Celebrating J Dilla: 20 of his best releases

Celebrating J Dilla: 20 of his best releases

Celebrating J Dilla: 20 of his best releases

The month of February has been a busy one for millions of Hip-hop fans, especially this week – as Dilla Day tribute events all over the world celebrate the life and work of one of the greatest music producers in history that changed the sound of Hip-hop: James Dewitt Yancey, also known as Jay Dee or most famously, J Dilla. For the uninitiated, Dilla Day observes the birth and death of the iconic beatmaker, who was born in Detroit on Feb. 7, 1974 and passed away Feb. 10 in 2006 after fighting a rare blood disease called Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura which was further compounded by the effects of lupus.

Before Jay Dee even became J Dilla back in the mid-1990s, he’d already made a solid reputation for himself as part of critically acclaimed hip-hop group Slum Village, and produced albums, singles and remixes for big name acts such as Janet Jackson, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Common and Pharcyde while maintaining a low profile. His compiled work is a vast catalog of countless classic productions, with other posthumous releases, and many other unreleased beats.

In celebration of Dilla Day, we’ve come up with an essential list of 20 of J Dilla’s best work, some made in his lifetime and posthumously. With the sheer amount of dope beats he has under his belt, it would be impossible to include everything – we chose some of the most impactful of the lot in chronological order, and we’d love to hear what your favourites are!

1. The Pharcyde – “Labcabincalifornia (1995)

Labcabincalifornia was Pharcyde’s 2nd album, and features 7 productions by Jay Dee, including the much loved lead single Runnin’, and also Drop. Although it did not fare as well in album sales and popularity as the previous debut Bizarre Ride, this album is still an essential for both Dilla and Pharcyde fans, bringing a more mellow and introspective view on relationships, drug abuse and success.
2. A Tribe Called Quest – “Beats, Rhymes and Life” (1996)

The 4th album by A Tribe Called Quest and also the darkest, it was the first to feature production work from The Ummaha group which comprised of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Mohamed and Jay Dee. He had production props with the group on nearly one-third of the tracks in this album, including 1nce Again, Get a Hold, Keeping It Moving, Stressed Out and Word Play.

3. De La Soul – “Stakes is High” (1996)

Despite being the only track in this album that was produced by Dilla, the lead single and titular track from De La Soul’s 4th full-length album is one of young Jay Dee’s earliest mainstream productions and also considered to be one of his greatest.

Essential listening for all fans of classic hip-hop.

4. Busta Rhymes: “When Disaster Strikes” – “So Hardcore” (1997)

Busta Rhymes and J Dilla were known to be regular collaborators, with some considering their work to be one of the strongest between a single producer and emcee. He cites Jay Dee’s production for his 2nd studio album So Hardcore as one of his favourite Dilla produced tracks, and it features a sample from Go to Hail by Black Sheep. Although making an appearance with The Ummah only on one track on the album, the release received much commercial success, and praise from music critics.

5. Funkmaster Flex: “The Mixtape Vol III” – “That Shit” by A Tribe Called Quest (1998)

It is a little known fact that That Shit is the only A Tribe Called Quest song that Jay Dee laid vocals on. First introduced on Funkmaster Flex’s The Mixtape Vol III, it was produced by The Ummah, and was also ATCQ’s platform for the low-profile beatmaker to let the world know he was more than just a producer.

6. Q-Tip – “Amplified” (1999)

Amplified is Q-Tip’s debut solo album, a little while after leaving A Tribe Called Quest. Both Q-Tip and Jay Dee handled most of the production.

Colin Ross of PopMatters writes of the album’s music, “Amplifieds content is very much a vibe-orientated affair. Infectious hooks, Jay Dee’s trademark keys, and some seriously funky beats all work to create a captivating soundscape upon which Q-Tip drops his traditionally abstract rhymes”.

7. Common – “Like Water For Chocolate” (2000)

This album marked the formation of Soulquarians, which comprised of collaborators such as Questlove, Jay Dee, soul singer D’Angelo amongst numerous others. It was the fourth studio album by Common, and was noted to be a commercial and critical breakthrough for the artist. Jay Dee was credited for almost three quarters of the album, including the lead single The Light, which also had it’s video frequently shown on MTV.

8. Slum Village – “Fantastic, Vol.2” (2000)

Considered a concept record in its truest sense, Fantastic, Vol.2 included many updated versions of songs from Vol.1 such as I Don’t Know, as well as previously unreleased tracks. This represents the first widely released album not only that Jaydee contributed in its entirety as a producer, but also as a rapper and vocalist. Featuring classic tracks like Fall In Love and Players, this is essential listening for any hardcore J Dilla Fan.

9. Lucy Pearl – “Without You (Jay Dee Remix) (2000)

A rare track from the short lived supergroup, Lucy Pearl engaged the young producer to do this remix for their first, and also last album. Considered to be far superior than the original mix, Jay Dee tore the track down to it’s bones, and re-imagined the song with a minimalist approach – muffled drums, cupped keys and even him on ad-lib duties.

10. Jay Dee – “Fuck The Police” (2001)

Ignoring the release by rap group N.W.A of the same name, Jay Dee was instructed to write Fuck The Police by his mother, as a protest against the racial profiling and harassment he received daily on Detroit’s east side. The song was so incendiary MCA refused to release it, so it was released instead as a one off 12″ single for Up Above Records.

11. Jay Dee a.k.a J Dilla – “Welcome 2 Detroit” (2001)

This album marked an important moment in J Dilla history – it was not only his first solo release, but also documents the transition of his Jay Dee moniker to J Dilla, spreading his wings from the mysterious ‘producer’s producer’ role into coming out on his own. In this album he reached back to his hometown, Detroit, and pulled out some of the best talent that would then go on to make names for themselves in the hip-hop and soul world, including Dwele, Karriem Riggins, Elzhi and Frank-n-Dank.

12. Jay Dee – “Vol 2. Vintage” (2003)

Vol 2. Vintage was an instrumental EP that was released under the Jay Dee moniker, as it features previously unreleased tracks from 1995 -1998. It is an interesting introspective into his earlier work before he entered his more experimental phase, but still contain his trademark heavy filtering, syncopated basslines, and lo-fi sonics. This album has some of Dilla’s best beats from the 90s and is an essential for the Jay Dee geek.

13. Jay Dee – “Ruff Draft EP” (2003)

Touted as Dilla’s most experimental album yet, it was originally released as a vinyl-only EP, but then was re-released as an expanded version including instruments in 2007 after his passing. Nothing Like This serves as the highlight track, with distorted vocals repeating over a chorus and an eccentric guitar riff, showcasing his playfulness with different styles.

It is also the first release to bear the name ‘Jaylib’ (in the liner notes); J Dilla and Madlib‘s group which would not debut until a few months later.

14. Jaylib – “Champion Sound” (2003)

A favourite among hip-hop heads, many anticipated the release when the announcement of a collaboration between Jay Dee and Madlib came through. The only album ever to be the conceived between the duo, the release rose to critical acclaim and raised the profile of both musicians. The Red and Starz are two standout tracks from the album, both monster productions that showcased the creative artistry between the two artistes who met only a few times just before the release.

15. Slum Village feat J Dilla – “Reunion” (2004)

Before J Dilla’s passing, this counts as the last moment when Slum Village came together as one, without Baatin in the final version. Dilla lends his vocals on this track, but it was his understudy Black Milk that produced it. One of the most famous lines from Dilla, was, “Rep more D than 12 Eminems.” The entire EP, Detroit Deli, is one to note though, with artistes like Kanye West and John Legend contributing vocals to the release, and received a fairly solid reception.

16. J Dilla – “Donuts” (2006)

This was J Dilla’s last piece of work before he passed on; the magnum opus of his catalog of releases which wrote the future of Hip-hop music to many. It is also the most collected release, and while some might argue that it was not his best work to note, it was the personification of man whose days were numbered, and whose gifted mind used the power of music to convey the thoughts in his mind. Lightworks was one of the most popular tracks in the album, and is also one of the entry points for many new to his music. Last Donut of the Night is also one of the most emotional, with heart and soul pouring out of the track – and this entire release inspired a lot of Hip-Hop and electronic producers to release “beat tape” releases, not to mention thousands of other beatmakers in the scene. Donuts was released on J Dilla’s birthday, just shortly before he died 3 days later. It received universal acclaim and is considered one of the best Hip-hop instrumental albums in his lifetime.

17. J Dilla – “The Shining” (2006)

Slated to be the first album to be released after his death, it was incomplete at the time of his passing and was posthumously completed. It is also the first solo album featuring his vocals since Welcome 2 Detroit, and was highly anticipated by his fans. So Far to Go, one of the stand out tracks from this album, is a vocal version of one of his previously heard work with Common, and also showcases other collaborators such as D’Angelo, Madlib, and Busta Rhymes.

18. J Dilla – “Jay Love Japan” (2007)

This album is J Dilla’s 2nd posthumous project released, and it is said that he completed this project just before his death. It was intended to be an instrumental EP featuring 2 guest vocal tracks, but was advertised as featuring other artistes such as Raekwon, Blu and Truth Hurts. Apart from Say It as one of the popular tracks in the album, it also has an accompanying video series for the track Can’t You See.

19. Raekwon – “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II”

This critical album had a 5-year late release, but nevertheless still delivered with its Wu-Tang throwback of karate samples, chants, marching drums, and aggressive content. House of Flying Daggers was it’s most talked about track, of course produced by the almighty Dilla, crafted just weeks before his passing. Raekwon had much respect for the producer, stating,”Dilla, he’s a musical maestro, a Quincy Jones in his own world. I did not know his power until I listened to his catalog. He played his part in hip-hop. I’m glad to be involved with him. He stepped up his grizzly up for me. He gave the tracks that special blend. Thanks to Busta for making it happen. I got this while Dilla was still alive. I worked with the best, it was bound to happen. I really appreciated his energy.”

20. Mos Def feat Talib Kweli – “History”

This one comes out of Mos Def’s 4th studio album, Ecstatic, which was described as ‘a conscious, alternative hip-hop record with an eccentric, internationalist quality. It is an interesting one to note, because Mos Def paid for this beat to J Dilla’s mother Ma Dukes, supporting the legacy of her son – many had rapped over J Dilla’s beats, but few actually paid for it at all.

Special Mention:

J Dilla – “The Diary” (2016)

This would be J Dilla’s 6th posthumous release and also his last batch of unissued material that was slated for release before his death. It also represents his first rap album before Ruff Draft and Champion Sound. This much anticipated album is a collection of vocal performances from the producer himself, and also from a star-studded lineup of artistes including Madlib, Pete Rock, Hi-Tek, Nottz, Snoop Dogg, Karriem Riggins, Bilal, just to name a few. Released on Record Store day in 2016, it was a strategic move aimed at hardcore Dilla fans and record collectors, but nonetheless still a precious album showing off the producer as not just a beatmaker, but a monster emcee.

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