Anti-American Graffiti

Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm by dan charnas. new york: MCD/farrar, straus and giroux. 480 pages. $30.

The cover of Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm

ARTHUR JAFA RELAYS A HAUNTING INTERPRETATION of the griot as someone who cannibalizes the flesh of those whose stories he tells, as a matter of pragmatism, in order to keep those stories alive for the telling in himself. At the end of his life, the griot’s unsolicited efforts at preservation of both self and other are met with the same gesture: he is denied a traditional burial. His carrion is left out in the open air to be consumed by maggots, completing a loop or energy cycle in nature, which can be ruthlessly just and deliberate in its delivery of karmic retribution. James Dewitt Yancey, a hip-hop producer born in Detroit in 1974, and known by his stage name J Dilla, saved his last beat to his MPC—a recording device that allowed him to chop songs into fragments and compose new ones, with new rhythms—the night before taking his last breath in 2006. His final beat sampled the title track from Funkadelic’s 1972 album America Eats Its Young. Dilla had just celebrated his thirty-second birthday. This detail is one of the many poignantly arrayed facts of Dilla’s terrestrial journey that we’re given in Dan Charnas’s Dilla Time, a meticulously researched book that details “the life and afterlife” of the producer, and aims to demonstrate how he shifted the collective time signature by honoring his own inimitable rhythmic sensibility. What we learn tangentially is that the griot story was inflicted on James Yancey. As he ravenously consumed sounds from records—turning those samples into original compositions using soulless machines that he inflected with feeling, asserting “I want people to feel what I feel”—he was consumed too: he was sampled, mimicked, worshipped for his skill, but ultimately left on the radio and records and beat tapes to decompose or be eaten by the maggots who help America eat its young griot heroes.

I first entered Dilla Time on a visit home to Los Angeles from Berkeley, where I was a student. There was something on the living-room TV that caught my attention. My mom was playing an early cut of a documentary called Brasilintime. Since I’d gone away to college she had entered a relationship with jazz drummer Derf Reklaw, who had given her a copy of the DVD, which chronicled a pilgrimage to Brazil made by him and several other musicians as documented by photographer and lifelong hip-hop fan Brian Cross. I pretended to find it a little corny, because who wants their mom hipping them to what they should already know, but when I got back to Berkeley I began to devour some of the music I heard on that documentary. Shortly afterward, J Dilla’s Donuts was released, on Dilla’s thirty-second birthday. The songs had been composed while he was in and out of the hospital battling lupus, and the album possessed an uncanny messenger-like quality, unresolved and infinite at the same time.

Each of its thirty-one tracks was brief and retracted itself as quickly as it was offered, but each morsel was so nourishing you didn’t really notice its rapid dissolution into the next. There was a track for almost each year he had lived, creating an autobiography in sound that allowed us to feel what he felt so intimately that it was like falling in love, a listening experience far beyond infatuation because it offered too much intimacy to be illusory—the kind of caustic tenderness you only uncover when someone lets you into his inner world. My mom’s best friend had had lupus for years and was living with it, and my boyfriend at the time lived with his brother who also had the disease. I had come to see it as a chronic condition that people could endure indefinitely, despite the trials it causes, so when it was announced that Dilla had died three days after Donuts was released it felt like entering into the realm of exception. A casual bias I had carried about survival had been undone just as my relationship to listening was shifting thanks to the man who had undone it. Dilla Time became indelible. People began chanting “J Dilla changed my life,” and they meant what Sun Ra meant when he said: “The first thing to do would be to consider time as officially ended. We work on the other side of time.” Anyone whose taste I trusted mourned or studied Dilla, and Donuts emerged as a scripture for souls who wanted to avenge the time spent on the dull side of time by immersing themselves in the album’s matter-of-fact beauty.

J Dilla in the studio, Detroit, 2002. Brian Cross.
J Dilla in the studio, Detroit, 2002. Brian Cross.

That hagiography can make a whole generation of listeners and griot consumers delusional or silly with lopsided obsession, but in the aftermath of Dilla’s time on the planet, the hero worship that bloomed felt more like a call to rigor and self-mastery. Dilla renewed a whole era’s trust in its ability to sound how it felt to be alive, to sound real and not like someone hoping to get famous off a gimmick. Our collective faith in singular greatness, like that of John Coltrane or Duke Ellington or Miles Davis or Billie Holiday, was renewed by Dilla. Dilla Time, the book, gives us a precise map of the influence we were trying to unravel then, and explains why it felt like mundane time had officially ended for a while. Mistakes were “thrilling to James,” Charnas writes. “They reminded him of messy house parties, and the interminable rehearsals of his childhood, and the discord of musical devotion in the sanctuary of Vernon Chapel, the unity made from the chaos of humans interacting.” Once we had encountered Dilla’s abstract relationship with rhythm that placed us in fractals instead of squares, we didn’t want to go back to oversimplified or too-perfect paces. It became clear that we wanted to travel deeper into what some might call error, as the book does in places, but what we experience as justice.

“IS A FACTORY, IT CAN HURT,” track twenty-six on Donuts, samples and layers with the garish squalls of some phantom machine pressing against the words like a sputtering accordion. The vocal sample comes from a song called “Animosity,” released in 1970 by Fred Weinberg on an album called The Weinberg Method of Non-Synthetic Electronic Rock. Dilla’s hometown of Detroit might have made him hyperconscious of how factories influence human life. We learn that his father, Dewitt, had been an aspiring musician but had to turn to factory work to support the family. Dilla grew up singing in church, dancing, and attentively scrutinizing his father’s studio sessions. He mastered a Detroit dance craze called the Jit, a shortening of the swing-era jitterbug that sent dancers genuflecting to rapid techno beats and pseudo-waltzing around their own shadows.

Detroit techno is a tradition of work songs echoing the soundscape of monotonous but adrenaline-jolting factory labor, and the accompanying dances transmute and demure the gestures of that labor into circuits of pleasure and leisure. Dilla loved to dance, and he loved to be danced for at strip clubs, we learn, often using the libidinal rush after a night out to fuel marathon beatmaking sessions that would last until dawn. Perhaps part of the reason Detroit generates so much great Black music is because of the work ethic instilled there by the ghosts of factories and those who inherit those spirits and aim to revive them with refashioned heartbeats. Machines that make music are used to overcome machines that make alienating or confounding industrial goods. By junior high Dilla had built his own “pause tape” machine, a sampler made of deconstructed tape decks, and he spent most of his time in the basement of his family’s home where he had established dominion and built a makeshift studio. He called his parents, Maureen and Dewitt, by their first names, paving his path to creative freedom through these assertions of domestic autonomy and self-discipline.

Dilla’s methods of chopping and slanting rhythms and defying expectations of any genre emerged as a destiny early in his life, and inspired him to stop going to high school in the middle of his third year to devote himself to making music. Charnas does an admirable job of surrendering to the natural progression of events in Dilla’s come-up from unknown beatmaker to beat deity. He became the decided protégé of Amp Fiddler, who was part of George Clinton’s “extended family of musical misfits.” Fiddler introduced Dilla to Clinton and Q-Tip during the Detroit leg of a joint tour. Dilla’s spiritual and creative kinship with Q-Tip, and Q-Tip’s decision to become an evangelist of his new friend’s style, led directly to Dilla’s sales of beats to the Pharcyde, De La Soul, Q-Tip’s own A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, and many others. Charnas recounts Dilla’s years-long membership in a creative and financial collective with Q-Tip, and how squeamish Dilla was about extracting himself from the group and claiming solo producer credits, feeling indebted since Q-Tip gave him his start.

Dilla was not after face-recognition-type fame, but he did want the lifestyle and financial freedom he felt he had earned. He was generous with his family and enamored with clothes—the wardrobe he accumulated with some of his earnings eventually took up entire rooms in his Detroit home. And he liked nice cars. His outward demeanor was depicted as almost ascetic and monk-like in word-of-mouth lore, but he had will, and sometimes a short temper when that will was tested. He was not so modest that he didn’t expect respect and remuneration commensurate with his gifts.

While the book notes these complexities of Dilla’s character, it tends to gloss over how he was treated by the industry while he was alive, as if the awe people like Questlove and D’Angelo felt in the presence of his talent made up for their inability to acknowledge it at key junctures. On D’Angelo’s 2000 album Voodoo, Questlove played live drums in a style reminiscent of Dilla’s machine drumming. D’Angelo himself explicitly sought a messy and full-bodied sound to upgrade from his “thin”-sounding debut Brown Sugar, and hearkened to Dilla’s sound in effort to achieve it. Voodoo was the first modern album that blew my mind to the extent that I studied it, and nowhere in that study was Dilla mentioned until Dilla Time, where we learn that he himself studied the liner notes and credits sure he’d find his name but only uncovered its blatant absence. This mistreatment by the recording industry is mostly left unexamined by Dilla Time, which has a tacit voice-over quality—the very people responsible for ignoring Dilla are also the ones dictating large swaths of the Dilla story here, and there’s no incentive to cast themselves as neglectful in any way.

TWILIGHT ARRIVES AS DILLA MOVES FROM DETROIT to Los Angeles, where there are better doctors to treat his condition, musicians who love him as much as his Detroit karass, and a better climate. The relocation feels like Dilla’s acting upon the premonition that he would join the angelic realm before too long, a great author preparing the final chapter of his epic.

While Charnas isolates his quickness and ability to compose using samples, along with his ability to program drum machines as if a computer prodigy, Dilla’s poetics are marginalized. The beauty of his sound is swept up in the technicalities of it, and the inspiration toward unadulterated beauty gets shrouded in the trivia and he-said-she-said about the method and business conditions surrounding his work that sometimes treats its fruits as a linear product of completing mechanical tasks rather than a griot poet flexing and training his shining ear for narratives that drift in and out of cryptic rhythmic structures like rumors.

For example, on his Donuts track “Time: The Donut of the Heart,” Dilla samples the phrase “there comes a time” from “Sweet” Charles Sherrell’s “Strangers in the Night” and then swoops in with a void of a loop contained by erotic moans, conveying both the sense that his time is limited and the quickening and decadence that he yearns for within the limits of what is left. He collapses yearning and satiation into one minute and thirty-eight seconds by layering a stern nostalgic vocal with a reeling guitar loop, as if he’s mocking and challenging his own austerity with a child’s mischief, teaching himself to swing between hope and despair or fun and doom. On “Don’t Cry,” sobs, shouts, and laments negate themselves by accelerating into a disaffected groove so that the phrase “I can’t stand to see you cry” goes from empathic to dismissive and back and forth as it shifts tempos and exposes his ambivalence again. “One for Ghost” opens with a child getting punished and yanks the falsetto into submission and repeats as if that same child is taking his power back and turning pain into a lullaby. The word “bad” looms between registers, one loop sounding transgressive, the next sounding like foreshadow to an overbearing circumstance.

Toward the end of Dilla Time we learn extensively about his relationships with collaborators and his final years as they were litigated and recorded and archived and fetishized and contested by different factions of friends, family, and associates, his mother Maureen always emerging as the purest voice. What I want most for the griot whose body of work has been left out to be consumed and is still being sifted through for new material now, is for him to finally and definitively receive his proper name among all the monikers ascribed to him. James Dewitt Yancey is a poet whose blank page was often a drum machine. Dilla Time is not just an approach to rhythm; it’s a shift in meaning-making, a manner of hearing a phrase move in every direction at once and then inventing or calling forth the beat that allows others to gradually begin to hear that dazzling resonance that he decodes immediately. He reinvented syncopation to make the world a little bit less lonely for himself, so that musical soul mates like Q-Tip, Baatin, Frank and Dank, and Madlib weren’t the only people who could feel what he felt and mirror some of it back to him. Music is a language first and Dilla expanded what it’s possible to say with words, notes, and beats, fashioning his own instruments out of LPs and machines to make that possible.

Charnas manages to skillfully prove why J Dilla is so important, and to reveal many of the hidden facets of his personality and his story, its plot. What is still seething and waiting for revelation is the tone between his notes, why he was known as “quiet” and sometimes even “shy,” what he was listening for when people thought he was hesitating or sulking, and why the answer to all of those questions is poetry, as pure as night, as pure as falling asleep to your own requiem that you invent for yourself and with charm and wit, name after the snack you hid under your bed as a child, as Dilla did with Donuts.

It’s hard to witness one of your musical heroes objectified and given the griot-funeral version of a biography, but this work is necessary. Its detail is haunting and sometimes a little petty, but I’m glad it’s on the record because people are a little petty about J Dilla’s legacy. Toward the end of his life, he was said to speak with his eyes closed in lucid litany, more words than he’d ever used on purpose, a soliloquy during which he was, he proclaimed, visited and guided by the then-late rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard, toward his station in the afterlife. The body, the blood, is full of and constantly consuming so many languages that it was naive of us to conflate outward silence with a quiet mind, or to expect that the timing Dilla gifted us was separate from the urgency fate handed him. This book reminds us that it remains Dilla’s time, which is comforting, alarming, and a reason to look back forward with him.

Harmony Holiday’s poetry collection Maafa will be published by Fence Books in April.