I had my own ode to Dilla somewhat wrapped up and ready to post, but then I got this in my inbox and promptly trashed mine. I think my friend and fellow music lover's assessment of Jay Dee sums it up better than I possibly ever could have. Normal posting will resume shortly, no doubt.
Thanks for reading
Jay Dee, a fan’s memoir
By Sam Valenti
Jay Dee died today, for real, he died. While I can’t take the privilege of calling James Yancey a friend, I can say that I’ve met the man.
Dilla was an original, a Detroit original, whose lack of pomp belied his monumental ability. His persona was classic Detroit: a hard-working, humble machinist, whose pride lied in his craft. And with this craft of music making, Dilla displayed an impossible natural gift. As a native son of the haunted city, his was a knowing style, a deadly cool worthy of a Donald Goines novel. He created a new language of production, and in the process invented Detroit Hip-Hop, free from the trappings of marketing or image. In a silent way, he changed music, without having to proclaim its change, as genius moves stealthily.
Trying to explain the importance of Dilla to the uninitiated isn’t an easy task, as there is no one song that summarizes the prodigious talents of the man; nor is there a definitive album that shows the breadth of his abilities. Even his solo albums aren’t proper albums; more like mix tapes chronicling Jay’s moment in time and method. Instead of a hits-centric focus, his appeal lied in the over-arching character of his work, which if needs to be distilled into words, relied on the excitement of a breathless wait; a staggered pause in the music that triggered that great human feeling of uncertainty.
If the best artists make it look easy, Dilla’s repetitious sound and unresolved phrases created the tension that the drum machine has lost it’s internal clock; that HAL has lost its cold reason. The inevitable (and very pleasurable) release is in our understanding, and Jay’s assurance, that the music sounds better for it.
The music of Jay Dee is smooth without the affect of Smooth, it doesn’t believe that any instrument or chord progression defines cool, that it’s instead all in the placement of the notes, or rather, from the oft used Miles quote, what’s between them. His music is a confident hustler that gets there without haste. It never runs. Even in his breakout production, the Pharcyde’s “Runnin”, Jay simulates the momentum of its title out of shuffling his hi-hats beneath a busted Stan Getz sample, using the timing of its placement, as opposed of theatrics or volume, to create its energy. For the Hip-Hop producer people credit with creating the “rushed snare” sound (or the ill placement of the 2 and 4 beats to create an unsteady but syncopated groove), the man never rushes.
Like his music, which you could guess was his personality more than anything he could give you in the flesh, the man himself (gathered from my brief personal experience and what we see in photos) was all Cheshire cat grins and earnest positivity. Luckily for him, as he well knew, it didn’t matter what he said; his beats did the bragging. His career was an increasingly rare and successful example of letting the art do the talking.
I first met Dilla at the local Detroit store, Record Time. I recognized him from a local paper and approached him with my gushing teenage admiration in plain view. It was met with that soon to be iconic big and cool smile, plus his assurance that this fan’s zeal, and the growing accolades of other outward followers, helped to fuel his work. I would soon see Dilla again trying out samplers at Guitar Center. Then again as a freshman in college, watching him open with Slum Village for a band in Ann Arbor. Each time, that same smile, that comfortable pound/hug. The shy genius assured me (nobody) that it was “all good.” Dilla, in the delusional minds of his growing local fan public, was definitely one of us. A Southeast Michigan basement dreamer, immersed in the same music nerd stuff we were. The only difference was that he was a genius, cut from the cloth of rare and great music royalty before him. His too-short life, even without the illustration of any personal details, resembles those of legendary but uncelebrated jazzmen. An ever-moving quiet fire, free of bluff and bluster, but when engaged with his instrument, a force of nature.
My accidental stalking of Jay Dee started after being given a tape by legendary Detroit DJ and Dilla associate, House Shoes, almost ten years ago. Xeroxed by the band and muddy-imaged was “Slum Village” and “Fantastic” alongside a non-descript photo. Its sensibility was Don’t Give a Fuck; its rhythms, as loping as a broken dog’s gait. The rhymes sat back on the beats, the subject was local fare: girls, parties, smoke, rap. But this tape was different as the story always goes. Arguably as original as any debut, Wu-Tang, Nas and the others included, as the music suggested a new approach to Hip-Hop, but like Dilla himself, its laid-back genius does not command respect, it quietly apprehends you like a calm phenomenon.
The vitality of the album, or the level of insouciance in both rhythm and lyrical content, superseded any perceived lack of production value. The drum machine’s count-off clicks (which a producer can easily turn on or off) that open the tape are the telling sign that everything wrong with the tape was indeed intentional, that you are in a master’s hands.
I didn’t know the role that this music would play in my life. I didn’t know at the time that that this man had already soundtracked my summer as a 15 year old 2 years prior, with a great nostalgic single under the moniker “1st Down”. And I also didn’t know then that a few years later, that tape would still be playing in my first college apartment. My girlfriend that summer would insist that any making out would be to a solid rotation of the Slum Village album. In fact, I knew there would generally be no movement unless Jay Dee was setting the tone. It’s enough to give any young man a complex. I consented, and the music would be etched in my brain forever.
5 years later, and after many more successful productions and collaborations for one J Dilla, we met again, but for real this time. After a journalist friend (an even more vocal Dilla devotee than myself) had chosen to interview Jay for a car magazine, he returned with a cassette tape of the session. On it, he had asked if he was aware of an artist named Dabrye on my label, whose record had recently come out and beared nuances inspired by Dilla’s perfectly flawed sense of timing. On the tape Dilla pauses, you can hear him ruminate. I remember listening, my heart pounding. Then you can almost see that smile through the speaker, his off-record vocal trademark “yyyeeeaaahhh” (low and raising in octave, not Lil Jon’s high pitched gravel pit) lets me know that he knows this record, and better yet, he likes it. The results of this finding would later find Dabrye and myself at Dilla’s basement studio, playing our host and one of his MC partners-in-crime, Phat Kat, a CD of Tadd’s beats. This began what would be a collaboration between the three musicians and a high point of my musical memories to date. For Tadd, to be validated and encouraged by a musical hero created an undeniable feeling of arrival.
And inside the laboratory, Dilla was just who he was in the record store, and at the instrument shop, and at the concert. There was no mythmaking, no shadows thrown. Just one musician embracing another, a furthering of their respective paths. Jay was too busy making music to mythologize himself, so busy that he would soon after suffer kidney failure as a result of not looking after his diet in the throws of his life’s work. An artist cast from the great (Mid-) Western mold, created too devoted to even take care of himself.
No music fan I know ever spent time speculating the secret life and history of Jay Dee. His health became the only gossip, and even in that period, bad behavior or decadent living on Jay’s part wasn’t assumed. The tone was more of concern than of curtain pulling. His mythology was unintentional by all accounts. His beats exuded all the charm and life that was in him, but other than those rare and precious documents, he wasn’t there. Even his inclusion in the famed A Tribe Called Quest production unit, The Ummah, was uncertain in some circles. So he laid low in the press (I’m not sure if by choice) even after famed collaborations with artists like D’Angelo and a Gold record for Common. In an era of music journalism where the back-story was becoming the only story, even amongst Jay’s Detroit brethren (“are they or are they not brother and sister?”), Jay’s beats were the story.
Jay Dee eschewed the image of the Hip-Hop Super Producer, and in doing that, he allowed himself the ability to make music that pushed convention without commercial fear. His music challenged fans in a silent way, with coded rhythmic intricacy and as Hip-Hop free of unnecessary decoration and adornment.
A travesty perhaps less noticeable as his underappreciaton as a popular beatsmith, was his dismissal as an MC, both in the eyes of critics and rap fans. Because Jay’s name was associated with the growing independent Hip-Hop scene (home to artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli), he was expected to deliver a verbal message. Dilla didn’t. His message was the joy of making music, free of acting career and fan club, and his rhymes had the same devil-may-care attitude of his beats. In there is the sensibility of a Hip-Hop that had been lost amongst the poles of Puffy’s base materialism and the growing legion of overreaching thesaurus MC’s. Jay’s Hip-Hop was pure regional attitude and charm without the veneer of a premeditated throwback. It seemed that Jay was not a conscious revisionist of a bygone era, but an artist who understood that the innate joy of rap lies not in the overt message or story, but in its cool bravado; its quiet danger.
The same can be said for his beats. In interviews he posed a playful challenge for sample trainspotters and rival producers: Catch Me If You Can. And while most producers trying to throw others off the scent would just dig deeper in the crates, Jay reveled in digging right from the surface and dislocating popular fragments in a way that was never imagined before, even replaying them on live instruments. In an era where the sampler was starting to lose out to the synthesizer as the tool of choice, he breathed life into the key functional element of the culture.
Steadily climbing into national underground consciousness and getting shouted out by Pharrell on BET, Dilla was looking poised for his moment. The concerned chatter continued. Is he dead? Is he dying? Dilla re-emerged, noticeably heavier, on the cover of URB magazine and now had a similarly minded partner-in-crime, Madlib, whose sample-heavy style rivaled Dilla’s for smoked-out energy, but whose character and charm were markedly different. Jay broke the silence of his illness in his usual open fashion. Over a year later, photos circulated on the web of Dilla in concert, performing from the confines a wheelchair. These weren’t publicity stunts; they were, as we now know, the last images of an artist putting it all out there, regardless of his health, and free of a tough guy’s fear of perceived weakness. A classic Hip-Hop custom he apparently didn’t inherit. The confidence is astounding.
It is sadly fitting that the unintentionally shadowy character that is Jay Dee leaves us just as he was poised to break, and just as Detroit as a city isn’t serving for once as the punch line of a Nation’s collective joke. Slipping out of the light, Jay seems to have exited as quietly and coolly as he came onto the scene. But the news of his passing wasn’t quiet; it was a wildfire of grieving on message boards that far exceeded Jay’s level of public notoriety. We had lost a modern musical legend, well before his time to be celebrated as one. Everyone asked if it was true.
As it stands, there will be no breakthrough platinum record, no Source cover, no Late Night With Conan O’Brien. The Quiet Revolution Will Not Be…
The height of Jay Dee’s popular success is fixed, even if his underground legend spikes. This is the sad truth, unless of course his family steps in to shop his vault of beats, following in the posthumous model of other fallen legends. Perhaps a now-aware Jay-Z will pick up a batch of Jay’s tracks to help launch a new artist on Def Jam. There’s still the chance that one or more remaining Dilla beats finds its way into the light. Perhaps James Yancey will be better known in death than in life.
Whether or not this happens, there will always be the spectre of Jay Dee. The spirit of him. A vestige of that most loveable but unloved character, the quiet musician. All cool passion and silent belief, quietly burning on the inside. The music of this man, wistful and rattling like the city itself, will still be haunting Detroit, the Midwest, and the World like a fractured memory, persisting through time like an unfinished but perfect promise.
Genius moves stealthily. Watch for it.