On this day in Hip Hop history we recognize and remember the birth of one of the most prolific producers in the game. James Yancey, better know as J Dilla, was born today [February 7] in 1974.
J Dilla was the first born of four children to a Detroit family rooted in creativity. His mother was an opera singer and his father a jazz bassist. According to his mother, Dilla could “match pitch perfect harmony” at two months old. Dilla started collecting vinyls at the young age of two and would spend a lot of his free time spinning records at the park. It can be said that J Dilla’s “career” began after he transferred high schools from Davis Aerospace Technical High School to Detroit Pershing High School. At Detroit Pershing, he met fellow members of Slum Village, T3 and Baatin. During the rest of his teenage years, Dilla spent the majority of his time alone in his basement perfecting his craft.
In 1992, J Dilla met experienced Detroit musician Amp Fiddler who let Dilla use his MPC for the first time. In 1995, J Dilla and MC Phat Kat formed the first rap group from Detroit to get signed to a major label, 1st Down. The record deal with Payday Records ended after one single when the label folded.
In 1996, Dilla officially formed Slum Village with his longtime friends T3 and Baatin and recorded their debut, Fan-Tas-Tic Volume 1. The album, released in 1997, gained a lot of support from Hip Hop fans everywhere and the attention of Q-Tip, who was quick to call the group a successor of A Tribe Called Quest.
Throughout the 90s, J Dilla was known as a huge prospect in Hip Hop. He gained the public’s attention with his singles and remixes of records by Janet Jackson, Pharcyde, De La Soul and Busta Rhymes. Although Dilla rose to stardom with these remixes, he was rarely given singular credit. Instead the production team of The Ummah, a collective including Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, and Raphael Saadiq, often received the credit.
During his career, Dilla produced some of the most known songs in Hip Hop. In honor of his born day, here are seven of our favorite projects from the late, great beat maker.
#1 2PAc – Do For Love
This was 2Pac‘s second posthumous single release dropping February 24th, 1998. The single featured singer Eric Williams and was coupled by an animated video was directed by Bill Parker. Dilla sampled Bobby Caldwells‘s What You Won’t Do For Love. The song went gold selling 500,000 copies by March of 1998.
#2 Common – The Light
The Light is the Grammy nominated second single of of Common’s most prolific project, Like Water For Chocolate. This track features a Bobby Caldwell’s Open Your Eyes and contains live piano played by James Poyser. This song peaked at #44 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song is a narrative about Common’s love for his girlfriend at the time (and next artist on our list), Erykah Badu.
#3 Erykah Badu- Didn’t Cha Know
Didn’t Cha Know was the second single from Erykah Badu’s album Mama’s Gun. This song was nominated for Best R&B Song at the 2001 Grammy’s. It featured a sample from Tarika Blue‘s song Dreamflower (without prior permission). It peaked at #28 on the R&B/Hip Hop Chart. J Dilla and Erykah Badu were members of the Hip Hip collective Soulquarians.
#4 Raekwon – Ason Jones
This song was a heartfelt tribute to the late ODB of Wu-Tang Clan born Ason Jones. This track was on the album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II which peaked at #4 on the Billboard 200 chart and #2 on the Top Rap Albums chart.
#5 Pharcyde – Runnin’
Runnin’ was the first single released from the Pharcyde album Labcabincalifornia in 1995. This song peaked at #55 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #35 on the US Rap charts. The track samples jazz artist Stan Getz‘s Saudade Vem Correndo. It is one of the groups most known tracks after Passin’ Me By.
#6 Joey Badass – Snakes
More recently, New York emcee Joey Bada$$ re-purposed an old J Dilla cut for a new generation. Snakes is a smooth and soulful track from Bada$$’s debut mixtape 1999. Featuring smooth vocals from T’nah Apex this track was the beginning of a boom bap revival in the 2010s.
#7 J Dilla – Donuts
Last but not least is J Dilla’s prolific Donuts album. This was J Dilla’s last project to release during his life coming three days before his passing. This instrumental project is one of the greatest pieces of work from that era of Hip Hop. The sample cuts and drum patterns perfectly summarized his greatness and the mark he left on rap music as a whole.
J Dilla passed on February 10th, 2006 three days after his 32nd birthday from cardiac arrest. He passed awy in hi home in Los Angeles. He had been suffering from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura which is a rare blood disease. During his last few days he was subject to living life in a wheelchair.
Today we remember one of the greatest producers in the history of rap, take some time out (before the Super Bowl of course) to listen to some of the most important tracks in Hip Hop history.