How J Dilla's Relationship with the Strip Club Chocolate City Inspired His Creative Process
Those who knew J Dilla best understood how his love for strip clubs — especially Detroit’s now-shuttered Chocolate City — informed his love for making music.
On “One,” the outro track to J Dilla’s debut album Welcome 2 Detroit, the late legendary producer and rapper shouts out a number of people important to his career, from Dave Chappelle to Erykah Badu to *NSYNC. (Rumor has it that the popular ’90s boy band wanted to work with Dilla but he turned them down.) However, there’s a particular name mentioned that’s not in reference to a person, but a place. A strip club to be exact — Chocolate City.
Chocolate City, which would eventually change its name to Erotic City, faced closure in 2016 after its license was revoked for numerous violations including drug deals, indecent exposure, and noise complaints. The club opened up again the following year and stayed open until mid-2018 when the business caught “on fire,” according to its Facebook page. (The page was operational up until mid-2019, when it started to promote a new business called The Horse Detroit.)
Despite its problems, Chocolate City had an interesting relationship with Detroit’s local rap scene. Before being touted as the city’s next breakthrough artist, Sada Baby frequented the club, performing there a number of times throughout 2017. For Dilla, Chocolate City is where he found inspiration. It’s the place he went to before he built a beat, as well as where he returned to once the work was done. Where he took his friends and musical peers — Common, Dwele, Frank N Dank, Karriem Riggins, Phat Kat, Slum Village — to. Chocolate City was just as special to Dilla as his makeshift basement studio: a reminder that he loved going to strip clubs just as much as he loved digging in the crates and chopping up Ahmad Jamal and Stan Getz records behind an MPC.
Welcome 2 Detroit is the first and only time Dilla referenced Chocolate City in his music. But considering how the album is an ode to his birthplace, it’s understandable why he hadn’t referenced it before or after its release. Detroit is a microcosm of the Midwest town, capturing the atmosphere of the city’s east side and the Conant Gardens neighborhood Dilla grew up at. The drunken and soulful strut that defined Dilla’s beats are found throughout Detroit, especially when he’s making subtle nods to the city’s musical history (the Detroit techno influence in “B.B.E.” for example). The numerous guest appearances from some of the city’s best MCs at the time — Beej, Big Tone, Elzhi, Frank N Dank, Phat Kat — and interludes, ranging from a dice game ending in gunfire to a pair of friends listening to Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel like Dancing” as they pull up to the club, added to the album’s immersive experience, offering listeners a taste of Detroit in a way that only Jay Dee could do.
Chocolate City played an important role in the making of Welcome 2 Detroit — even down to the album’s cover art which, according to Dank (of Frank N Dank) in a 2017 interview, was supposed to capture the “energy of going to the strip club every night.”
“Dilla liked to go to the strip club seven days a week. Seriously, it’s not a game. Chocolate City. The energy. We did the Welcome 2 Detroit album in there,” Dank explained in a different interview. “After we left there and had a good time, we would go straight to the studio. He would immediately put his headphones on and ask ‘Yo Frank, Dank, y’all got some shit?’ Then he would take the headphones off and click the sub button to turn the music on. We would be like ‘goddamn’ and bang out to the morning.”
Detroit is home to over 30 strip clubs, and at least nine of those are located on Eight Mile Road (the same Eight Mile Eminem got the title of his box office film 8 Mile from). Similar to Dilla, there were local artists that preceded him that also took inspiration from the city’s strip club culture, creating music that then found itself back in those same clubs.
Ghettotech — the electronic music genre that blended Detroit techno with Miami bass and electro — served as the soundtrack to some of the city’s strip clubs from the mid-’90s to the early ’00s, as strip club DJs like DJ Flex, DJ Hardbody, and DJ Mark G helped break records like DJ Assault’s “Ass N Titties.”
In “‘Straight Up Detroit Shit’: Genre, Authenticity, and Appropriation In Detroit Ghettotech,” a thesis by Gavin Mueller, Assault explained how strip club DJs led to his music being played by radio DJs:
Most radio DJs told me in the beginning they weren’t gonna play my records. But in the end they ended up having to play the records because the streets: [what] they played in all the clubs, cabarets, strip clubs [were] my records.
Similar to how ghettotech artists found inspiration in Detroit’s strip clubs, so did Dilla and his friends. Slum Village’s T3 recalled how Dilla and others frequented the many strip clubs Eight Mile offered before Chocolate City opened up in their neighborhood around the early 2000s.
“It was the first titty bar in our hood,” T3 said. “It was owned by guys we knew in the neighborhood so we could go in there and kick it. We had our own VIP section. We could go in there and listen to songs we just made. We really utilized that place.”
Although T3 refers to himself and his peers as outsiders, they were endearingly seen as the “music dudes” by not just Chocolate City’s owners and clientele but the neighborhood. Their love of Chocolate City served as a testament to their duality: soulful artists who also acknowledged and embraced Detroit street culture.
“When you think about Dilla, you think about Slum [Village], it’s urban dudes that are soulful,” T3 said. “So we are still a part of our street culture even though we didn’t do a lot of things a lot of cats did. But we still grew up in the same neighborhoods [dealing with] the same conditions.”
Slum Village represented that in their lyrics. They wanted what some of those cats had: money, women, cars, clothes, homes and jewelry. This, in tandem with Dilla’s production, made for a fascinating pairing. But the group found itself typecast as an extension of the hip-hop being made by A Tribe Called Quest and the Native Tongues movement upon releasing their debut album, Fantastic, Vol. 1, in 1997. Even Q-Tip hailed the group as successors to Tribe at the time, something that Dilla was displeased with.
“It was kinda fucked up [getting that stamp] because people automatically put us in that [Tribe] category. That was actually a category that we didn’t actually wanna be in,” Dilla told XXL in a 2004 interview. “I thought the music came off like that, but we didn’t realize that shit then. I mean, you gotta listen to the lyrics of the shit. Niggas was talking about getting head from bitches. It was like a nigga from Native Tongues never woulda said that shit.”
In that same interview, Dilla speculated that it was his production that led to Slum Village being conflated with their East Coast contemporaries, his smooth and sample-heavy boom-bap beats not out of place alongside the likes of Tribe’s “Bonita Applebum” or De La Soul’s “Breakadawn.”
Still, there’s no denying how pivotal a role Q-Tip played in Dilla’s career, the former introducing the likes of Common, D’Angelo, and The Pharcyde to the producer’s beats. But the beats didn’t fully convey who Dilla was, and when collaborators traveled to Detroit to work with him, the producer made sure that they got a better understanding of him by immersing them in his world. A part of this experience was Chocolate City.
Common has referenced his strip club experiences with Dilla in a couple of songs, most recently on “Rewind That” from his 2014 album Nobody’s Smiling: “Cook up some hot shit, then go to the strip club / Then we made ‘The Light’ and times got brighter.” “The Light” was the second single from Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and was nominated for Best Rap Solo Performance at the 2001 Grammy Awards.
Two years prior to “Rewind That,” Common specifically referenced Chocolate City on Big Sean’s “Story by Common.” The track, which appeared on Sean’s Detroit mixtape, is an interlude where the Chicago rapper reminisced on the times he hung out with Dilla in his hometown. In it, he offered an amusing anecdote about joining Dilla and Frank Nitt at Chocolate City: “I went to the club, and man they had some good chicken wings — man some good, thick girls, and it was right.”
“That was a part of our process sometimes,” Common said of Dilla’s strip club excursions in an interview with 247HH. “You got to let Jay Dee do what he do, and he’ll come back and cook up some of the best of the best.”
Robert Glasper also spoke on how strip clubs were a part of Dilla’s creative process.
“[Dilla] is the first person that they had Bilal work with when he got signed in ’99, and Bilal brought me out to Detroit,” Glasper said during an appearance on Hot 97 where he recalled watching Dilla make the beat for Bilal’s “Reminisce.” “We went to eat, went to a strip club, came back to Dilla’s basement around three or four in the morning, and he made this beat right before our eyes.”
To most, Dilla is remembered as a beatmaking pioneer. He defined and redefined an era of rap and soul music through his unconventional sample selections and experimentation with the MPC, creating a sound and aesthetic that continues to influence producers. But those that knew him best and were able to work with him before his passing, understood how his love for strip clubs — especially Chocolate City — informed his love for making music.
“Dilla just happened to be a soul dude but he still had his Detroit roots, which was known for pimp shit and being flashy,” T3 said before playfully imitating his late friend: “Like, ‘this is why I’m so funky. I’m in the titty bar, that’s why. I’m not just digging for wax all day.'”