J Dilla The Shining

An Elegy for J Dilla on the 15th Anniversary of ‘The Shining’

J Dilla’s The Shining debuted 15 years ago and remains an essential collaborative effort between the master producer and his favorite rappers.

The Shining
J Dilla
22 August 2021

There is a story about the tragic passing of James Dewitt Yancey—aka J Dilla—at only 32 years young. After moving from Detroit to Los Angeles, his health rapidly declined until he passed away on 10 February 2006 (a mere three days after the release of his masterpiece, Donuts). To help finish his hotly anticipated collection of instrumentals and beats while hospitalized, Dilla’s mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, allegedly massaged her son’s tired hands in-between his playing sessions on a Boss SP-303 sampler.

There is an avatar of J Dilla: a legend who assembled literal game-changing loops while sampling old and obscure soul wax, thereby remaking the hip-hop soundscape. Then there is the human side of J Dilla: a man playing his last tour of Europe while in a wheelchair, unable to stand or walk on his own, and a man making his opus while his mother caresses and comforts those hands—his instrument—in a motherly gesture. Dilla’s hands in Ma Dukes’ hands.

The Shining—released on 22 August 2006 — was reportedly three-fourths finished when Dilla died. It was completed by Karriem Riggins, who worked production with him on 2001’s Welcome 2 Detroit and 2002’s The Diary. Including The Shining, he’s posthumously released 24 compilations, extended plays, and new albums. This body of work absolutely dwarfs the three studio LPs Dilla released from 2001 to 2006: 2001’s Welcome 2 Detroit, 2003’s Champion Sound (as Jaylib), and 2006’s Donuts. I hesitate to call the two dozen music collections “inessential” out of respect to the man.

At the same time, I vividly remember driving through the city with a damn near lifelong Detroiter and being surprised to hear him balk at some corporatized record label regurgitation of some demo or scrap of Dilla’s production. “Let this man rest,” he said, and that was the end of the conversation. Thinking about James Dewitt Yancey as a sick man who died in pain (as opposed to an artist who amassed a swelling body of work after he passed) taints even the least craven and most creative repackaging of his life’s work.

From this perspective, The Shining straddles Dilla’s too short time with us and his crossing over. It is a liminal statement that ties together nicely an unbeatable run of productions at the cost of opening the door to both well and ill-intended excavations of his works in progress. Does 75% of Dilla’s labor earn The Shining a pass? Maybe, maybe not, but I am 100% sure that 15 years after its release, The Shining is still worth listening to.

The album opens about as roughly as an album can via “Geek Down”, which features literal buzzing (specifically, it sounds like bees are swarming your eardrums) as Busta Rhymes shouts out to J Dilla: “Evacuate the fuckin’ building before you get burned, bitch! / Get the fuck out the building! / J Dilla, let’s barbeque these motherfuckers!” Rhymes’ tough guy callouts, alongside the handclaps and kazoo tones, make for such an odd opening.

Next comes “E=mc2”, a classic Dilla track that brings together smooth lines from Common and draws on obvious influences from Kraftwerk and other German techno sounds deep in the Detroit techno scene. As for the all-instrumental “Love Jones”, it’s the first of three solo Dilla tracks, and it offers a moment of respite for the listener to catch their breath and walk alongside Dilla to a softer sound palette that stretches over the next few songs.

“Love” could just as easily work in the same way “Geek Down” does, with Pharoahe Monch’s abrasive flow pitted against a lush beat. “Soul music sound good, don’t it?” he sings. It’s downright lovely. Later, Monch ad-libs, “Yeah, it do”. Monch isn’t kidding, either, that “(We must be in love)”. Eventually, Guilty Simpson ducks and dodges around a less tender earworm, “Baby”. For sure, “Baby!” crashes against the rappers in tension, not harmony. Still, “Baby” shows off a great verse from Madlib and nods at he and Dilla’s great collaborative work on Champion Sound (reissued in 2007).

Common jumps back in the mix with D’Angelo on “So Far to Go”, The Shining’s centerpiece both literally and tonally. It’s the prettiest song I’ve ever heard, and that’s really all you need to know about it. I’d love to hear how Monch feels about how good this soul music sounds. Really, really good, I have to imagine.

Then The Shining takes another surprising turn with “Jungle Love”, which wisely avoids the impossibility of one-upping “So Far to Go”. Instead, it uses reinvigorating percussion samples and Guilty Simpson rapping like his life is on the line. It’s the least complex of Dilla’s productions here, and there is still a great depth of sound and texture in the track. In contrast, “Over the Breaks” slows things down with a moody synth line, pulling back ever so slightly on its predecessor’s grit (which serves to propel the album’s back half, set up by The Shining’s other breakout track, “Body Movin’”, a goddamn classic).

“Dime Piece (Remix)” featuring Dwele is like a sequel to “So Far to Go” that’s smartly separated from D’Angelo and crew. The highest don’t get as high, and “Dime Piece (Remix)” doesn’t go down as smooth. It gets the job done as the album winds down, though. “Love Movin’”, on the other hand, sets Black Thought up to flex so hard that you almost can’t believe how crazy the beat is. A lesser producer would lose the vocals in the mix, either trying to showboat their own production or showing an inability to balance such complex soundscapes. In Dilla’s hands, however, “Love Movin’” is essential.

Deftly, Black Thought twists around his bars like a boxer, rapping, “I got a shit load of story tales up in my sack / So let all the drums and all the noise interact”. It’s a bittersweet moment considering that Dilla is a part of this storytelling, yet he doesn’t get to finish telling his tale. Maybe that’s why “Love Movin’” pulses a few measures after Black Thought stops rapping: it shows Dilla’s drums thrusting onward into oblivion. That sensation melts into closer “Won’t Do”, an ethereal and floating showcase of Dilla as rapper and producer. It is spacey, like the sound of going home.

After really listening to The Shining and really thinking about the weight of James Dewitt working on it while his body was failing, I’m still obsessed with the story about his hands. One of the things that makes J Dilla so different (outside of his ability to take an obscure record flip and make it sound like your all-time favorite song) was his knack for taking your hands and guiding you to that new sound made familiar. In this way, he is the most generous of the beat-makers. His productions sound like individually wrapped gifts for both the fans and the emcees who grace these tracks.

For example, “So Far to Go” somehow makes D’Angelo’s voice sound prettier. While it should seem easy to over-sate Dilla’s legacy (a cynical read on his staggering posthumous releases certainly might), The Shining uniquely showcases a cross-over moment in his production career. It’s just too bad he died before it was quite finished.

So, does The Shining live up to the weight of being a true last album? Maybe, maybe not; that’s up to you to decide. But like any gift or act of generosity—and like all of Dilla’s living and posthumous work—The Shining reminds us of what made James Dewitt Yancey’s time with us so precious: his very obvious love of sounds, his very obvious ability to arrange them, and in turn, his very obvious love of his listeners.