J Dilla was one of the most esteemed hip-hop producers of his time. Many were and still are in awe of his talent, and although he is no longer with us, his music continues to inspire and, at the same time, confuse people. J Dilla (real name James Yancey) broke all the rules of rap music production and, akin to Kanye West, had people staggered by how seamlessly he could produce soulful hard-hitting music.
Born and raised in Detroit, Dilla first found fame when he began producing for MCs from the Midwest in the late 1990s. He very quickly became a popular beatmaker and was an integral driving force behind the Soulquarian movement of the 1990s. Dilla was admired by acts such as Q-Tip, Questlove, Erykah Badu and Common and was the successor of Pete Rock.
Yancey was renowned for his ability to humanise his drum machine and make it sound like a live band. He had many stylistic quirks that made him a fascinating musician. J Dilla wasn’t an artist who used lavish studios but instead made all of his music in a Detroit basement full of old vinyl and sampling material. This environment contributed to his raw and exposed beats.
J Dilla is the man behind several huge hits, and unbeknownst to many, he did have some mainstream hits. However, for fans of jazz-hop and neo-soul, he is a genius who paved the way for the likes of Kanye West and others. Below we have compiled a list of his top five beats of all time.
The five Best J Dilla beats of all time:
5. ‘Won’t Do’
This is a truly euphoric beat, for ‘Won’t Do’ J Dilla ingeniously sampled a rare album by utilising a track called ‘Alfie’ from Age Of Electronicus LP released by Dick Hyman. The 1969 track has since been used in a number of hip-hop songs since Dilla discovered it and has even been used by Kendrick Lamar in ‘Tammy’s Song’ from Section.80.
The rise arpeggiator melody is extremely transformative. However, you can also hear a blown-out G-funk style bass which shows the influence producers at the time were having on each other. ‘Won’t Do’ is a fantastic piece of music.
4. ‘So Far To Go’
This amazing song, vocals led by Common and D’Angelo, is a soulful composition made for an emcee to tell stories. Its nuance and fantastic chord progressions are unparalleled, and the beauty of the song is in its simplicity.
For this instrumental, Yancey sampled the Isley Brothers’ 1980 track, ‘Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time for Love).’ It is truly a masterpiece and encapsulates the sound of 1990s jazz-hop and neo-soul in the US.
3. ‘Shake It Down’
J Dilla has many production styles, and ‘Shake It Down’ is a prime example of his minimalistic, off-kilter heavy bass sonic. The musician’s album Welcome 2 Detroit is a prime example of this production style that has some remnants of G-funk but is far more aggressive.
The simplistic melody, drums and bass on paper would sound boring, but akin to Pharrell Williams, J Dilla had the ability to make simple drums swing and bounce in a way that creates a groove the listener doesn’t want to stop. ‘Shake It Down’ and its second version with vocals are truly amazing.
2. ‘Dillatronic 41’
Yancey’s catalogue is vast, to say the least, and the Dillatronic album is just one of many J Dilla albums that boasts over 40 tracks. The album was released in 2015 and is a compilation of all the genius and sublime musical creations he didn’t release in his lifetime. ‘Dillatronic 41’ has become a fan favourite over the years due to its hedonistic feel.
A slow-moving and fascinating beat, it is as soulful as it gets and shows the Detroit native’s versatility as a producer. The instrumental is a standalone composition and is one of many Dilla beats that would sound horrific if used by an emcee. Dillatronic, in itself as a project, is a masterpiece. However, this track is not only the best from this 2015 body of work but of all time.
‘Runnin’ is by far J Dilla’s most potent beat and helped The Pharcyde land their first big crossover hit. The track peaked at number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has been used many times since and even appeared in the 2002 movie 8 Mile. The Pharcyde were a jazz-hop and conscious rap group from California, which was heavily dominated by gangsta rap in the 1990s. However, they were the gateway for artists such as Ab-Soul and Kendrick Lamar to emerge in the 2000s.
For this beat, Dilla sampled an extremely obscure bossa nova track entitled, ‘Saudade Vem Correndo’ by Stan Getz and Luis Bonfá and transformed it into a hit. ‘Runnin’ still lives on to this day and is popular with those who appreciate a more laidback style of hip-hop. It is, without a doubt, Dilla’s most exquisite instrumental.