Illustration of J Dilla

Illustration of J Dilla

Photo Credit: Davor Hikl

J Dilla's Influence & Legacy Lives On in the World of Lo-Fi Hip-Hop

J Dilla's music has been adopted by the lo-fi hip-hop community that sprung up in the late 2010s. Now, fans of the subgenre consider him its godfather.

This article has been handpicked from the Okayplayer editorial archives and included in our Hip Hop 50 collection as a noteworthy inclusion to the genre's rich and diverse narrative. The article has been edited for context to ensure its accuracy and relevance.

J Dilla's legacy as a hip-hop producer and artist continues to be examined. The contributions he made to artists and groups like A Tribe Called Quest, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, and The Roots, as well as countless posthumous releases, have introduced new fans to one of hip-hop's most influential artists.

Contributing to that introduction is the recent rise of lo-fi hip-hop streams. Also called "chill-hop," "jazzy hip-hop," or the more specific "lo-fi hip-hop radio for studying, relaxing, and gaming," lo-fi hip-hop has become a subgenre and subculture. It's a subgenre featuring instrumentals rooted in the melancholy melodies of jazz and boom-bap drums of golden age hip-hop.

Playlists dedicated to lo-fi hip-hop can be found on music streaming services, but YouTube serves as its primary base (with a looped image of an anime scene often being featured). Channels like Chillhop Music, ChilledCow, and Private ChillOut offer 24/7 streams of the subgenre, the subscriber count anywhere from 102,000 to 2,500,000. Through these channels, the aesthetic of lo-fi hip-hop is best experienced. Fans from across the world listen to the tracks and engage with each other in real time, all while a looped image of an animated character writing or working on a laptop is featured.

These streams have served as a gateway to discovering not only lo-fi hip-hop's contemporaries, but the pioneers these artists are influenced by. On Reddit, countless threads have been made trying to explain lo-fi hip-hop's history and those that are considered the pioneers of it. In most — if not all — threads, Dilla is seen as a veteran alongside Madlib and Nujabes, with some even referring to him as a godfather of lo-fi hip-hop.

"[J Dilla] felt that hip-hop should be best experienced the way that he experienced it which was an amount of imperfection, sort of a lo-fi sounding audio experience," Questlove told Wired back in 2014.

Creating sonic nostalgia

In lo-fi hip-hop contemporaries like Knxwledge, bsd.u, and wun two, Dilla's distinct and influential beatmaking techniques are apparent. His humanized drums — a result of avoiding the MPC's quantization option which matches all sounds to a grid's tempo and time signature — was an innovative mistake. In refusing quantization, Dilla created a producing technique that became a common practice among lo-fi hip-hop producers, and is an essential part of the subgenre's sound.

"The whole idea [of lo-fi hip-hop] is sonic nostalgia, but not in an overly aggressive or ironic way like vaporwave or retrowave," Ryan Celsius, the creator of the lo-fi hip-hop YouTube channel Ryan Celsius Sounds, told Genius. "It's usually beat production that can sound undermixed, containing intended or unintended imperfections with a heavy focus on creative sample use and authentic sounding drums kits. It's usually a tape hiss or some analog distortion set against a simple set of drum loops and an incredible sample selection."

Although most lo-fi hip-hop streams on YouTube play more contemporary producers, searching "J Dilla lo-fi hip-hop" will result in countless uploads that show how Dilla's music has reemerged in the lo-fi hip-hop community. Aspiring beatmakers commonly title their videos "J Dilla x lo-fi type beat," and he's also present on multiple fan-curated playlists on music streaming services.

Identifying Dilla's connection to lo-fi hip-hop's sound isn't difficult to do, but his significance to its aesthetic isn't as obvious. The convergence of anime and hip-hop music defines the look of lo-fi hip-hop, but it isn't the first example of the two being brought together. Almost two decades before, Cartoon Network's Adult Swim and Toonami became cultural tastemakers for combining bumpers and commercials — anime and non-anime alike — with music from then-unknown artists and bands.

That same nostalgia that defines lo-fi hip-hop's sound also defines its aesthetic.

"An entire generation of people were influenced by the smooth beats and trippy or relaxing background aesthetic of early 2000's Adult Swim," Celsius told Vice. "[It] created a cross-section of people that enjoyed both anime and wavy hip-hop beats."

"It's interesting how people repurpose a vibe or feeling," Jason DeMarco, Adult Swim's Senior Vice President and Creative Director of On-Air, said. DeMarco, who was introduced to YouTube's lo-fi hip-hop community by his daughter, sees how its aesthetic is reminiscent of Adult Swim and Toonami.

"A lot of people's memories of this music they associate with our commercials," DeMarco said. "We wanted people to feel like they're chilling with us. That even when you're having to watch commercials it's a relaxing and chill experience."

Dilla's legacy lives

Through Adult Swim, artists like Flying Lotus, Dabrye, Oh No, Tycho and others were introduced to a new audience, their music accompanying bumpers for popular anime series like Cowboy Bebop.

Dilla's music also soundtracked numerous Adult Swim bumpers: "Waves" and the "Park" bump; "Welcome to the Show" and the "Owls Only" bump; and "Mash" and the "Traffic 1" bump. Adult Swim even honored him with his very own bumper, fittingly titled the "Top three record producers ever." One of the more memorable bumpers Dilla soundtracked was to promote the return of The Boondocks. In March 2014, Adult Swim announced that the beloved show would be returning for a fourth and final season. Adult Swim also shared a trailer on its YouTube page. The 30-second bump showed a silhouette of Boondocks protagonist Huey Freeman walking while silhouettes of apartments, guns and police cars pop up in the background. The soundtrack? Dilla's "Intro (Alt)."

DeMarco, who is a longtime Dilla fan, has a history with "Intro (Alt)." After being given a copy of Ruff Draft, the EP that the track is on, by Stones Throw Records, he became obsessed with "Intro (Alt)." The song not only served as his alarm for three years but the song he walked down the aisle to when he got married.

"When it came to do The Boondocks that's the song I chose," DeMarco said. "I just thought it'd be cool to have this song set to animation."

The bump is a precursor to the 24/7 lo-fi hip-hop streams on YouTube: Huey walking to the beat of Dilla's punchy drums and droning vocal sample, paying no mind to what's happening around him. Various extended versions of the bump further highlight the serendipity of Dilla's influence on lo-fi hip-hop's aesthetic, the song and the image making for an auditory and visual loop that has the same calming, mesmerizing effect as its lo-fi hip-hop counterparts.

Dilla's legacy lives on through lo-fi hip-hop, introducing younger fans to the late prolific producer and his influential work. The niche subgenre and subculture is arguably something he would've liked: a community of passionate music fans digging through the internet crates and inevitably stumbling upon the man revered as one of lo-fi hip-hop's godfathers.

*This story was originally published on Feb 7, 2019