Today is J Dilla’s birthday; in three more days, it will have been five years since he lost a struggle with lupus at age 32. By that young age, he had already established himself as “your favorite producer’s favorite producer,” contributing production credits to parts or all of 170+ albums from The Roots, Erykah Badu, The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Common, Busta Rhymes, and plenty others. Dilla carried the torch for Detroit hip-hop, sparking a positive creative movement against the backdrop of Detroit’s slums (which his Slum Village collaborator Elzhi characterized as “apocalyptic”).
That spark swept through a number of loosely interchangeable, collaborative crews that counted Dilla among their ranks, including the Soulquarians, Native Tongues Posse and the Hip Hop Shop in Detroit. Many of those artists enjoy the national spotlight today, and they’re all quick to recount Dilla’s wizardous production and glowing kindness when the topic comes up.
And what better day to bring up that topic than the man’s birthday? Here’s 5 Dilla collaborators still performing today that carry the torch for Jay Dee.
Elzhi (Slum Village)
Elzhi filled J Dilla’s vacated slot in Slum Village when Dilla left to fly solo in 2002. In our interview with Elzhi, he recounts the collaborative energy coursing through The Hip Hop Shop in Detroit, an open mic community where the likes of Dilla, Proof, Eminem and Black Milk swapped creative output for the sake of Dopeness everywhere. Scenes like this were a regularity, especially when Dilla – who by multiple accounts could throw a beat together in less than ten minutes – was involved:
I remember Dilla coming up in The Hip Hop Shop, I don’t know if he had just recorded it that day, or mixed it that day. The Hip Hop Shop was over because it lasted from 4pm to 6pm, and there weren’t too many people in the shop. Dilla walked through the door, walking really fast like he was really proud of something towards the booth and he threw on the “Look of Love” for the first time. We might have been the first people to hear that coming straight from the studio, and that’s why I’d say the “Look of Love” by Slum Village.
D’Angelo’s collab with Common on Dilla’s The Shining in 2006 came at a strange time. D’Angelo had been avoiding interviews – and the recording studio – since 2001, but after a tumultuous 2005 dealt the R&B singer a drug arrest and a nasty car wreck, he returned to contribute to “So Far To Go,” floating his trademark soulful vocals on the wings of a bubbly Dilla beat. And all was well. D’Angelo is finally on the comeback tip, performing his first live show in over a decade last month, to go with four new songs from an album that Questo of The Roots (another Dillavangelist) said is “97% done.”
De La Soul
“Stakes Is High” is a classic case of old song, relevant message – this 1996 De La Soul headnodder still plays like a biting commentary on cultural excess and personal accountability. One of my all-time favorites and certainly something I’m proud to rep during Black History Month:
I’m sick of bitches shakin’ asses / I’m sick of talkin’ about blunts / sick of Versace glasses / sick of slang / sick of half-ass awards shows / sick of name brand clothes / sick of R&B bitches over bullshit tracks / cocaine and crack which brings sickness to blacks.
The Soulquarians’ prized diva took turns lending hooks to tracks from Common, The Roots and Mos Def – and some of those were Dilla joints, too – but the duo of Dilla and Badu was responsible for much of the beauty that is 2002’s Mama’s Gun. With Questlove of The Roots pushing the project (as was his role for many early Soulquarians releases), Dilla’s laid-back vibes divinely framed Badu’s lush vocals, and all – as they say – was history.
Talib Kweli started out in Black Star, his hip hop duo with Mos Def (another Dilla collaborator and Soulquarians alum), and although their first two albums garnered heavy praise, it was met with only modest commercial success. Quality, Kweli’s debut solo LP, changed that with a Kanye West-produced “Get By” hit the Billboard charts. The album solidified him as a socially conscious rapper working against trends of negativity and violence in hip hop, on display in the Dilla-produced “Where Do We Go.” Kweli is currently on tour in the US.
We couldn’t leave you without a recap of Dilla’s impact on the music industry as a whole. Released last year, “Still Shining” is a 40-minute documentary on the legacy of J Dilla. If you are unsatiated (or still lost) after the guided tour through the list of Dilla’s collaborators, let us point you toward some extra knowledge to fill your brainspace.
Happy Birthday, Dilla. Still shining.