THE PLAYLIST #12 | Remembering the late, great J Dilla

Welcome to THE PLAYLIST, where HeadStuff staff and friends siphon through exciting art to craft essential listening experiences you didn’t know you needed. In this instalment, Gary Clarke pays tribute to the revered soul that is J Dilla. 

August 22 saw the 10th anniversary of the release of The Shining, the posthumous opus from Detroit’s J Dilla. In celebration, BBE Records are releasing a 10 x 7” vinyl box set reissue of the album.

To coincide with this, we’ve been treated with a previously unreleased mixtape, in which Dilla mixes seamlessly through a catalogue of (mostly) soul and funk; there’s even some B-52’s thrown in there for good (?) measure… Back To The Crib was posted to the Boiler Room’s Soundcloud last month, and features snippets of classics such as The Gap Band – ‘Yearning For Your Love‘, The System – ‘You Are In My System‘ and The Doobie Brothers – ‘What A Fool Believes‘. Each clip flows effortlessly into one another in the same inimitable style that Dilla’s production is famed for.

Questlove describes Dilla’s writing technique as “the equivalent of someone solving a ten thousand piece puzzle in record time .. He made it sound fluid”. In the documentary ‘Still Shining’, House Shoes, friend and fellow producer, describes watching him work while narrating over some candid footage of Dilla in the studio, stating how Dilla would already have the song finished before playing a note, and would then work backwards to create the sound he had engineered in his head.

In ‘Still Shining’, Dilla notes that his methodical approach towards production was influenced by his friendship with fellow producers Pete Rock and Diamond D: “Any time I call Pete he’s in the basement, it’s like every time I call him he’s working, every time I call Diamond D he’s in the lab, so there’s nothing for me to do but do the same thing.”

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Dilla’s productivity has led to a wealth of unfinished material being left in the wake of his untimely passing. He was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, and sadly in February of 2006 he passed away at the age of 32. Kanye once said that when he writes music, he asks himself “If Dilla was alive would he like this? Like, I have to work on behalf of Dilla”. This is no more apparent than on Common’s 2007 album Finding Forever, which was produced by Kanye. Common was a frequent collaborator and long-time friend of Dilla, and Kanye states that he was trying to replicate Dilla’s style when producing the album.

J Dilla is the true personification of a musician’s musician. Sports journalist Colin Cowherd recently used the phrase ‘pyramid of admiration’ to refer to artists and athletes that are revered by both the public and their own peers. For hip hop, J Dilla is among those at the top of this pyramid, and the efforts of various artists to keep his memory alive mean that we are regularly gifted with reminders, such as 2015’s ‘Like Me’ by Joey Bada$$, of the genius of Dilla.

Photographs from his legendary basement studio show walls of records that he would pull from when working to create his art, and this mixtape offers a snapshot into the encyclopedia of music that was Dilla’s mind, as well as the music that influenced him most.

To honour the genius of Dilla, I’ve compiled a playlist of some of my favourite songs that he has had a hand in producing. There is an endless list of artists that he has worked with, as well as those who have used his beats in the years subsequent to his death, so hopefully this gives some overview of his body of work.

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