One Player's Opinion: Please Stop Putting Your Struggle Bars On J Dilla Beats
We associate the name J Dilla with one thing: Beats. But in evaluating his legacy on what would have been his 42nd birthday, we should also bear this in mind: Bars (bruh). The relationship between MCs and producer is one that’s been with us since the dawn of this whole hip-hop thing. Really, well before that. If one were to acknowledge word and sound as primal forms of expression, the roles of emcee and producer become that much more fundamental to the very fabric of communication. Each carries within it a magnetic pull towards the other, tempting their counterpart with a slick turn of phrase or a ferocious flip of a dusty old record. Together they are a tour de force, capable of inciting real, substantive change in a weird and wild world.
Perhaps the individual to best embody this dynamic between word, sound and world was/is the incomparable, James Dewitt Yancey. His catalogue is one that boasts some of the sampling tradition’s greatest leaps and his drums — their feel, their tone, their swing — have long been a gold standard, attainable by a fine-tuned few, inevitably imitated by those with the tools to do so.
In the time since his passing — 10 years now — there’s been an unfortunate fad within the underground community of wordsmiths, one where a man’s lifework, available in part through copious internet back-alleys, forums and direct-connect services, has been appropriated for the use of aspiring (read: struggling) MCs across the globe, overwhelmingly against the wishes of his estate (though even they too are somewhat guilty of diluting the Dilla legacy, even if it’s with the best of intentions). Amongst that community, conventional wisdom points towards an “if you can grab it, you can use it” protocol; one that directly undermines the intimacy and personality of each of the man’s seemingly endless soundscapes. For Dilla, beatmaking was a double-sided coin. On one face, each beat was a gift, intricately and expertly crafted for whomever he happened to be in-session with at the moment, famously cutting tracks in the time it took to roll a blunt. And on the other end, it was simply what he did. He was a relentless creator with a sonic signature as distinctive and influential as anyone that ever did it, drawing from worldly and domestic sounds alike, punctuating them with kung-fu crack snares and kicks as buoyant as they were deep. His particular connection to sound and word had a universal appeal, but with just enough flare and ferocity to know what you were hearing was his product, made for whomever he had intended.
All of which is to say, that if one were to have some semblance of intention to truly raise it up for the man, that they’d need to leave the struggle bars behind. As a lover of this man’s music, regardless of whether you believe yourself to be the next God MC, the clearest and most profound form of respect you can pay him, is just to let the beat ride. It’s one thing if you knew Jay Dee during his locked-in-the-basement-only-coming-out-to-eat-or-hit-the-strip-club days, and maybe he slipped you a tape back when. But let’s be crystalline: your ease of access does not entitle you to this man’s work or the spoils of such lush, rich and expansive frequencies (and it’s worth noting that those with the greatest access and most reverence for Dilla, the man, have mostly observed this unspoken rule).
If the bond between MC and producer is as holy and inseparable as we’ve long known it to be, then it is incumbent upon this generation of rhyme-sayers to respect this man’s legacy by letting it spit for itself. For my money, since his passing, there has yet to be a single word uttered over one of his creations that has amplified the feel, effect or longevity of those frequencies. So I beg you, O brazen beat busters of the world, leave J Dilla’s work alone. Find one of the copious, more-than-capable producers of our own day to do your damndest with and let his work remain free of your mean sixteen. 10 years after his passing, the illest birthday gift you can give Dilla is to simply accept his gift…and not shoot yours.