the Dilla legacy. 

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

So, the origins of the book came from the college course?

Dan Charnas: The real origin of the book is the trip that Chino XL and I took to Detroit in 1999 to work with Jay Dee. That’s my first experience with him in a room. I had known about him and loved him since ’95 but that trip to Detroit is where it started. Nine years later was my second trip to Detroit, when I was doing research for The Big Payback, and also I met my wife’s family. My wife is from Detroit, so Detroit became a second home.

Cut to me teaching at NYU in 2013, 2014 — students loved Dilla. That was weird to me. And this is about the time that we’re about to see Kendrick [Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly] album and Hiatus Kaiyote’s [Choose Your Weapon] album. So, I started teaching about Dilla in my core Music History course, and that lecture was so successful that Jason King — now the chair of the Clive Davis Institute [of Recorded Music] — suggested that we do a course on J Dilla, and maybe we take all the students to Detroit.

We took 20 students to Detroit. Ma Dukes was supposed to come but she got snowed in. There was a big blizzard that weekend, so she got trapped in Puerto Rico. It was a very successful course but when you’re a professor and you’re putting things into a syllabi and you’re getting ready to teach, you realize… There wasn’t a lot written about Dilla that I thought was musically accurate. So, this started as, “OK, maybe I can write a little book about the musical science of Dilla to really help people understand that… he actually invented or pioneered a new time feel that has influenced people from the year 2000 to now.”

As I began reporting and building trust with people around him, it became more of a biography. It became more of that expansive flag in the ground about Dilla, but also saying something about American music, saying something about global music, saying something about Detroit.

What was your path to realizing Dilla invented a new time feel? Did someone have to explain it to you?

When you mix an album, you’re listening to tracks over and over and over again. So I remember, this is probably December or January 2000, and we’re getting the [Chino XL] album ready for Warner Bros. I’m sitting in my driveway in my car listening because that is the environment that you want to listen in. I was listening to the song “Don’t Say a Word” and I was like, “Wait a minute, what’s wrong with those hi-hats? Are those hi-hats swung? Why do they sound off?”

And so me, being the obsessive that I am, I left the car. I went into my own home studio. I had a computer digital performer set up where you can see the waveforms and everything, and I put it into the computer and I counted. I lined up where all the kicks and snares and hi-hats were, and I realized the hi-hats are straight and the snare is early. Why is he doing that? How is he doing that? Why does it sound so good? That was the moment that I understood that there were some techniques he was using throughout the beats that he was putting out at that time that helped me understand. And then I started hearing it in Musiq Soulchild, hearing it a little in Jill Scott, hearing it in Hi-Tek and [Talib] Kweli, hearing it in Michael Jackson. Everybody’s doing his stuff. I didn’t attempt to write about it until I moved away from Los Angeles and I came back to New York to resume my writing career.

[In the mid 2000s,] I pitched this idea about Dilla’s influence on other producers [to Scratch Magazine] and that’s when I called Tim Maynor. He was Slum’s manager and he’s one of the people who hooked us up with Jay Dee back in the day. I said, “Can I interview Jay Dee?” And he said, “I don’t know, man, he’s almost out of here.” I didn’t even know he was sick. So, I think the combination of Scratch going down and me finding out that Jay Dee was sick, I didn’t make the call.

So, I had all the stuff in my head but I didn’t begin to use it until I started teaching here at Clive. In my course, we’re essentially looking at 150 years of history and we’re making arguments about historical figures. Why is Billie Holiday important? Why is James Brown important? Why do we talk about Joni Mitchell? Why is Aretha Franklin a huge, important person? And Dilla was one of the people that I made an argument about. He was one of those 100 to 150 people that we discussed. Dilla invented — essentially pioneered — a new time feel, and I created the material to try to explain it to the people on my course. I felt it in 2000 and I began to articulate it, but I didn’t finish articulating it until I became a teacher.

Were there any other hip-hop producers in that 150?

Yeah, actually. Marley [Marl] for essentially pioneering digital sampling. Rick Rubin is in there because he helped to bring the breaks back into hip-hop, even before there were digital samplers — and then, obviously, what he did with Def Jam. Sylvia Robinson, obviously [DJ Kool Herc].

I’m really curious what your peers thought of Dilla. Did the media just miss on him during the ’90s? Because even you say yourself, there wasn’t a lot written about him.

Well, I was working in the music business at that time, so that’s a bit different. In the early ’90s I was writing for The Source, and I could tell you what the mood was then. But at that time that Jay Dee came out, I was in Los Angeles. I worked for Rick Rubin — after that I worked for Forest Whitaker’s short-lived record company. So, I can tell you A&R people, promotion people, and hip-hop heads loved Jay Dee. But the work that James was doing — other than say “The Light” by Common — wasn’t really recognized in the mainstream. And if you look at the covers of rap magazines at the time, it’s Eminem and [Dr.] Dre, it’s DMX, it’s JAY-Z, the shift had already happened. James was working in this pocket of hip-hop and neo-soul and I think it also frustrated him, too.

He’s like, “I’m not a backpack rapper. I don’t want to be the heir to A Tribe Called Quest. I’m Jay. I wear chains, I go to the strip clubs. I like that hustler talk.”

The thing that I find interesting is that the early albums he was involved with were really polarizing at the time, like The Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia album or Tribe’s Beats, Rhymes and Life. He didn’t have the blockbuster or even critical success until Common’s Like Water for Chocolate album.

Let me take you back to 1995 in Los Angeles. So, I’m working for Rick Rubin. When Paul Stewart was taking around that Pharcyde demo, I didn’t get it. Delicious Vinyl got it and when that Pharcyde album hit in ’92… man. And remember, that’s coming right around the same time as [Dr. Dre’s] The Chronic. L.A. now has this full frequency scene. Yeah, you’ve got the gangsta stuff but it’s also musically beautiful, and you have this wildly adventurous Pharcyde stuff with these four crazy personalities and this amazing producer, J-Swift. We all loved J-Swift, and then we heard he was leaving The Pharcyde and starting his own label. Rick and me were up against Tommy Boy to try to get Fat House Records, but they wanted a million dollars and they wanted control of their masters. It was just a deal that Rick didn’t even feel like he could do, and so we didn’t get it.

And at the same time, The Pharcyde did good on their first album, but now they’ve lost their producer. A lot of us were like, “What’s The Pharcyde going to do?” I was talking to Mike Ross — who’s the head of Delicious Vinyl — and asked that question, and he very confidently says, “Oh no, they’re working with this kid from Detroit named Jay Dee.” And I said, “Jay Dee? Detroit — what hip-hop has come out of Detroit?”

So we all thought Labcabincalifornia was not going to be as good as [Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde] but it was really, really good. Is it as good as [Bizarre Ride II]? All I know is that there were some jams on there and they did well for themselves. Beats, Rhymes and Life is a different story, and this is where Okayplayer comes in because the original Okayplayer was the site for that debate: “Did Jay Dee kill Tribe Called Quest?” and “Who’s better, Hi-Tek or Jay Dee?” Those are actual threads on the Okayplayer message boards and, full disclosure, I wasn’t one of the cool kids. I wasn’t on Okayplayer, I wasn’t on the internet like that at that time, so Ahmir and all them are the cool kids. But I do know that Jay Dee was the subject of this. “Why’s Tribe bringing in this guy?” And also, I don’t think his best work is on Tribe.

Dilla Time

Dan Charnas spent more than three years writing and reporting Dilla Time, interviewing over 200 close friends, family and collaborators.

One of the things that gets mentioned in the book is how Dilla’s Donuts, L.A.-era sound gets glorified a little bit more compared to all his other stuff. 

That’s one of my missions with this book. Listen, I love Donuts. I think it’s great, but there are a number of people — when Donuts came out — who didn’t get it, didn’t like it. I talk about this meme, “Dilla saved my life, who’s Slum Village?”

I am trying to recenter everybody back to Fantastic, Vol. 2, because that is the inflection point. That’s the point where this new time feel enters the public sphere and everything changes after that. And when we talk about a Dilla feel, that’s what we’re talking about. Yes, his broken grid, so-called lo-fi production — has that influenced people as well? Absolutely. But to me, his greatest work and his key innovation happened right there in the middle of his career.

Do you look at that Slum album as being his creative peak?

I don’t know if peak is right to say. He had many peaks and his genius was constant throughout. To me, Fantastic, Vol. 2 is in my top 10 most important albums period, just in terms of changing the sound of music. There’d be no Voodoo without Fantastic, and if no Voodoo, none of that Philadelphia stuff, no Anderson .Paak, no The 1975 doing their own little thing in Dilla time, no Kendrick broken beat stuff — none of that.

There’s a part in the book where Questlove and D’Angelo are about to do a jam session in front of Dilla and then Quest says, “We have two ways of playing drums, we either do Prince or we do you.” Can you explain what that means?

Well, the way that Ahmir explained it was they really were trying to create Voodoo — first and foremost — as an audition tape for Prince. “Can we make Prince listen to our stuff and say, ‘Damn?'” Secondarily, they were trying to emulate the rhythms and the looseness of Jay Dee, which is a different approach than Prince. And he was asking Jay Dee, “When we create this track, do you want us to create something that sounds like the Jay Dee feel, or a little bit more like a Prince rhythmic feel?” And he said, “Treat it like me.” But think about what it is to be James in that moment. I love that story. And also, I love the story D’Angelo told me of Jay Dee listening to “The Root” two times in a row and almost wanting to ask for it a third time, but he holds himself back and then he creates this perfect recreation of it. But it really is the first time he’s hearing traditional musicians take his ideas onto their instruments.

You can tell me if I’m wrong, but I got the sense that he had a hard time explaining how he was able to produce such greatness. Is that a bad read?

I think it’s layered. First of all, it wasn’t easy physically for James to talk. He’s a stutterer, and that presents problems for expression or feeling confident in your expression. I feel like he could express himself but he would often do it obliquely. Young RJ at one point asked him, “Why do you do this? Why do you rush the snare?” And he said, “It’s how I move my head, it’s how I bob my head.” Which is so eerie because it’s the same thing that Illa J said. Because he said to me, “You can ask me any question that you would have asked James and I’ll be able to answer it.”

And he wasn’t saying it all cocky. He was just saying it because he felt he has a connection with James and he said, “It’s how we move.” So, he did express himself in these oblique ways. I guess what I am trying to show is that it is more than the feeling because we tend to talk about, “Oh, it’s how he felt it.” Yeah, of course he put it where he felt it but he was also a programmer, dude. He put things where he calculated them to be, he knew what that rushed snare did, he knew how to use the timing functions of the MPC. And we’re still talking about him like all he did was turn timing correct off.

He doesn’t have just one technique. He had three major techniques and playing freehand was only one of them. The other two were decelerating elements to reveal error. Whenever you slow something down — the slower it is the more you hear the variations in the timing. Any mistake is going to be elongated and he loved that. And then displacing elements, which is what he used the MPC for, he didn’t just turn the clock off. That’s why I wrote the book, that was the initial thing for writing the book.

It’s as much calculation as it is feeling. There’s the love of Dilla and there’s the science of Dilla, and the scientist is the hero of this story.

Dilla and Q-Tip had a pretty complicated relationship. When reading those portions of the book, the dynamic reminded me of Phife and Q, where Q-Tip loved the collaborative aspect but it was also stifling. 

James actually had a truly ambivalent relationship towards his mentor. He was so grateful to Q-Tip and loved him, and Tip loved James like a brother. But James was also frustrated because sometimes when we love somebody… we give them what we want ourselves, not what they need for themselves. And that was the kind of love that Q-Tip gave James.

Q-Tip knew how dope he was but he just wanted to sit in the brotherhood, he wanted to sit in A Tribe Called Quest. But that is not what Jay Dee wanted and needed for himself. He needed to make a name because Q-Tip already had a name, Q-Tip was already a star. So it took them a while to work that out and to have that conversation. But once they decided they weren’t going to do The Ummah anymore, they became peers. They were as tight as any two people in the business who aren’t right up on each other can be. I think toward the very end, James was very grateful and he must’ve felt horrible having to declare independence.

What I hope this book does is show people how important Q-Tip is as a producer because people act like, “Oh, in The Ummah, Jay Dee couldn’t get credit for anything.” Well, you know who else wasn’t getting credit? Q-Tip. One of the reasons that Q-Tip doesn’t come up in greatest producers [lists] is that nobody thinks of A Tribe Called Quest as the producer, and Q-Tip’s name isn’t out there like that. So we don’t remember [Apache’s] “Gangsta Bitch” and [Nas’] “One Love” and the Mobb Deep stuff. Q-Tip has helped make the soundtrack of our lives in the hip-hop community, and as much as Jay Dee suffered for that, Q-Tip suffered in a different way.

Do you think there’s a rapper equivalent to Dilla, where an MC changed how other artists did something with their voice or language?

This is going to seem really weird — I think it jumps from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to either Mariah [Carey] or Beyoncé [and how they] incorporated the cadences of MCs into the way [they] sing. Remember [Destiny’s Child’s] “Bug-A-Boo“?

But I will also say — since I’m talking to Okayplayer and I think you have the audience to understand what I’m saying — when we do our top rappers, we are steady talking about verbiage and what they say. Yeah, we talk a little bit about flow but mostly, it’s the lines, right? And T3 is as good technically as any rapper out there. I’m not talking about what he says — and what he says is cool — but for me, he’s a soloist. He’s the instrumentalist if you listen to what he’s doing rhythmically and tonally in terms of tambour and using his instrument — using the parts of his mouth.

You want to talk about an equivalent of J Dilla, right? T3 did some amazing s**t, and people who loved Slum were not sleeping on T3 back in the day. And, of course, James as a rapper is incredible. One of my favorite observations comes from Raydar Ellis when he noticed that in “Climax,” the song about a threesome, he ends every single line in a triplet. So brilliant.

What did I miss? 

I felt like Dilla deserved a big old book, and I’m glad that his friends and his family — members of his family, extended family — trusted me enough to be able to execute that. I also felt like his musical achievements weren’t properly framed and I really wanted to frame them. And then the other thing is, the realization that what J Dilla did in his genius has no legal protection. He can’t just sample anything, right? And we’re still dealing with the repercussions of that. I wanted people to understand that sampling is an art form, and that he was one of the most important paragons of what it is to be an electronic composer working with samples. It’s a legit art form and it needs protection. It needs the protection of a compulsory license, just like publishing and songs have protection. If I write a song and I put it out, I can’t keep you from putting out your own version of my song, because copyright law allows you to do that but I also get paid a certain number of pennies for every copy of the song that you sell. That’s called a compulsory license and it’s worked. It’s worked for songwriting, it’s got to work for masters. It’s got to work to be able to sample things and for the actual people to get paid — not the middle men, not the lawyers, not all these lawsuits.

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