[13 October 2009]
No one will question that James Yancey is a hip-hop deity for numerous reasons. Aside from the fact that he no longer resides on our spiritual plane, he was far and away one of the best producers to ever grace the genre. The man knew how to not just make good music, but how to make it breathe. His beats weren’t merely “beats”, they were productions. Call all this praise “stanning” if you must, but you would be foolish to deny his talent and long-lasting imprint on hip-hop. Whether in the studio on his own terms, mailing beats to Madlib, or producing for his close friends, Yancey—more commonly known as J Dilla or Jay Dee—was a force to be reckoned with. And the third installment from Rapster in his legacy, Dillanthology 3, proves just that.
Previously, Rapster used its Dillanthology releases to display his productions for his closest friends, everyone from the Roots to Janet Jackson to De La Soul, to remixes he had done over the years. And it’s important to note that even his remixes, many times of his own productions, were mostly absolutely incredible. There was just something about his drums and ability to capture specific sounds that made it exciting to see his name in an album’s production credits. But this time around, on Dillanthology 3, the focus is on beats crafted for his solo albums and Jaylib, which consisted of Dilla and Madlib. So what we have here is a spattering of joint from The Shining, Ruff Draft, Donuts, Jay $tay Paid, Welcome 2 Detroit, and Champion Sound. Can you say “classic material?”
Well, yeah, there certainly is a plethora of classic Dilla joints on this anthology. The thing is, it’s likely that most people have heard them before. It’s the same issue I took up with Dillanthology 1, which featured cuts like Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know” and Common’s “The Light”. If anything, there were one or two tracks on there you might have missed, such as A.G.‘s “Hip Hop Quotable”. But most were hit songs that many listeners had likely heard before. The same isn’t necessarily true on this third Dillanthology, but seasoned Dilla fans will be safe in steering clear of this release. If you happen to be a Dilla newbie, though, well, then you are in for an experience.
Dillanthology 3 offers a savory sampling of Dilla’s finest beats from across the spectrum. You have one of his tastiest Donuts in “WorkinOnIt”, a sultry guitar-heavy groove that will have you drooling for more fried treats. Another Donuts cut, the stuttering and funky “Anti-American Graffiti”, nearly satiates your appetite, but don’t be surprised if you rush out to pick up the full disc. And why not? It stands as one of the best instrumental hip-hop albums ever crafted. And while the other instrumental on here, Jay $tay Paid‘s “Glamour Sho75 (09)”, is solid, it has a hard time stacking up to its dessert-nicknamed cousin. There were plenty of better cuts to pick off that album, too, which leaves one wondering Rapster didn’t choose “In the Night/While You Slept (I Crept)” or “Mythesizer”. Both of those display, at the very least, different sample choices as many beats on here are more guitar sample-based.
Ah, but perhaps I’m getting too nitpicky. Maybe not, though. I mean, this is supposed to demonstrate Dilla at this best when crafting beats for his own projects. At least that aforementioned “beats across the spectrum” rings true in terms of tracks with vocals. The three tracks taken from Welcome to Detroit provide you with a taste of Dilla’s earlier sound, which was a bit more rugged and dusty. An even though they are not as layered or dense as his later works, beats like those on “It’s Like That” and “Featuring Phat Kat” display just how tight his productions have always been. The grooves are natural, almost organic. And the two Ruff Draft cuts, “Nothing Like This” and “Crushin’ (Yeeeeah!)”, show off his ability to make both a psychedelic trip and a bump-it-in-the-whip banger. Yes, “Nothing Like This” might be wacky and too out-there for some. But it’s Dilla at perhaps his most experimental as he weaves a reversed sample, simplistic but thudding drums, and his own distorted pseudo-singing. Then you have the pair of joints off Jaylib’s Champion Sound that are certifiably ridiculous. Even though Madlib’s rapping nearly spoils it, “The Red” is up there with some of Dilla’s best productions. “Raw Shit”, which features a take-it-or-leave-it Talib Kweli feature, goes just as hard. It’s another sonic delicacy, made even sweeter through a fuzzy bass that complements a bouncy synthesizer.
Some might disagree, but too damn bad: The pièce de résistance on here is “Won’t Do”, off The Shining. Dilla was able to take perhaps one of hip-hop’s most overused samples, The Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark”, and craft a jaw-dropping, flat-out gorgeous beat. Sure, it might also use “Alfie” by Dick Hyman, but “Won’t Do” remains a ridiculous flip of the Isley Brothers’ classic track. Dilla chopped the drums like the seasoned chef he was and turned a vocal sample into what sounds like a watery-synthesizer. And while he might be spitting about how two women simply aren’t enough for him—a true player’s anthem—it remains a truly beautiful, almost tear-jerking track. It didn’t help that Dilla’s younger brother, up-and-coming emcee Illa J whose resemblance to Dilla is striking, portrayed his late sibling in the video for “Won’t Do”. The other tracks from The Shining are just as gorgeous, though some listeners will likely grow tired of the vocal sample on “Baby”. But you have to respect the fact that Dilla took what is actually the word “maybe” and made it sound like “baby.” And “So Far to Go” might be one of the sexiest songs ever, partially because of D’Angelo’s hook and Common’s buttery verses.
While Dillanthology 3 sets out to do what it intends in showcasing just how damn talented J Dilla was, it’s still not what one could dub “essential”. It’s undoubtedly worth it for someone who is just getting into the late producer’s music or wants a sampling of his best works. But even then, I doubt you will be able to avoid picking up the full albums from which these songs were lifted.