He's gone, but his music still beats

Before anyone could fully digest his new album and ponder where he was taking his career, James Yancey a.k.a. Jay Dee, a.k.a. J Dilla died of kidney failure on Feb. 10.

Published April 13, 2006

The news of J Dilla's death hit hip-hoppers like the thwack of that jarring rim shot he used on Forth and Back, the one that cracks you out of that bass line trance.

Dilla, 32, one of hip-hop's great beatmakers, had just dropped Donuts on the hip-hop world. It had critics and fans buzzing. Thirty-one tracks, no rapping, just Dilla beats. Those cracking snares, distorted bass lines, rhythm shifts - that mood music Dilla did so well.

But before anyone could fully digest the album and ponder where he was taking his career, James Yancey a.k.a. Jay Dee, a.k.a. J Dilla died of kidney failure on Feb. 10. It was just three days after he released Donuts, an album he had created largely in the hospital, battling the lupus that would take his life. Hip-hoppers reacted to the news accordingly. Web sites were erected in Dilla's memory. His fellow artists commenced with the superlatives and dedications and planned tribute concerts. Fans sported T-shirts that read "Dilla Changed My Life." College radio stations and club DJs played multihour sets of nothing but Dilla.

From his work with the Soulquarians, to his early role in hip-hop group Slum Village, to his music direction with artists such as Common and D'Angelo, Dilla was one of the principal creators of soul-hop, a brand of hip-hop influenced heavily by '60s and '70s soul music. He was also credited as a champion of R&B's recent neo-soul movement.

Common told hip-hop magazine the Source, "This made me feel like we really just witnessed the John Coltrane of our time."

But there's some solace for mourning hip-hoppers: New Dilla music will keep coming out.

Dilla was one of the most prolific producers in hip-hop. He could sit at his MPC - the machine most producers use to make their beats - drop a jazzy bass line, some stop-and-go percussion and a few sparse piano chords, and within minutes you had a masterpiece like Jealousy off Slum Village's Fantastic Vol. 2. He might produce five to 10 in one night if it was flowing like that.

Now Dilla's mother, Maureen Yancey, has created a publishing company that will sell and distribute the hundreds of never-before-heard beats that Dilla had in his vaults.

"I've dedicated my life to that. His music has to be out there," Yancey said by phone from Los Angeles. "He has enough music to last for years." In hip-hop, rappers buy beats from producers, then add their lyrics to the track to make a complete song. When he was alive, Dilla's beats sold for tens of thousands of dollars - six figures when rappers got into bidding wars. His former manager, Tim Maynor, said there is still a demand for Dilla. There will be Dilla-produced tracks on upcoming albums by Q-Tip, Truth Hurts, Busta Rhymes and the Roots. Others are in the works. Grammy nominee and longtime Dilla collaborator Common is likely to feature some Dilla tracks on his next effort, according to Chris Manak, a.k.a. Peanut Butter Wolf, the owner of the indie label Stones Throw. Dilla's 2001 Welcome 2 Detroit (where he displayed his skills as an emcee) will be followed with a posthumous second solo effort, The Shining, slated to drop in July.

"Oh yeah, Dilla will be out there," Maynor said. "You'll hear a song and you'll just be like, 'That sounds like Dilla.' "

Anytime a rap star dies, his fans are left with questions: How will he be remembered? And will he be remembered at all?

There have been more releases and records by Tupac Shakur since his death than when he was alive. The same way Dilla has hundreds of untouched beats, Tupac had more than 200 unreleased tracks in his vaults when he was slain in Las Vegas in 1996.

But he was an aberration. Most rappers record vocals only when they're recording albums, so artists like ODB, Big Pun and Big L, all of whom died while they were still making music, left little or nothing behind for their fans.

Producers, on the other hand, can make 20 to 50 beats in a week and stockpile them, as Dilla did. Before the producer's death, Manak helped Dilla transfer a glut of beats from tapes to CD. All that fresh material gives at least a chance for a Dilla legacy.

The music of dead hip-hop artists is also hampered by the "persona" problem. Hip-hop is personality driven. Tupac, the enigmatic, revolutionary rebel, and Biggie Smalls, the charismatic, flamboyant teddy bear, remain iconic in the hip-hop world. That helps sell their CDs.

Dilla wasn't out there doing the celebrity thing. He was a beatmaker, not a personality. This is actually a plus. Fans won't long to see him on magazine covers, in music videos or on video show countdowns because that was never his M.O.

To his fans he is a name in the liner notes that they associate with a sound. His legacy exists solely in music, as beats.

"We don't want to make this into a circus," Maynor said. "With Dilla it's always been about his music."

In March, rapper Busta Rhymes was on MTV2's Direct Effect, a hip-hop video show, promoting his upcoming CD, The Big Bang, set to drop in May. In hip-hop, it's common for artists to credit the producers they work with. The first name Rhymes mentioned was Dilla's - "the late, great J Dilla," as he called him. Then he called Dilla a genius.

It was yet another eulogy. Dilla seems to have grown a mystique already. Each Web site dedication, tribute T-shirt and track on a hot new album will add to it.

Last week, more than 100,000 fans bought the new Ghostface Killah album Fishscale. It featured a brief four-bar riff from ODB, his old Wu-Tang Clan partner, and a bonus track with reprised lyrics from Biggie. As if that weren't enough hip-hop nostalgia, in the liner notes, the production credits for Beauty Jackson and Whip You With A Strap bore a familiar phrase:

Produced by J Dilla.

Vincent Thomas can be reached at vthomas@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1430.