Drums, percussion, bass, samples, synths. These are the elements of most hip-hop beats, and no producer was more adept at integrating them and allowing them to melt into each other than J Dilla. His music was preternaturally loose, as if no rhythmic grid truly existed.
J Dilla wasn’t just your favorite producer’s favorite producer, he was also your favorite rapper’s favorite producer. As Busta Rhymes once said, “His ability to EQ and hear the music a certain way — you didn’t really have too much to do but rhyme on the shit.”
But Dilla’s renown and influence aren’t limited to rap, and they have multiplied since he died in 2006 at the young age of 32. Just as he melded rap, soul, jazz, funk and R&B, those genres are deeply indebted to him today, as is evident by the array of artists and musicians that are inspired by his timeless work.
“We gotta make music and we think, ‘If Dilla was alive, would he like this?’ I have to work on behalf of Dilla,” Kanye West told Stone’s Throw in 2013. “When I put a weird-ass Jamaican sample, it works at first but it’s not until I put the [makes discordant musical noise] that it sounds like art or sounds slightly wrong. And now it’ll go to the radio now that it’s wrong, motherfucker. Now play this. Play this five-minute song that completely fucks up your programming. Play this.”
There are no bad Dilla beats, and the task of winnowing down his body of work to 17 of his best beats serves less to say anything definitive about his expansive discography, than to reduce it to something digestible for newer Dilla disciples.
Here are the 17 best J Dilla beats of all time.
The title track that opens Dilla’s 2001 debut album Welcome 2 Detroit is top-tier entrance music. This song is like Michael Jordan coming out to The Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius,” except instead of a PA announcer gassing up His Airness in front of 20,000 screaming fans, it’s just Dilla gassing himself up. “About to set it the fuck off / cleaned my truck off.” Of course, it wouldn’t be great entrance music if the rest of the album wasn’t excellent.
There’s something elegiac and funereal about “Players,” one of many standouts on Slum Village’s masterful Fantastic Vol. 2. Chalk it up to the harmonized vocal coos and handclaps, the plaintive cry that shows up every few bars, and the bass line that feels almost ghost-like, culminating in an elusive but defining presence.
Common’s ode to his then-girlfriend Erykah Badu earned a Grammy nom and turned out to be the closest thing to mainstream recognition that Dilla would receive in his lifetime. It all started when Common got his hands on a beat CD that Dilla had sent to Phife Dawg. “[The beat] wasn’t complete; he had just made it, messing around,” Common recalled. Dilla souped up the drums after Common expressed interest so that there was enough oomph to balance the unbridled, head-over-heels-in-love optimism of the Bobby Caldwell sample.
Q-Tip took Dilla under his wing after Dilla’s mentor, Parliament keyboardist Amp Fiddler, introduced the two in the early ’90s. The meeting led to Dilla co-producing Tip’s 1999 solo album Amplified, which included the standout “Let’s Ride.” Organized around a sample of “Giant Steps” — a famously hard song to tame — Dilla and Tip chopped up Joe Pass’ solo guitar take on the John Coltrane classic so that it aligns with a shuffling breakbeat. The result is an airy and almost whimsical production, the opposite of Coltrane’s original recording. For more Dilla jazz guitar flips, head straight to The Roots’ “Dynamite!”
“Q-Tip played us Jay’s beat tape and we were creaming on ourselves,” Pharcyde rapper Imani remembered. “It was just ten seconds here, twenty seconds there, but the shit was ridiculous. It was like, ‘Yo, we gotta get with this kid.'” Dilla wound up producing several songs on Labcabincalifornia, including “Drop,” which transforms a silky run from jazz harp queen Dorothy Ashby into cosmic taffy, resulting in an endlessly flexible and ever-warping artifact that is grounded by some tuneful humming from the Pharcyde.
J Dilla released Welcome 2 Detroit through the British label Barely Breaking Even (BBE Music). Naturally, he tossed in a Detroit techno homage called “B.B.E. (Big Booty Express),” a song that doesn’t evoke a train chugging along (or a woman dragging a wagon down the sidewalk) so much as a descent into a mad scientist’s lair, where steam valves hiss and chemicals bubble as the scientist works at a fever pitch. A relentless four-on-the-floor kick drum steadies a careening, wobbling bassline, the pairing highlighting what makes “B.B.E. (Big Booty Express)” so great. The track is significant not only because it is very good, but also because it foreshadowed the way he would draw more on electronic elements in years that followed.
It’s too bad Dilla didn’t work with singers more frequently. At least he made “Didn’t Cha Know,” a perfect song that captures the Soulquarian ethos in a nutshell: incorporating woody hip-hop grooves into the R&B, soul, jazz, and funk traditions that stretch back to the ’60s.
Dr. Dre is the godfather of G-funk, but even the high-register Moog melodies he laid on top of Parliament samples don’t hold a candle to the Moog bass lines Dilla laid on top of jazz fusion samples. On “Thelonious,” the bass movements are unpredictable — Family Guy‘s Greased-Up Deaf Guy but in sonic form. By contrast, the two-chord loop — sourced from a George Duke record — just chills in the cut but it never resolves. It could loop for hours, and the song’s sense of tension and anticipation would never dissipate.
The Love Movement doesn’t get a fraction of the love of A Tribe Called Quest’s earlier albums. But no one can deny that its production is luscious as hell. On album centerpiece “Find a Way,” Dilla chefs up an orchestral reverie as a backdrop, while Tip and Phife narrate their respective relationship growing pains. It makes sense that Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and Carlos Nino would later fashion “Find a Way” into a gorgeous 40-something-piece orchestral arrangement.
Karriem Riggins unpacked “Bye.” — one of Dilla’s last dispatches before his death courtesy of Donuts — into a full song with Common and D’Angelo for the 2006 posthumous album The Shining. Like most of Dilla’s beats that wound up as Common collabs, “So Far To Go” radiates sheer warmth, and is by far the most-streamed song on Dilla’s Spotify page. But “Bye.” has a more intricate arrangement, where the pulse is in a constant state of flux and the song begins at the tail end of the sample loop.
Name a more iconic bass line than “Get Dis Money” — you can’t. The song made its first official appearance on the Office Space soundtrack in 1999 and wound up anchoring Fantastic Vol. 2.
“Fantastic Vol. 2 felt like he was on the verge of perfecting something,” Just Blaze said. ‘Sonically, it sounded like he was coming out of that Beats, Rhymes and Life sound and moving forward towards what we have now, what his last couple of years of work were. That album was like the end of one generation of Dilla beats, moving on to the next. The way he was combining the live drumming with the keys and the samples, nobody was doing anything like that at the time.”
From Champion Sound — the 2003 album on which Dilla and Madlib took turns rapping on each other’s beats — “The Red” is maybe the hardest Dilla beat ever, and maybe the hardest beat ever, period. The track is guaranteed to make you throw out your back from involuntary dance spasms or generally vibing too hard. The Madlib “The Red” remix isn’t too shabby, either.
This beat feels like the “Drivers, start your engines!” moment of the Indy 500. It doesn’t carry the bittersweet quality of many of the other beats on Donuts, which Dilla famously assembled by tapping away on his MPC in his hospital bed in the months before he died. Beyond its sounds that connote vehicular speed, “Workinonit” vividly expresses that flow state when your performance levels are peaking — you’re grooving and immersed in the moment, two cups of coffee deep in the late morning.
“Fall In Love” is a good example of how Dilla shapes his beats by layering and filtering samples, and designs them to be looped ad infinitum. That’s why people say he pioneered the thriving “lo-fi hip-hop beats to study to” genre, and “Fall In Love” is a testament to that. The track invites you to marinate in it and listen to it all day, pairing Gap Mangione’s “Diana in the Autumn Wind” with those distinct drums that became integral to Dilla’s sound.
“Stakes is High” is proof that J Dilla beats are worth their weight in gold. “You’d have to Jedi mind trick Q-Tip in order for him not to take a beat from you,” Questlove told Wax Poetics. “Tip was playing Jay Dee’s beat tape for Pos, and when ‘Stakes Is High’ came on, Pos felt like he had won the million-dollar lottery, but knowing Q-Tip the way he knew him, he had to play it off, like, ‘Yeah, it’s alright.’ He instantly knew that he wanted that beat, but he was like, ‘Play the next one.’ He then went into the next room and got on the phone with Dave and freaked out, but all day long he had to make Tip think the beat was corny so that Q-Tip wouldn’t want it.”
Of all of Robert Glasper’s many, many J Dilla covers, “Stakes is High” might be his best.
Is it dusty in here? “Last Donut of the Night” is a sign-off and final gesture — the penultimate track on Donuts. (The final track is “Welcome to the Show,” which signals a kind of rebirth.) It’s hard to divorce this song from the mental image of Dilla in the hospital and his health declining. At the same time, “Last Donut” seems to carry an emotional heft that can be applied to happy and sad moments, and everything in between. Shit is just brimming with humanity.
Dilla was 22 when he supplied the Pharcyde with the beat for “Runnin,” a song about not letting bullies damage your spirit. “I don’t sweat it, I let the bullshit blow in the breeze / In other words, just debris,” Slim Kid Tre’s raps. That sentiment pretty much sums up J Dilla’s entire aesthetic. He made tactile, immersive music that activated the senses and made the weight of the world a little more bearable.
This story was originally published on July 7th 2020.
Danny Schwartz is a New York-based music writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, and Pitchfork. You can follow him @dschwrtz.
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