Uncovering the myths and methods of J Dilla

By in Features





Raj Chaudhuri speaks to Dan Charnas about his hip-hop opus.

Dilla Time: The Life And Afterlife of the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm. Quite a mouthful for a book title. Quite the bold statement, too.

Written by Dan Charnas – a pioneer of hip-hop journalism, and now an associate professor at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University – the book encompasses hundreds of hours of interviews with nearly 200 people, documenting the visionary life and innovations of one James Dewitt Yancey, aka J Dilla.

“Black artists do not get this sort of treatment, and hip-hop artists especially don’t get this sort of treatment,” explains Charnas of the book. “We get personality-driven biographies of hip-hop artists, but they are not deeply reported or researched.”

Dilla Time, then, driven by Charnas’ comprehensive approach to getting to the crux of what made Dilla the man and artist he was, aims to set a new precedent.

The book unpicks myths, lays bare conflicts, and even sets out to identify (with some success) the origin of the Detroit beatmaker’s singular time-twisting approach to rhythm.

Read on for an excerpt of our conversation, or listen to the full unabridged interview using the player below.

Raj Chaudhuri: How many years in the making has this book been?

Dan Charnas: Around four years, maybe a little more. All these people were talking about how Dilla’s genius is located in the fact that he didn’t quantize. And I was like, “Y’all don’t understand.”

I’d been teaching a concept in my pop music course, which frames 150 years in pop culture and makes arguments about why certain people are important. Since 2014, I’d been doing a lecture on Dilla, to help explain what his achievements were. I had always framed it as a clash of straight and swung, and still in 2017 there was nothing. The intention here was to give Dilla a dignified discussion with a certain amount of gravitas.

RC: Were the people you approached for interviews very forthcoming, or were they more guarded?

DC: Both. There were people who were eager to speak, and people who didn’t want to speak at all. It took a long time to earn the trust of certain people.

Originally, Joylette Hunter — the mother of James’ youngest daughter — didn’t want to speak. But in between that time, I interviewed another friend of hers, who said that she should talk to me. I guess she heard from a number of people that I wasn’t on some bullshit, and she ended up talking to me. We spoke for around six hours the first time. So much of what she had been holding in over the years spilled out, and I really honour that.

A similar situation happened with a few others too. I think it was therapeutic for a lot of people to tell their stories.

RC: Can you tell us about the D’Angelo interview you did for the book?

DC: I was very fortunate. It’s really something to be sitting in your mother-in-law’s house in Detroit and get that call. D’Angelo talked for two hours just about J Dilla – about his friendship with him, about musical moments, what he saw in him. I hope I recorded that faithfully.

RC: You touched on it in the book, when Dilla gets the Voodoo vinyl, turns to DJ Houseshoes and says, “Where’s my name?” J Dilla was without question a big influence on the album’s sound. What was D’Angelo’s take on that?

DC: I didn’t challenge him on that particular part, because I really wanted to let him talk. James’ reaction is James’ reaction, and D’Angelo wasn’t a party to that. I did ask why Dilla’s work didn’t end up on the album, and D’Angelo said that there just wasn’t time, they had to finish it. D’Angelo moves at his own pace. You can’t ask him to be a different person, because then the work would be different.

RC: Do you know which Dilla beats were contenders for the album?

DC: Yeah, the beat that’s called ‘Marvine’ that floats around on YouTube.

RC: Were any vocals laid down to ‘Marvine’?

DC: Not according to D’Angelo. But it’s my dream to have him finish that track.

RC: One of the most revelatory parts of the book is when you track down what might be the exact moment that spawned Dilla’s signature sound…

DC: In a Swedish interview with J Dilla on the P3 Soul channel, Dilla mentions that he doesn’t know where he got this “loud or offbeat time sense” and then he mentions very briefly The Staple Singers’ ‘A Piece of the Action’. And I thought, “Huh… there is no song called ‘A Piece of the Action’ by The Staple Singers, it’s actually by Mavis Staples and it’s the theme song to a film called A Piece of the Action, which is the third in a trilogy of movies by Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby.

I listened to this song and it just sounds like a regular old funk song, it doesn’t sound like anything loud or offbeat. Then one summer I was in Detroit and I had some time, so I decided to watch the movie. The theme song plays out at the beginning and it sounds like a regular song. Then the song comes on at the end. This time, they’ve added the sound of claps in this party scene – but they’re not recording those claps, it’s being added after in some Hollywood sound studio. And the claps are wildly coming in and out of sync with the beat. It sounds just like D’Angelo’s Voodoo.

RC: Your book dispels a lot of myths about Dilla making Donuts on his deathbed. But I’d read so many articles that said that he did! It’s such a beautiful, romantic version.

DC: I have learned a lot about human behaviour, and a little bit more about James too. James didn’t speak much because he had a stutter, and people who stutter often become quite careful and sparing with their speech. And for James that also cultivated a pattern of listening rather than talking. When somebody doesn’t speak much, they develop this aura, this energy about them, and people tend to project what they want onto that person.

One of the most famous – and insidious – projections about JD is that he was humble. He was quiet, but he was not humble. He was pissed! He was pissed at people trying to outdo him on the beat, pissed at people not giving him his credit, pissed at people not giving him his money, pissed at people asking him for shit.

RC: You met Dilla in ’99, and now you’ve produced this huge body of work. What was your read of him back then, and how does it stand after speaking with around 200 people to learn what they thought of him?

DC: James was a listener, and I’m a talker by nature. So when a listener meets a talker they enter a symbiotic circle. So we’re sitting down, and I’m just talking talking talking, and James just sits there laughing and nodding. I brought my camera to Detroit, but I didn’t even bring it to the studio, because I had no idea of the history. I wanted to bring it to the Motown museum, but I didn’t realise there was some other music history going on that I was witness to.

When you start reporting something like this, and you are listening to all these people, first you have to get past the wave of grief and obvious love. People don’t want to say things that are negative about dead people. But the more you talk and listen, it was sometimes an ordeal for James’ friends and family to be with him. He could be impatient, he could be cruel at times. But the overriding emotion was love and care. And I think James had a lot of love in him, but he had an artistic temperament, and was so focused on his art. He had to defend his psychic space, otherwise we wouldn’t have this body of work.

Frank (from Frank N Dank) says, “James knew he was the product.” He knew he was the product, not the beat. James’ temper was often because he had to defend himself in many ways. One of the ways he had to defend himself, and couldn’t be the good guy, is that he wouldn’t let anybody help him. He never trusted anyone to manage him fully. That led to a lot of problems, and all of the estate stuff you see after he died is a result of his lack of trust and denial. He left his family half a million dollars in debt.

RC: What the book does well, and it must be quite hard, is present opposing views on the same thing. The baby mum’s opinion versus the mum’s opinion, or the estate versus the foundation’s opinion. Was that a difficult thing to balance? I think you do a good job of making a footnote when you didn’t quite know what the truth was, and allowing people to make their own judgement.

DC: It was the most difficult thing about writing and reporting the book, by far. I think there are people who believe one side or another, when there are two sides to a story. But I hope people see this whole enterprise is about love and truth, it’s not about taking sides. This is about a man who needs his story told. This is a genius in his own right. It’s also about a group of people who deserve to have their story told – all the DJs and people who worked with him.

That’s the whole reason for the endeavour. I call it: the donut and the grid. The donut represents this mystical side to JD – the myth, the guy who’s working in his hospital bed, he’s such an artist that he’s working until the very last moment. The donut becomes the halo in a lot of Dilla iconography.

We are invested in his story. That investment in his story is spurred on by these very evocative musical moments that juxtapose sweetness and melancholy. A Dilla beat is often very bittersweet. There’s always a little bit of dissonance. All of that is the spiritual, mystical side to Dilla.

But there’s another side to Dilla that gets lost, and almost trampled – and that’s represented by the grid: the scientific, analytical, intentional side of Dilla. He changed the way musicians played, not just programmers. And that’s important. There were a bunch of techniques that went beyond him not quantizing. He was a man, not a god, and that’s important. He was from Detroit, and that’s important. The book is an attempt to get beyond the religiosity of Dilla.

Now that this book belongs to the world, it’s a real window into human behaviour for me. There are people who read right past all that stuff. They read this book, and talk about it as if there was nothing about this man and his deeds and his troubles as a human becoming an adult. Or they whisper about the estate stuff. It’s funny to me, but somewhat tragic.

Because he’s a cypher we just project onto him what we want. And there are people who are still talking about how he made Donuts in the hospital, because the myth is so powerful. But it’s really important that we talk about Dilla the scientist, Dilla the programmer too.

RC: There’s a great Matrix analogy in it…

DC: He was Neo!

RC: But he’s also the nerd in the background coding!

Photography: Brian B+