[8 September 2009]
In Detroit, and likely anywhere else in the world, the only producer to ever come close to Berry Gordy’s genius was J Dilla. His career, like his beginnings in the small Detroit enclave of Conant Gardens, was a humble one. Dilla’s seminal group, Slum Village, with whom he began crafting his diverse sound, formed after losing a high school talent show. It predicted a cycle of upsets—a career that should have lasted for decades, but was cut off in relative obscurity. This has changed since Dilla’s death at age 32 from Lupus, but his lack of flashiness in his life was an important component to his sound. He never drew attention to himself, but rather used his production as a spotlight to illuminate each song he took part in. Never is this more apparent than on his remixes, the best of which are collected on Dillanthology 2, the latest in a series of posthumous J Dilla compilations.
There are no shouts of “Remiiiiiiiix” here, no self-aggrandizing name checking (simply ignore such a misstep on the remix of Spacek’s “Eve”, this collection’s only expendable track). His sound was his signature, a dialectic of Detroit musical history that carried the weight of the twentieth century on its back. Out of his Roland 606, Dilla managed to reconstruct the boogie woogie rhythm of John Lee Hooker’s guitar, the grandiosity of Motown Records, and the black foil haze of George Clinton. In spite of its obvious reference points, J Dilla’s sound was inimitable, though many have tried to recreate it.
This originality stemming from a deep knowledge of hip-hop history gives each song Dilla’s personal impress. His intuition to force different sounds and emotions out of artists from Janet Jackson to A Tribe Called Quest was as important as the menacing funk of his rhythm. He hardens De La Soul on “Stakes Is High”, and on “Whoo Ha!!! Got You All In Check,” he softens Busta Rhymes. With both tracks, he explores the tension between eroticism and violence through an amalgamated synthesis of R&B and hip-hop minimalism. Cold electronic sounds compete with Dilla’s softer keyboard work and drum samples.
On his regular role as a producer, these tensions are less blatant. In his work with Slum Village, Dilla often exchanged cerebral sonic analysis for pure funkiness. But on his remix of Slum Village’s “Fall In Love”, that funk is interrupted by romantic understatedness, and the caustic sting of the group’s characteristically lewd rhymes morphs into self-conscious narcissism, laden with guilt and anxiety. “It’s like sex”, the group says nearly harmonizing, speaking of their skills on the microphone. Dilla mutates their voices so that they sound almost frightened at the realization that they’d rather be caressing a microphone than another human being. “All my ladies on the top, never stop to rest”, they sing, and the voices sound proud, yet disappointed. Dilla’s more muted subtlety here, recalling both Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark Studio and Gordy’s orchestral pop, lends itself to the lyrics, making the provocative more shocking, and the erotic imagery even more abrasive.
This clashing sound reaches its apogee on the remixes of DJ Cam’s “Love Jungle” and Brother Jack McDuff’s “Oblighetto”. The former, a far from sexy bedroom anthem, contains Dilla’s hugest bass line and power saw-like synthesizer weaving through the verses, creating a frightening desperation. “A love junky”, DJ Cam finally admits of himself, and Dilla’s sound makes the habit seem as unpleasant to kick as heroin. If Dilla’s funky ambience deconstructs the musical lineage of Detroit, Dilla deconstructs himself with his remixes. The organ-driven “Oblighetto” becomes nearly unrecognizable in Dilla’s hands, transforming from simple hip-hop to a sound collage that walks a crooked line between jazz, soul, R&B, blues, and rap music. Dilla’s strength was not that he merely incorporated disparities into a single sound, but that that sound felt natural. This is hip-hop’s inevitable conclusion, a deconstruction twice removed from its rock and soul progenitors, pop music that seems to resonate through a crack in the sky or a hole in the ground.