It's been six years to the day since hip hop producer J Dilla died, leaving behind both a massive catalog and influential legacy that has inspired Kanye West, Q-Tip and countless other producers. Both his work as a solo artist (Donuts remains one of the best hip hop albums of all time) and for-hire hitman (Busta Rhymes, Common) made Dilla one of the most revered beatmakers among fans and his peers alike. (Many producers have expressed envious frustration trying to decipher how Dilla made certain beats.)
Veteran DJ, producer and friend of Dilla DJ Spinna has released two tribute albums to the producer, 2007’s Dillagence and 2008’s Dilla is the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time), and has long considered the producer a musical inspiration. We got the producer to break down his five favorite Dilla tracks. But if you’re not familiar with Dilla's work, consider this a starting point down the rabbit hole rather than end all, be all.
Also, we've created a Dilla Tribute Playlist on Spotify to honor the producer's vast catalog. Makes great background reading music.
5. Slum Village, "Players"
There's too many dope Slum beats that I love, but this was the first one to make my head spin on first listen. Dilla actually told me what this sample was. When I realized the "singers" were really saying "Claire" instead of "Players," I knew then that we had a special alien producer on this planet. This is more than just a beat; it's a composition meticulously constructed to give you a floating-on-air-like illusion. And how about them drums... "Rapper's Delight"!! Insane! It's moments like these that made you go back to the lab and rethink your entire career.
4. Busta Rhymes, "Still Shining"
Another freaky sample discovery that tripped me out. I say no names, but he killed this rare jazz record. The thing I love so much about this beat is the drum programming. He went crazy with all the various drum patterns and Busta went even crazier by tailoring his rhyme flows to match Dilla's drums, which changed up every two bars for the whole song. Pure genius. I always felt like he gave Busta some of his best work.
3. J Dilla, "Time: The Donut of the Heart"
I can't even express the way I felt when I first heard this beat; It floors me to this day. First of all, the loop is pitched down and time-compressed, so it was already sounding crazy out of the gate. He then had the nerve to slow the beat down, double time, in the middle of nowhere! He was a thinking man. I loved that about Dilla. His approach to flipping joints was so left field.
2. Common, "Thelonius"
I discovered the sample for this beat by accident. One day, I was going through some George Duke records and the part crept up on me like a stick up kid. I almost passed out. The way he heard the moment on the record was so awkward, no one would have ever thought of using it. I also loved the bassline he programmed around the loop. It's totally out and funky at the same time. A lot of beat makers are devoid of that FUNK nowadays.
1. Black Star, "Little Brother"
This was Dilla's homage to Pete Rock, one of his biggest influences. He re-flipped a Roy Ayers sample once used by Pete, but he absolutely murdered it the second time around. The parts of the record he used was so clever, genius and unmatched 10 years later. Legend had it that it took him a day to make this beat. It sounds so simple, but it's really not.
DJ Spinna is a New York-based DJ/producer whose hip hop label, Correct Technique, will be releasing albums by SPOX PhD (his collaboration with rapper Ox the Architect), Shabaam Sahdeeq and The Jigmastas.
What's your favorite Dilla beat? Drop a line in the comments below.