WARR contributor Demario Phipps-Smith is CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Culture Online
It’s been 10 years since we lost transcendent hip-hop producer J Dilla to complications from lupus.
Dilla, aka Jay Dee, nee’ James Yancey, reigned like a silent partner over the music industry with a style so unique, he became synonymous with the direction and progression of rap even if he didn’t compile headlines like Puffy or accolades like Dre.
Jay Dee always led with his beats and his rhymes, that was the way he was gonna make people feel him and in the wake of his untimely death at the age of 32 so many more hip-hop heads have joined his camp than those who’ve remained on the jock of your previous favorite producer.
The movement was delayed, but it remains on schedule and in the release of a once-vaulted album called, “The Diary,” Yancey now officially has another marker point highlighting one of the culture’s greatest bodies of work.
Before we get into the songs and the feel of the production, I have to admit; my experience with “The Diary” is a unique one. A few days prior to its release, the Chicago International Movies and Music Fest featured a set by Dilla protege Black Milk, Hi-Tek and the new Slum Village (T3 and Young RJ) at the Promontory.
To my surprise, there was a lot of people like myself there — off-kilter millennials reminiscing on a time we took for granted. Of course, the most dedicated Slum Villa fans showed up to support. When they had no words to recite, fanatics hummed and moaned to the beat of Jay Dee’s instrumentals.
Young RJ, Slum Village’s most recent full-time member, complimented co-founder T3 with his gritty flow —which was reminiscent of former MCs of the collective — and stage presence. RJ has been shunned a bit by fans looking for the old sound, but as he spends more time with the Village, critics are starting to warm up to what the future holds for the group.
T3 explained how important RJ was to the Village in a February 2015 interview with Watch Loud:
“First of all, I am a founding member of Slum Village, from beginning to end. Also, they don’t know the history of RJ. He was there at the beginning of Slum Village. When he was 15 he produced on his first Slum Village project, which was Trinity,” said T3.
“So he’s as much a part of Slum as I am. He’s always been in there. We were signed to his dad’s label back in the day. We was always a family. Not only that, Dilla showed him how to make beats, me to make beats. So it’s not like I took a random Joe Schmoe and put him in Slum Village.”
It’s good that a future remains for the Detroit underground super-group. There weren’t many artists making music like them in their heyday and there are certainly many less trying today in this age of “pop-hop” and “rhythm and rap.”
That is what makes “The Diary” so special to come along finally after being tied up in years of major label red tape. Despite the large left turn rap took near the start of the century, Dilla’s early 2000s work outclasses much of what is being done today. It also is a rare Dilla work wherein he spends a majority of the album rapping over other producer’s beats and not his own.
Dilla starts off the tape with a dark and gritty opening (“The Introduction”), with plenty touches of the Detroit rap he helped bring to prominence. Not surprisingly, the certified banger’s production was headed by fellow Detroit hip-hop stalwart DJ House Shoes.
Usually more humble than flossy, Jay Dee exposes his flashy, gangster flow on this banger — even if fans didn’t think he had one. It’s a well produced track and has some hints of a Timberland-style production. It’s as good of an intro for a Slum Village/Dilla album since the turn of the century when those original works were first being buzzed about in the hip-hop underground.
Another highlight of the delayed “Diary” is the two-part song “The Shining.” The first part of the song (Diamonds) has Common’s name written all over, it sounds like an unreleased track from “Like Water for Chocolate,” but Yancey — who’s master production propelled that album — utilizes the flossy background track as the potential showcase single it could have been had record label MCA not slept on this entire project back in 2002.
Vocalist Kenny Wray was brought in for the hook, which he decimates with flavor. Dilla hits home with some soulful verses about keeping your girlfriend interested by using her “best friend,” echoing the timeless advice given by Marilyn Monroe many years ago.
Perhaps the most experimental song on the tracklist is “Trucks” — an ode to big body drivers everywhere. Even if you prefer crotch rockets to traditional four-wheelers, Dilla’s remake of Gary Numan’s “Cars” will leave you a little more interested in F50s and Range Rovers. It is the most fun track on the album and celebrates Dilla’s unique mind and perspective. Apparently, he was rather passionate about sitting high up and “sipping Belvedere out my cup.”
Snoop D-O-Double G and Kokane make an appearance on the West Coast-inspired track “Gangsta Boogie.” Recently, Snoop expressed a past willingness to work with the fly producer but admitted “we were both making hot music at the same time,” which made it hard to find time to collaborate. Snoop dominates the track with his verse (ending with “I met Obama in some house shoes”), and Kokane bodies the “gangsta” hook while Jay Dee flexes some lyrical muscle of his own; “DILLA with the capital letters, n*ggas deliver it good/ Dilla just be rapping it betta.”
The second half of the album is highlighted by the pairing of tracks “The Creep” and “The Ex.” The former is significant because it sounds like a modern Tribe Called Quest beat. It even deals with popular Tribe issues, namely infidelity and women. “The Creep” is probably the best hip-hop beat in the collection of songs.
Singer and songwriter Bilal joined Dilla on “The Ex,” produced by beat-making legend Pete Rock, to bring the soulful approach he needed on a song about liberation from a former lover. These two songs add a more intimate element on a production composed mostly of B-side greats.
The album’s most controversial song — and arguably the most memorable in the Jay Dee discography — is a seering take on black perspectives on corrupt police and law enforcement with a familiar name but a completely original sound.
“F*ck the Police” debuted in 2001 — originally it was to be an early street single for “Pay Jay” — and covers many aspects of police brutality and corruption that plague our society still to this day. Dilla was once a junior cadet in Detroit’s police force but was turned away from the profession as a result of the treatment he received from them as a young adult. “Tell me, who protects me from you?/I got people who buy tecs and weed from you.”
The finale, as well as my favorite and the most “Dilla” song on the album, is a groovy track called “The Doe.” It’s a really funky beat that best incorporates the Motown sound that Yancey so often emulated. The energy of the song is fun and you can feel how much enjoyment the late hit-maker had with this project. It’s the perfect culmination of a great trip down Jay Dee’s legacy.
Even though we will never hear another J Dilla original straight from the studio, his spirit continues to live on through those who wish to see his work remain eternal. Dilla isn’t gone, he lives through his fans and supporters. The Diary is simply a reminder that he stays near the heart of the culture and he remains a step ahead of everyone else in hip-hop.
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