Dee Jay: Ruff Draft

This, as the title suggests, is a rough draft of a portrait of J Dilla aka Jay Dee. Because it is the first time I’ve attempted a collage piece this size, I viewed this as a draft from the beginning to help myself stay loose with it.  The result is not subtle.  The forms lose definition among the mess of the component parts.  I’m not sure how people will react to the sheer noise of it, but my original subtitle for this post was “An Ambitious Mess”.  Fortunately, from this exercise I feel confident that I can tighten it up (or make it much worse) on command next time(s).


“Dee Jay: Ruff Draft” 36″ x 30″ Mixed media collage

Dilla, who died in 2006 at the age of 34 of a rare blood disease, was a DJ of significant influence to the hip hop industry.  Over the last 2 decades, he collaborated with A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Common, D’Angelo, Eryka Badu, the Roots, Talib Kweli, Madlib, the Pharcyde and many, many others.  In addition he released 2 solo albums during his lifetime, and has had several more compilations and albums released posthumously.

Despite his specific influence upon the genre of music and Hip Hop, I chose Dilla as a subject because of the contributions I feel he’s made to art generally.  I have personally found his method of appropriation, re-contextualization and combination of both pre-existing and custom made components invaluable to myself in my own work, and believe the same could be true for anyone in many fields. 

While most of his basic methods are comon in hip hop, Dilla’s signature, to me (and I’m not trained in music so pardon me if I butcher this going forward), is his fine control of the scalpel.  Samples begin and end in sudden, precise, fashion, whether to increase the action of the track or to create a novel form of lyricism.  As an example, this is a track off his album “The Shining,” completed shortly after his passing.  It features d’Angelo and Common.

This is a very pretty, flowing song, yet every component within it, except Common, is warped and distorted in some way.  D’Angelo’s part, which I believe was recorded for this session, sounds much like a sample itself.  I don’t know the precise effects, but his various vocal and piano parts have been cut and spliced together in a way that emphasizes the basic studio process at the expense of a more traditional “live” feel.  These parts were created in order to be distorted.  D’Angelo’s talents are enough to carry a piece on their own, but Dilla sought to make something more of them, a hybrid of their natural, acoustic qualities and digital manipulation.

Now listen to the straight instrumental version (its not necessary to listen to the full thing to get the basic idea).

And here is the one song sampled to create this song.

He has created something entirely new from the source material.  Its roots can be traced, but Dilla’s song is its own entity.  It’s sped up, but that’s too simple a term for what’s going on.  I’m guessing as to the exact mechanics, but it sounds like the original rhythm section has had snippets cut from between the beats, in addition to whatever simple speeding up may exist (and Dilla’s own inserted rhythm elements).  Both the bass line and the lighter, strumming guitar of Ernie Isley that establishes the basic chords sound as though they’ve been cut and re-assembled into a melody I’m not sure ever existed in the original song.  Added to that is the second guitar part, Ernie’s tiny flairs that I describe as “blurpy.”  These are interspersed widely throughout the original, but Dilla separates them out and makes them a much more important piece of his own work than they were.

The way Dilla has treated his materials here shows an astounding mastery.  Its a complete and intrusive imposition of his will on the entire proceedings.  However, instead of feeling forced or overwrought, the result is a simple and beautiful song.

These traits come to their logical head on the album “Dilla Donuts,” released on Dilla’s 34th birthday, 3 days before he died.  The album was largely created in a hospital as he was very ill.  Amir “Questlove” Thompson of the Roots and others have suggested that Dilla knew this album would be his final document, and he treated it as such.  Within the dense layers of sounds he included messages for his friends and family.  The result is an album unlike pretty much anything else I’ve listened to.  I know of other mash-ups and DJ albums of voluminous samples and whatnot (The Avalanches, Madlib, DJ Spinna, all have excellent examples), but this work has an intentionality even the best of these lack.  Each song, while only 1-2 minutes in length, is a work in itself contributing to the overall suite.

Here are 2 tracks from the album, which I consider indispensable and would recommend to anyone.  I particularly like the video of the first song because it uses editing to partially convey what’s going on in the song itself.

The extent to which these clips have been cut up and re-purposed dwarfs even that of the examples above.  Single words, if not syllables, are used, repeated and toyed with to create short, but complete statements of music.  As I said, it is necessary to hear the full album to really appreciate the entire piece, and how these parts relate to the whole, but the same basic principles apply.

The result is a layered experience by the listener.  There is the surface level of the songs and album, which can be listened to casually, aesthetically, without too much analysis.  But once one does begin to analyze the pieces unveil a densely packed world of information.  Hidden statements and inside references allow the works to exist on an entirely analytic, intellectual level, like the Hip Hop equivalent of Joyce’s Ulysses (But, you know, with the aesthetic portion still in tact)

This is what I take from J Dilla.  This is what I would hope to learn from him.  Without spoiling this post with a discussion of my own history, at my best I think I’ve succeeded at part of this.  What he accomplished is a good statement of the level I one day hope to reach and what I’ve attempted to study in this portrait of J Dilla himself.  As d’Angelo said in the top song, I have a ways to go, but I can’t think of a better subject to keep me striving to get there.  I also take each of these lessons to be equally applicable to any artform, whether writing, film, or whatever one applies themselves to.

Below I’ll post a few more examples of Dilla’s work, and a detail shot of the top piece.

Dee Jay
James Dewitt Yancey (February 7, 1974 – February 10, 2006)



2 Responses to “Dee Jay: Ruff Draft”

  1. Really like the collage, J.D. Just the right mix of original and referential. Kinetic and masterful, dude.

  2. Great write-up. I think it’s sad that most people group all “Rap music” together. Dilla was truly one of the great composers of our generation. Also, I think the collage is looking good.

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