A.D. 2000: J Dilla and the Year That Defined My Musical Evolution
Exploring the year 2000 and the profound impact of J Dilla's innovative blend of hip-hop, jazz, and soul on my personal musical evolution.
The year 2000 is an important year in my musical evolution. Philadelphia, in particular, wasn’t just the region I lived in (I grew up south of the city in Chester, PA), but, by 2000, after The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, the city was incubating some of the most interesting new Black music.
What’s even more interesting is there was a Detroit-brother who was inspiring a whole new sound that combined the foundations of hip-hop, jazz and soul. His name was Jay Dee a.k.a. J Dilla.
It was hard to put my finger on it, but I explained my experience listening to Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 2 as “grown up hip-hop.” I remember catching the video for “Climax.” The lush arrangement stopped me in my tracks. The rhyming style was so unique to me. It was rhythmic, jazz-inflected and almost staccato how they jumped all over the beat. Particularly from, who I later learned was the famed, Jay Dee.
Like many hip-hop fans, by 2000, we knew who Jay Dee was. He’d been present on the national music scene since we first heard “Runnin’” by The Pharcyde. Many of us didn’t realize we were listening to him for the better part of four years straight as part of the famed production outfit The Ummah.
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It wasn’t until after reading Dan Charnas’ biography Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm that I understood Dilla’s grip on my ear. In 2000, at 23 years old, I was maturing, and Dilla’s production style was training my ear. I was learning how to listen to hip-hop with a sense of nuance. I wanted my samples to be both nostalgic and reimagined. I wanted my hip-hop producers to dream deeper.
I wasn’t surprised to see Dilla move in the electronic direction with his production. He was from Detroit, the birthplace of Techno, of course it’s in his DNA. I remember listening to “Soul Power” from Common’s Electric Circus, and couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was masterful. The world wasn’t quite ready.
"Man I will NEVER forget the weekend Dilla & Com came back from detroit w the beat to the untitled “Soul Power” completed and I got to hear it for the first time when we transferred it to 2 inch tape," he said on IG. "Dill told me he made some “Let’s Go Crazy” type jawn which instantly put me in the mind frame of PE’s “Brothes Gonna Work It Out” space——I was NOT expecting this. The second I heard it I was like “this is our album opener” hands down."
In the era of the super-producer, Dilla was respected, but not as visible as other producers of the era. He gave the world some of the most interesting music we’ll ever hear, and it inspired many, including me. Pharrell was once name checked Dilla as his favorite producer we’d probably never heard of. That was his impact.
There aren’t a lot of videos of Dilla, so watching “Climax” today is not only musically satisfying, but also a good historical artifact. If you’ve gotten this far, and didn’t click on that video, I suggest you do so.
Our good brother Mr. Al Pete joined me and DJ Sir Daniel for a discussion on the legacy of Dilla for his birthday. Be sure to tap in. Below are all of our favorite Dilla joints we mentioned on the show. Enjoy!
Also, check out my “Everyday Is Dilla Day” playlist with songs in the spirit of J Dilla.