[30 March 2009]
While the argument can be made that fans have made him a deity since his 2006 death, no one can deny the impact and talent of James “Jay Dee/J Dilla” Yancey. The man had a style that eclipsed many of his peers and remains emulated and respected to this day. And his work was capable of finding a niche in both underground and mainstream music, something few producers have done. Only the greats have crossed those boundaries so many times that the boundaries ceased to exist. He appeased so many, and it’s for that reason, among others, that his passing was so tragic. It’s not just that he had possibly the best years in front of him, it’s that he already proved he could use those years to do something truly special.
But it’s not like those special moments did not take place in his lifetime. And that’s where Dillanthology Vol. 1 comes in. Across the 11 tracks, this compilation represents both his best and most diverse work, proving just how rare a gem he truly was. On one hand, you have Common’s “The Light”, one of his biggest singles that undoubtedly tugs at even the most bitter heart strings. Then there is A.G.‘s “Hip Hop Quotable”, a banging street anthem full of almost everyone’s favorite punchlines and similes—not to mention the fact that “Hip Hop Quotable” is basically the Game’s entire shtick wrapped-up in one song.
Or, even better, there is the effective pairing of Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know” and De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High”. Though both tracks are on opposite ends of the musical spectrum, they demonstrate Dilla’s talents and versatility. The former is a somber, soothing, and flat-out gorgeous accompaniment to the some of the head-wrapped goddess’s best sentiments. The latter is, oh, you know, just one of De La’s best tracks ever. Badu and Dilla, if you didn’t know already (no pun intended), were close, as were he and most of the acts on this compilation. So, of course, whenever they sat together in a likely hazy studio, beauty easily oozed from the end product. And that fact rings true most notably on “Didn’t Cha Know”. Likewise, anytime Dilla hooked up with De La, you knew it would lead to something magical. “Stakes Is High”, off the fantastic album of the same name, is no different. The drums, as usual, stand out first. That hard snare is unmatched. But then you hear the horns, the layered piano, and bass. There is so much going on that it should be an erratic mess. But Dilla orchestrates it perfectly. And the same can be said for Pos and Dave’s rhymes. The emcees share very little in common when it comes to cadence and structure. But it’s that variation in style that makes them gel. So when you throw them into a pot with Dilla, there’s no question the end result will break both ground and necks.
To be fair, many of the aforementioned adjectives, descriptions, and praises could be sung for every damn song on this anthology. The selected tracks from the Pharcyde, “Runnin’” and “Drop”, are among their best. Same goes for Busta Rhymes’ “Show Me What You Got” and Slum Village’s “Fall in Love”, one of Dilla’s most sublime productions. The two cuts here that I, an admitted Dilla follower, wasn’t entirely familiar with were those that close out the album. As such, it was refreshing to hear the futuristic funk-bump on Amp Fiddler’s “I Believe in You”. But I was not ready for the hypnotic “Dollar” from Steve Spacek. Like the others, this track epitomizes why Dilla is so revered. He blends a skipping vocal sample like most producers would an organ or piano. When he does use keys, they are airy and light, fitting right in with Spacek’s soulful, reverbed vocals. And though it comes as no surprise, the drums and bass are effective blunted funk rhythms.
But a lack of anything actually new or unreleased causes this anthology to lose some points. Also, it does little to entice a seasoned Dilla fan. Most of them have, without a doubt, bumped 90% of this album to the point that they know the samples, lyrics, drums, and every other piece of each track on here. But for those who only know “The Light” or “Runnin”, both destined for classic-status, Volume 1 is a helpful tool. And that goes double for anyone unaware that Dilla was behind the boards on those joints. This is a chance for everyone to be on a more level playing field when it comes to the late producer’s legacy. Here’s hoping Dillanthology doesn’t end here, though, as there are a plethora of tracks left to fill volume after volume. And that’s exactly why Dilla is so praised. Deifying-after-death arguments aside, the man was clearly talented and, at times, untouchable. It’s for those reasons that he is firmly cemented as one of the best to do it.