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There was an old Boondocks strip inserted into a copy of The Source, where Aaron McGruder lampooned Puff Daddy’s necrophiliac greed at attempting to wring every last buck out of Big’s brief catalogue. The apocryphal album title was “Squeezing Life Out of Death,” and it promised answering machine calls, take-out orders, and all audio ephemera scraped together.
It’s a natural impulse that you can’t really fault. Obsessives want to pore over every last scrap in search of future directions abandoned, drum patterns never hit, space-age synthesizers that never blasted. And the executors of his estate and family deserve to reap the windfall of interest.
With 2Pac, you had a thousand cadavers to stitch together, but with Dilla, we have mostly sketches. This is what’s left. A decade after his death and the death industry wants some more. His mother is sick. His children are young. Dilla left behind one of the best catalogues of all-time, got jerked on who knows how much of his publishing, and the demand remains high. I begrudge them nothing.
Besides, I’m as guilty as anyone. When I heard that there was a 41-track Dillatronic compilation coming out, I listened to the stream as soon as it appeared on Pitchfork. There’s almost the feeling of buying a few packs of baseball cards and sifting through though dozens of commons in search of the all-stars. I’ve done enough interviews with Dilla’s peers, mother, and label executives, to know that there are probably a few hundred of these unused beats that not even Charles Hamilton and Jay Electronica couldn’t get his Nepalese imported ivory claws on. Rothschild money can’t buy you every unquantized drum.
One of the best songs and first leak from the tape recycles the beat from Jay Elect’s “Bitches & Drugs.” Admittedly, that was a clear jack of the Jay who needed to be paid, but it’s been floating in the ether for the last eight years. The idea behind this compilation — beyond selling records, tote bags, posters, and bumper stickers of Dilla’s soul — is to offer a concise vision of Dilla’s electronic experiments.
Most of these songs probably come out of the period between getting dropped from RCA and the Donuts era. They’re colder, inspired by Detroit techno and Kraftwerk, the legacy of bizarre radio transmissions from old Motor City telecasts. Roots music for the weird. They have a different feel from his West Coast beats that sound more soulful, steeped in sun-warped psychedelia, closer to the grave. These have a metallic swing, chrome sparkle. The sirens are here, the “Ha” adlibs, the drums as cavernous and echoing as an abandoned city, the flirtations with Middle Eastern sounds that slink like the early 00s. The finale flips a soul sample because that’s what you expect.
These aren’t songs, these are beats. Like of the first posthumous Dilla productions, this too is a rough draft. It’s hard to listen in 2015 and not think its power is slightly diminished due to the countless imitators. How many times have we heard these effects in the last ten years? A generation has grown up studying these sounds, attempting to siphon what made Dilla so unique. But you can only approximate swing, never replicate it. These songs sound uncompleted or passed over. A cut like “Dillatronic 09” has the same feel of Commons’s “E= MC2” but not the same velocity and power.
They would all probably sound better with rappers on them, but aside from Danny Brown, there aren’t many rappers that could do them justice. What made Dilla so brilliant is that he could take entire genres and bend them into his aesthetic. You know that the spirits of Pete Rock, the Belleville Three, and the funkiest Germans are embedded in his DNA, but these are all clearly Dill productions. Kanye just went out and got Daft Punk. Dilla handled it all in-house.
None of these beats will do much to add or detract from his legacy. They’re insignificant in the grand scheme and have mostly been circulating illegally for years. But they’re packaged nicely and the contributions go to a family that deserves it. The hope is that a young producer can hear these for the first time, dig deeper into the classics, and re-emerge with an entirely new sound. If you’re not going to help out his mom, the best way to pay tribute is be as original as the innovator.