Photo: Score Press

Funk Producer Jamma-Dee Distorts Time on ‘Perceptions’

Despite not playing an instrument growing up, Jamma-Dee’s love of crate-digging and funk soon birthed their own colorful contribution to the genre.

5 September 2023

Sample-based music has a way of distorting time. Time means the piles of sounds we sort into pop-culture moments and memories from our past when someone else’s art intersected with our lives.

Dyami O’Brien, the Los Angeles-based producer who goes by Jamma-Dee, has released a sample-based record that distorts time in a way that feels fresh in our current moment. Perceptions is West Coast funk filtered through nearly every genre of Black American music to have come and gone over the past 40 years: jazz, soul, hip-hop, boogie, R&B, house, and the oft-neglected New Jack Swing. Whereas many modern producers mine 1970s funk for sample sources, Jamma-Dee draws inspiration from the robotic percussion and silky keyboard slather of records released from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s.

In design, Perceptions harkens back to the late 1980s apex of sampling in hip-hop. The album exudes the creative energy of that brief and exciting moment just before copyright lawsuits came down on major labels, when records like Straight Out the Jungle, 3 Feet High and Risingand Paul’s Boutique overlaid samples into groove-grounded boom-bap tracks constructed like aural collage installations.

The time distortion goes deeper. The bulk of Perceptions was recorded roughly a decade ago. The album was shelved for years before Dyami revived the project for release on Nothing But Net Records, the label run by French producer Onra. Perceptions was built from music released in the 1980s and 1990s, was produced in the 2010s, and was tweaked again over the past few years.

“It’s amazing to me that people still hear [Perceptions] as a relevant project even though it was made so many years ago,” Jamma-Dee says. “I’m hoping people can still connect with it even though it’s a little older. Hopefully, music is timeless if it’s good.”

Perceptions represents the craft of a crate digger. For example, listen to “Baad”, which combines oft-sampled funk classics – Eddie Bo’s “Hook and Sling”, Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love”, and George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” – with a loop from Will Downing’s “Test of Time”.

Released in 1989, “Test of Time” is one of the myriad late 1980s/early 1990s funk records jammed into dollar-bins resting on the dusty floors of record stores worldwide. The song is characteristic of the sound Jamma-Dee has mined for his signature style: a synthetic midtempo party joint caked in keyboards, drum machines, and a lover’s promise whispered in luscious harmony and amplified over the rhythmic trinkets forming the groove.

“1980s funk immediately was something I really connected with,” Jamma-Dee says. “My parents were really big 1980s rock fans. They were into 1980s pop-rock and all of that stuff. It was a natural progression for me to go into more 1980s-era music. The sounds felt familiar… Looking back now, maybe because I grew up in a primarily rock-centric household, the R&B stuff was almost forbidden fruit in a sense.”

He slows the Downing loop to gangster-rap’s dominion, enlisting Clinton’s dogs to keep time through panting. Mndsgn, a Los Angeles-based producer who has put out several albums on Stones Throw Records, adds a cascade of synthesizer melodies to the forefront. It’s the only element that might register with listeners as contemporary. “Baad” sounds like the instrumental to an early 1990s West Coast rap track. It does so without any contrived cassette deck warble, fake vinyl pop, or other modern effects used to make digital recordings sound dated.

Album opener “Up and Down” weaves pitch-bent vocal snippets across keyboard and guitar melodies saturated in 1980s cheese. A vapor trail of female vocal harmony spreads through the sonic spaces not yet filled with throwback funk. The high hat is bright and loud. The finger snaps seem electronically spawned from a loft studio dimly illuminated by luxury light fixtures. A drum loop bursts out, dragging its syncopation at the snail’s slog of a DJ Screw tape.

The samples create dissonance as if the process of distorting time through audio emits the byproduct of melodic waste. This effect is usually achieved through pitch alterations discovered while beatmatching instruments sampled from different tempos. If handled tastefully, it imbues the music with tension, a trick used to dope effect in Masters at Work remixes and the Jungle Brothers’ more leftfield sound experiments. “Up and Down” succeeds by interweaving samples that clash in subtle ways. It’s the auditory equivalent of pressing down on a loose tooth. There’s slight discomfort, but it feels good. “I would have never even sampled, probably, to begin with, had I had more musical training,” Jamma-Dee says.

As a debut album made from old material, Perceptions distorts the timeline of Jamma-Dee’s musical evolution. Sampling is the LP’s most noticeable feature, but the man who made the album has moved on from sampling.

“Not having the wherewithal to play the chords myself physically, sampling almost was a necessity. [When I was younger,] I wanted to make new music, but I didn’t have the capability to create something original at the time. Now I can say it’s different. In the last five years, I don’t really sample at all. I’ve come full circle to the point where I can make the stuff by myself that I wanted to make ten, 15 years ago.”

Though he didn’t play an instrument growing up, Jamma-Dee came from a musical family. His interest in music seems to have followed a gradual trajectory. He began collecting records as a teenager before becoming a DJ, then transitioned into production after graduating high school. Though he isn’t wont to do so, Jamma-Dee could probably call himself a musician.

“My parents were really big music heads. My uncle, aunts, and sisters, pretty much everyone was in a band at some point or a singer or tried to pursue music. I grew up surrounded by music. In middle school, I got heavy into graffiti. This was like fifth and sixth grade. Then, it progressed into all the elements, the typical story of the hip-hop progression. In middle school, I got heavy into collecting hip-hop on CD and cassette. Going into high school, I started digging vinyl heavily. I got into collecting at thrift stores and going to the local record shop, which was a store called Record Surplus, which is still there. That’s where I would say I got my first initial collection started.

“Throughout high school, I just got more and more into graffiti as well as music collecting. I started DJing at backyard parties and whatnot. Once you love hip-hop, you want to know what the samples are and where they’re from. What is it? Are they creating this? I started to learn that a lot of hip-hop is all sample-based. So that really sparked my interest in funk, soul, R&B, jazz. From there, I segwayed out of the hip-hop interest and into the origins and the funk.”

He started producing his own tracks after inheriting a friend’s sampler. “I was using the [Akai] MPC-1000. I would say that was probably in 2006. It was right after I got out of high school. A buddy of mine had one he wasn’t using. I just commandeered it from him, and he never asked for it back. It was like a godsend. When you’re that young, you have no income. I could never afford a thousand-dollar MPC. My buddy who hooked me up with it went the guitar/rock route. He was like, ‘I don’t really need this.’ It worked out in my favor, man. I’m forever thankful to him for that.”

Jamma-Dee’s interest in funk deepened when he happened upon the music of DāM-FunK. DāM has made a career distorting time, taking the blueprints of funk and boogie music from the 1980s and pushing the sounds in new directions.

“During high school, I had a couple of buddies who were also really into funk and boogies records,” Jamma-Dee says. “We were on Myspace and shit really early on. That’s where we discovered DāM-FunK. It was kind of at a time when no one was doing that type of stuff. We were kindred souls. We were like, ‘Oh my god, there’s another person doing this shit? For real?'”

Photo: Courtesy of the artist via Bandcamp

As 17-year-olds getting into funk music in LA during the 2000’s, Jamma-Dee and his friends discovered DāM-Funk at an ideal moment. They nabbed fake IDs to attend the earliest iteration of his now-revered party, Funkmosphere.

“It just so happened to be a mile away from where my buddy lived, where we would all hang out. That was the first form of Funkmosphere. That was on Venice Boulevard at a bar called Carbon Bar. My buddy’s house was the crash pad. It was like a studio pad. His mom didn’t care. We were just tearing shit up, learning and playing records, and making beats when we discovered that DāM’s night was about to start. I think we went to the second Funkmosphere party. It was a Monday night, so I had to fucking lie to my parents or sneak out.

“That’s where the story begins as far as meeting everyone I’ve met in the whole community of record digging and production, even some life-long friends… I’ve had relationships with people for nearly 20 years that we met then. The music has kept us all in touch. It’s definitely a community.”

Jamma-Dee enlisted talent from this community to make Perceptions. The record features collaborations with singer Sarah Jewel, producer/singer Harriet Brown, and producers Mndsgn, Swarvy, and Benedek, who Jamma-Dee calls his “best musical homie”. Craig T Cooper, aka “The Uncola of Jazz”, lays down some fluid guitar lines on the late-night lounge groove “U.R.”. “Spellbound”, the album’s catchiest track, features a laidback love-rap from the Koreatown Oddity that’s as charming and irreverent as it is unsexy.

Jamma-Dee’s original concept for Perceptions was to compile a record showcasing collaborations with artists whose work he enjoyed. The finished product stays true to this idea but retains a sense of cohesion. That’s rare for this type of LP, which usually progresses like a mixed-bag compilation rather than an album constructed as a singular sonic statement.

“This album has been in the works since 2013 or 2014. I had the conception and even the general title and everything about eight to ten years ago. The concept was like a producer album, in a sense, where each song has different features from artists that I love or am impressed with. The initial concept was that every track would have a different feature, but I would produce the song and bring people to collaborate on each track. I also wanted to go through all the genres I was interested in at the time, which is all kinds of black music: jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop, R&B, house.”

The record flows in and out of genres, and genres flow in and out of each other. “Every Morning” luxuriates in the sounds of late 1990s R&B. With decadent vocal harmonies, guitar melodies polished to a mirror finish, and infectious vocals from Sarah Jewel, the song deserves a high-budget video filmed inside a stainless-steel nightclub that will never exist. “Tic-Toc” sounds like Jamma-Dee’s take on one of Pal Joey’s Loop D’ Loop productions. “Silly” is a soulful slice of deep house, something the Burrell Brothers might have made if they’d grown up with the radio tuned to Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul.

Jamma-Dee wrings two of his juiciest tracks from new jack swing, a melodic fusion of R&B and hip-hop that had its heyday in the early 1990s and has since been lost to time. “Datafile Groove” glides through some gorgeous flute and piano melodies, while “It Takes a Freak” extracts two-and-a-half minutes of funk from a horn loop, vocal snippets, and a synthesized bassline throbbing beneath percussion that pops and punctures.

“In regards to the process for the tracks from Perceptions, I had been making a lot of edits and loop-based beats and such. Some of it was developed in two-track form on the [Akai] MPC1000 and bounced out and elaborated on. Some stuff was solely worked on in the DAW to layer and piece together. It’s all very hodgepodged together as far as the foundations of each song. From a batch of maybe a few hundred beats made over the years, I tried to go through all of it to simmer down the best 20 to 30 tracks that I felt at the time had the most substance and ability to be built out and make the cut for what I thought could be an album.”

The result is an immersive record. Good headphones and repeated listens reveal buried textures that deepen the groove. There’s magic to the additive process of sampling, the way looping can create, in the listener’s mind, a sensation of layering, a sonic commotion where one can settle in comfortably and admire the delicately shifting patterns. Every sample squeezed and stretched to subtle effect is an alteration in time. Time means moments captured in sound. The stuff Jamma-Dee chops and flips towards timelessness.