De La Soul on How J Dilla Invented The Modern Beat Tape

In an exclusive interview, De La Soul discuss why J Dilla beat tapes were treated as the holy grail amongst his peers and contemporaries, how they pulled off a heist to secure the instrumental for "Stakes is High" from Q-Tip, and whether we'll ever hear an official album from the group exclusively featuring beats by the late producer.

It may seem inconceivable at the current state of his influence and its study, but there was a point when J Dilla was truly — almost categorically — an enigma to even hip-hop's most tapped-in boundary-pushers. Across the various ensembles built around him or with his association, the Detroit producer was best known by an inner circle kept as tidy as his studio space. As his work trickled out of the Midwest and into the hands of artists he studied, the collective expanded and contracted accordingly. But even among his most prestigious collaborators, few were fortunate enough to enter that space in his mother's impeccably kept Conant Gardens basement, and witness the man and his machines in concert.

As one of the handful of Dilla's peers to peak behind the curtain, De La Soul, the Long Island rap group who welcomed one of Dilla's earliest major placements on their fourth studio album Stakes is High, has been an invaluable source for both dispelling and substantiating speculation surrounding the producer's resumé. They also happen to be among the first non-Detroit ears to take in the mythical Slum Village demo that almost instantly evangelized an entire generation of hip-hop heavyweights. Many have either heard the story or of it. But The Plugs played a pivotal role in the initial push to get the producer heard beyond the walls of the Lollapalooza tour bus that hosted the fateful introduction of Q-Tip, and a young, bright-eyed and grinning Dilla (then known as Jay Dee).

For this year's Dilla Day festivities, we caught up with Maseo and Posdnuos of the venerable trio to discuss their respective relationships with the producer, why they had to pull off one of rap's quietest heists to secure the instrumental for "Stakes is High," how the producer unintentionally invented the modern beat tape, and why every day is Dilla Day.

Can you confirm or deny the details of the story Q-Tip tells about Dave being the first member of the group to hear the Slum Village demo he received from Dilla? 

Posdnuos: From what I recall it's definitely accurate. Dave was saying to me, "Yo, it's this dude Tip is playing me." Tip was always the person where, even from stuff he would make, it would be the most amazing work and he would almost annoy you, asking you, "Do you think it's dope?" And it's like, "Ni**a, you got the same ears as me. Of course, it's dope." So yeah, I know how Tip could be trying to see what they think of the fact that this shit of course is amazing. And yeah, by the time we heard it, the proof was there.

This Slum Village demo and all the other shit they were doing, it was just absolutely refreshing. And it's funny to say because it wasn't like music was bad or that something needed to be refreshed. It was just something I'd never heard done like this. Feels like these dudes is rhyming through headphones, but it's still the dopest shit I've ever heard. I'm like, "God damn, this so-called demo knocks out anything else I've heard."

It sounds like Q-Tip was pretty quick to begin evangelizing Dilla among his peers. Did you guys feel like you needed to get the word out there as well, or were you more guarded about the tape? 

Maseo: Well, when cats first had it, I couldn't get it. Everybody was holding that shit like it was vibranium. It was like, "What the fuck? I can't get a copy?" And then it really broke my heart when I was riding in the car with my cousin, and found out he got a copy before I did. I'm like, "How'd you get this?" And obviously he got it from Phife. They had got really close. So it was almost like you had to have it. It was what was going around. And the minute you heard it was like, "I got to have this shit." It was almost a modern-day version of getting a Cold Crush tape. This was that shit.

So, clearly everyone was pretty protective.

Maseo: It was like the holy grail for that summer. It was '93. We was all on tour. It was us, Tribe, Souls of Mischief, and The Alkoholiks. And that was the discovery.

Do you recall how the Slum demo started making the rounds? 

Posdnuos: No, because it was kind of like Tip was holding out. So if you got it, it was around Tip. But then as Mace said, next thing you know — wait a minute, someone else got it. I don't even remember how I got it if I'm being honest. I could've even stole it from Q-Tip.

Maceo: I remember you having it and not giving it up. And I was hot with that shit.

Pos: It's funny how Mace is saying it now, but it really was like, "Yo, how did someone get the stems of this Isaac Hayes record?" And it's kind of like, "Just shut up. I'm going to give it to you, but just shut up and be quiet." That's how this Slum Village tape was because you realized, well, this is not out yet. So it's almost like, "Yo, you're being trusted to hold onto someone's album that isn't out." And it was like, "Well, I don't want to be the one it comes back to that I gave it to Mace. Mace gave it to Bobby. Bobby gave it to Bryan." You know what I'm saying?

Was it the unfinished nature of the tape or just the exclusivity of it that kept you so guarded? 

Posdnuos: It's the nature of the tape. But also, without question, it's the nature of having some shit no one else got. It was worth saying I got it and you don't. Honest, it's the nature of that. You got this new new shit that for some reason every time you play it for someone, it upsets them and they're wondering who got this drug? That's how dope it was.

De La Soul outside The Apollo Theatre. Photo by David Corio for Redferns via Getty Images.

You can tell in his early tapes he had definitely studied the group. What was his demeanor like with you in the studio? 

Maseo: Well, Dilla is the studio. You walk into a session with him and a lot of times he's really quiet. He's just playing shit or he's creating some shit. There was an admiration for us. So, it was like he always had a plethora of shit. He was always eager to play us something.

I guess we were definitely an inspiration to him. He would light up like a little brother. And he didn't turn that light on for too many people.

Posdnuos: Once he was behind the curtain, he knew what it was. He knew it wasn't just like, "Oh, Prince Paul produced." He knew that Maceo produced in De La Soul. He knew Dave produced "Oodles of Os." Pos did "Saturday." He would have those quick conversations with me. He'd say, "I'm glad I'm making beats, but why aren't you all making your beats?" And then sometimes it would feel like he would almost pull back if he thought he was letting me see too much.

I could be wrong, but I always felt like Jay was really impressed by what we would do creatively with his music. Because he could be really hands-on. When I would see him working with Common they'd work really closely figuring things out. But he would always just give it to us and couldn't wait to hear what we did with what he gave us.

I mean, you were polished and arguably already three classics deep. Sounds like he really trusted your artistic judgment and didn't have to worry about where you were gonna take it. 

Maseo: Well, we had Prince Paul. So there was somebody there to help us polish what we were trying to do. We didn't really touch a real studio until we got with Paul. The whole introduction and navigation of the studio and learning things beyond the scope of a four-track were attributed to him. For Dilla, that was Amp Fiddler, and he taught him a lot. But Amp Fiddler was not hip-hop. So he pointed Dilla in the direction of us and Tribe, something familiar he heard in Slum V. Amp is the one who knew when to let him go and made that connection for us all.

Did any of you get particularly close with Dilla? 

Maseo: Yeah, we all had a relationship with him to some degree. But I had the opportunity to go to his crib a few times and that was a great place to be and experience him. This is in Detroit, in his own world. There was one good night I had with him and Frank N Dank. We touched on some touchy subjects. But when we got to the house, we're drinking, smoking, and listening to beats. He's creating something on the spot.

Dilla was that guy, man. A beautiful soul, but quirky at the same time. Humble, soft-spoken, but also quick to be like, "Yo, you want to go to the strip club?" I mean he was a real deep Detroit cat. You know what I mean?

Posdnuos: I never got to be around him to the point where it's kind of like, "Oh, that's not Pos. That's just Merce." But it was just really inspirational because, like Mace said — he's the studio. When he would send music he'd call me on my answering machine. I got to find it in some drawers, but I have pretty much every voice message he left. He'd be like, "All right. It's time. What up though?" And then he sends it in a FedEx and it'd just be a CD filled with fucking magic. It's ridiculous how he could put it together so quickly.

What was it like knowing a new batch was on the way?

Posdnuos: I will say this, and I don't see how anyone could debate it. Jay Dee was the first person to put together a beat CD like an album. Before, people were just sending you beats. Whether it was in cassette form, CD form — it just comes on, plays for how many minutes, goes off, and then the next one comes on. Jay Dee was making his like collector's items. And even before he started doing that, his tapes were the first time I ever heard the beat come in and then just leave. It would be this dope record but it faded up and maybe would stay up for 25 seconds, and then just fade down. So you had to wind it back to listen to it again. And then when he went to the next level, we got intros — he done cut in Redman's voice over it, throw on "MOP" real quick, go into another record. It was a whole production.

How did you spot the beat for what would become "Stakes is High"?

Maseo: It was on one of his new tapes.

Posdnuos: Well, when it came to "Stakes is High," we had already started working on the album, knew that was going to be the name. And we knew that we wanted a title track. So I looped up some record, I rhymed, and that was the start. But even then I was like, "No, I think this ain't it." And Dave was like, "Yeah, no, the rhyme is cool. The music is dope." But we were like, "Nah, the music itself has to sound like the coming down of God, the Koran, Budda, everything." It just had to sound like the end of days.

So, one day I'm at Q-Tip's crib and he was like, "Yo, I just got a bunch of shit from Dilla. You want to hear?" So he starts playing me every track. And every track that comes on is better than the last. But he will always be like, "Yo, what do you think of it?" I'm like, "Yeah, that's dope." He's like, "Word yeah, I think this is something me and Phife could get on." The next track would come on. "Yo, what do you think of this one?" And he's looking at me. I'm like, "Dog, that's crazy." And he's like, "Word yeah, I was thinking about maybe letting Ali see what he, blah, blah, blah."

When "Stakes is High" came on. When them horns came I'm telling you, three seconds in I said, "I cannot tell Q-Tip this shit is dope." I started picking at it. He went to the next track, started playing it. I said, "That's dope. Can I use your bathroom real quick?" I go in the bathroom, pull out my mobile phone, call Dave and was like, "Yo, it's this fucking track Q-Tip just played for me from Jay Dee. It's 'Stakes is High.' This is what we need." He said, "Word, Merce."

Sounds like you pulled off a heist. But also, that you were a trusted barometer to him. 

Posdnuos: Well, Q-Tip has always been an amazing judge of a beat's character. But at the same time, he'll be the one to say, "Yo Merce, I'm not sure what we're doing man. You heard that new Premier record? That new Snoop, that new Group Home?" And I'll be looking at him like, "Q-Tip, they're the same ones looking at you like, 'Yo, you hear this shit Tribe doing?'" Like ni**a, don't doubt yourself!

Maseo: I think we were definitely used as the barometer up until the point everybody started having success that we didn't have. Once people begin to have a success level you don't have, you're no longer that. But I think we were a barometer for a long time because obviously we came first. We also made some decisions that kind of helped take our career into a certain place business-wise. And we continued to make records our own way.

Was there ever the thought while he was alive — or in the time since he passed — to do a whole album of just Dilla production? Or is Smell the Da.I.S.Y. the closest we'll ever get to that?

Posdnuos: It's not that it'll be the closest. We definitely would love to. When the creative bug hit us to try to do something, we'll get to it. But I mean, his music — it not being a part of any album that we've done since his death — it feels like our next stuff would be incomplete without something from him if we can create something fresh out of it, as opposed to it feeling dated.


Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer