March 11, 2008

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Zilla Rocca is such a good rapper that Dilla refused to give him beats.

The last two weeks I’ve spent an abnormal amount of time listening to the late great James Yancey. I have nothing new to add to his technical prowess as an innovator of the beats AND of the flow. He’s been written about graciously and comprehensively since his passing 2 years ago. At this point, all we can do as hip hop fans is hit repeat on “Stakes is High” or “Fuck the Police” and vibe in our cars with the King of the Hand Clap.

What I did notice though after listening to The Shining, Welcome 2 Detroit , Like Water for Chocolate, Amplified, Fantastic Vol. 2 and Jaylib’s Champion Sound was that Jay’s greatest triumph as a producer wasn’t necessarily the off-kilter pacing of his drums nor the seamless blend of phlanged-out samples and spacey Detroit synths. No—Dilla had the gift of making average, ho-hum, nonsensical rappers sound like superstars.People worship at the altar of DJ Premier because not only does he make burger-flippers like Group Home sound dope, but he makes technically GREAT rappers sound UNFUCKWITABLE (hello Nas, Royce, Common, Jay, Big, etc). And they’re right—his tracks have a signature thumping kick drum and harsh snares (that 9th Wonder still can’t mimic) coupled with 2-4 bar chopped up samples that never get in the way of the lyricism. No big drum fills, no crashing cymbals—just supreme head nodding.

He’s the anti-Just Blaze.J Dilla is the anti-Premo, and this is a gift no other producer can touch. J Dilla’s beats don’t work with technical wordsmiths (Common being the biggest exception). There’s too much movement, too much lush instrumentation, too many pockets to catch for an MC like Talib Kweli or Black Thought (sorry) to handle comfortably. Dilla beats require rappers like Frank-N-Dank, T3 and Baatin of Slum Village, Madlib, and Guilty Simpson because…they ain’t really saying nuffin’. The last thing a J Dilla beat needs is some Scribble Jam asshole writing 18 words per bar to fuck up the party.

Premier: Capable of Making Even A Rapper Named Nutcracker Seem Good

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When Q-Tip was a member of A Tribe Called Quest, he was lauded for being smart, funny, introspective, warm, and insightful. Almost NONE of these qualities are on display on his two best songs post-Tribe. “Vivrant Thing” and “Breathe and Stop” offer nothing more than random, sometimes boorish, 2 bar couplets over absolute ass-shaking beats. Even “Let’s Ride” off of the Dilla-assisted Amplified sounds like a bonus cut from the Ruff Draft EP, Dilla’s turning point from the “coffeeshopchicksandwhitedudes” aesthetic to the “turnitupalittlelouderformyrealniggas!” blueprint later found on Champion Sound.

Sure, white people loved ATCQ, and frat parties needed “Vivrant Thing” in 1999. But the Q-Tip that turned in Amplified, a loose record that appears to take though lyricism for an afterthought, and one that doesn’t get as much love as the Queens Brother who wrote “Bonita Applebaum” and “Electric Relaxation.” I doubt the crowd at Rock the Bells wants to hear “Go Hard” or “Wait Up.”

If you’re reading hip hop blogs, you already know that Slum Village ’s Fantastic Vol. 2 is one of the best hip hop albums of all time. Slum perfected the craft of using their voices as instruments WAY before Nelly. At no point during that album did T3, Dilla, or Baatin aspire to win Quotable of the Month, yet the album is classic the way an album by Canibus or Ras Kass is not: it’s ALWAYS fun to listen to. Almost 10 years after its release, I still feel that bassline from “Conant Gardens ” tingling through my spine when the CD begins. I know my eyes will blink from the snares in “Get Dis Money.” And can you imagine any other Okayplayer-approved artist asking a chick “I don’t know why the fuck I’m fucking with you?”Dilla embraced the ignorance, misogyny, and bombast of all the great hip hoppers before him. The subject matter of Welcome 2 Detroit isn’t that much different from a Snoop Dogg album: ladies get naked, don’t fuck with my dudes, we have cannons in our car, our city is fucked up, drugs and alcohol are awesome. The beats of that album, as well as his other solo releases, couldn’t be more different than the tracks picked by rappers Bill O’Reilly blames for destroying the youth. It’s like Dilla took all the musical wisdom from a band geek while beating the shit out of the same geek who wanted to impress the Village Voice. “For real niggas only”indeed.

Ecstasy: It’s a Hell of a Drug

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With this in mind, Dilla’s greatest achievement might be Common’s Like Water for Chocolate. Sure, it’s been fun the past few years cracking on Common, from his acting in Alicia Keys videos to his misguided self-righteousness. But the biggest gripe against Common is that his albums aren’t really that fun anymore. Be and Finding Forever had their moments, but Like Water for Chocolate is Common’s last stop before maturity, exploration, and Starbucks. Blame Badu, ?uestlove, and veganism, but the absence of Dilla has really hurt the last few Common LP’s. Unlike Q-Tip, Common comes correct lyrically throughout LWFC. He bends his flow, plays with his voice, and delivers some pretty ignant-ass lyrics a la Slum Village . 

On “Heat,” he claims to be “deep as a skinny girl’s cunt.” On “A Film Called Pimp” he slaps the shit out of hoes. “Thelonious” has him linking wack MC’s with men who pierce their nipples. “The Light” and “Song for Assata” are precursors of what was to come with the Kanye produced Be and Finding Forever, but dammit, Common was cold in 2000!Of all the technically gifted MC’s Dilla worked with, Common was the only one who actually complied with the direction of the music rather than defy it (Kweli, Thought, Elzhi) or over-emphasize it (Busta) while maintaining his rank as a legitimate threat on the mic. Frank-N-Dank, MED, Guilty Simpson, and crew could never compete on the mic with the legendary wordsmiths listed above. These type of rappers however took full advantage of Dilla’s soundscapes by (to borrow a baseball term) simply not trying to do too much. I never want to hear Frank-N-Dank over an Alchemist beat, nor does MED have any business bumping into DJ Premier in an elevator. But Dilla rubbed off on the MC’s he worked with the way a great coach’s instincts and philosophy consume his players. Instead of commanding attention by lashing out with lyrical excursions, the best MC’s on Dilla beats get INTO the beat, slithering along the bass lines, riding the bongos, and maintaining the charisma and energy of hosting a house party when momma ain’t home. For bonus points, go on iTunes and listen to the overlooked track “Listen” that Dilla did for Heavy D from his last studio album “Heavy.” It sounds like Dilla held a doughnut on a stick, hanging from a string while teaching the Overweight Lover how to flow on some Detroit shit.

The other elite producers in the game don’t demand specific flows for their all of their tracks. Sure, Kanye’s not-really-hot-but-I-deliver-it-like-it’s-astounding style of MCing has rubbed off on Common the last two LP’s for sure. But Common hasn’t become a better MC. Dilla was an actual “producer” in the sense that his fingerprints are left all over any song, album, or artist that he worked with from ’99 until his death. Premo beats just need some good ol’ fashioned rappin to work. Dr. Dre needs some crack/gun talk and closed-jawed sing-song hooks to hit the mark. Just Blaze’s best joints demand adrenaline. But Dilla beats made MC’s shut down the chest-thumping and zero in on the vibes…vibration.

Download:
MP3: De La Soul-“Stakes is High” (prod. by Dilla)
MP3: Slum Village-“Conant Gardens”

MP3: Slum Village-“Get Dis Money”
MP3: Common-“Thelonius”

MP3: Jaylib-“Nowadayz”

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