On Sunday February 16, 2020, Brooklyn Bowl in New York’s Williamsburg played host to “Donuts Are Forever,” an annual gathering of fans, friends and family of the late, great James “J Dilla” Dewitt Yancey. This was the 14th such celebration and fundraiser held since the untimely death of the Detroit producer and MC in 2006.
Before succumbing to complications from a rare blood disease and lupus, Dilla — as a member of Slum Village, collaborator with peers like Madlib, and as a solo artist — changed the sound of Hip Hop, R&B and even jazz with lush and future forward productions like Slum Village’s “Players,” The Pharcyde’s “Runnin,” De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High” and so many more.
So, on this almost balmy (by New York Winter standards), 43-degree night, author Dan Charnas stood elbow-to-elbow with those attending a sonic sermon for one of the greatest producers to have ever lived.
Headlining that night was Dilla influence turned peer and friend, Pete Rock, one of the 200 subjects Charnas interviewed for his exhaustive tome on the life and afterlife of Yancey, Dilla Time, which he was still working on at the time. Charnas was not a regular attendee of the annual tribute, despite having worked with Yancey many years ago during his previous life as a record executive. His first time attending was the year prior when he was teaching a course on Dilla at NYU, the catalyst for his book.
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“I wanted them to see this festive, longest-running Dilla tribute,” Charnas tells HipHopDX. “As it turns out, most of my students were under 21, so they couldn’t go.” Nevertheless, Charnas did get to catch up with Dilla’s uncle, Herman Hayes, proprietor of ‘Dilla’s Donuts’ in Detroit, salvaging the trip. The following year he made a point of going again to immerse himself in Dilla’s energy. “It was a comfort for me. Of course, none of us knew that it was going to be our last party for a long, long time.”
Dan first met J Dilla, then going by Jay Dee, in August of 1999 when he was executive producing for rapper Chino XL. They were transitioning from Rick Rubin’s label, American Records, to Warner Brothers and had a budget to get some great producers. Having become a fan of Dilla after hearing his work for The Pharcyde, Dan arranged a trip to Detroit to record two songs for Chino’s 2001 album, I Told You So.
“I still have the directions in my phone,” he recalls. “I took a picture of the directions that Maureen [Maureen Yancey is Dilla’s mother, affectionately known as Ma Dukes] sent me. We parked the car on McDougall. We knocked on that little white side door. I think Maureen may have opened it for us. Look up, there’s the kitchen. Look down, there’s the basement. We go down there. What’s Common Sense doing down here? I had no idea that what was going on was this sort of landmark album [2000’s Like Water For Chocolate].”
Dan remembers that he did bring a camera with him to Detroit, but left it as his hotel. He wasn’t in journalist mode, so documenting the moment was the last thing on his mind. However, he and Chino did leave with two songs, “Don’t Say A Word” and “How It Goes.” Both beats are featured on one of Dilla’s famous “batch” beat tapes from 1998 proliferating on YouTube.
“They’re two of the best beats that Jay Dee ever made,” he recalls with pride. “They’re amazing. Just amazing. It wasn’t until I got back from Detroit about six months later that I began to really understand the rhythmic subversion of them. He was just a fun producer who had very loose beats. We like Rhodes. The Fender Rhodes. The deep bass lines. The cracking snares. But then, six months later, I’m mixing the album down. I’m like, ‘What’s going on with those hi-hats? They sound off.’ That’s when I took it into my digital audio workstation and lined up the waveforms with the grid, and I realized there’s nothing wrong with those hi-hats. The snare is coming early and it’s making the hi-hats seem off. But why is he doing that? How is he doing that? And why do we like it?”
After publishing his critically acclaimed history of the Hip Hop music business, The Big Payback, Charnas began teaching music history at NYU’s Clive Davis School of Music. The broad pop music class challenged his students to defend why certain luminaries like Billie Holiday and James Brown were vital to the pantheon of American music. The course covered 150 years and 150 musicians. In 2014, inspired by his undergrad’s fondness for J Dilla, Charnas added him to the list of subjects to be studied.
“That is when I first made the argument, and I made a little slide of what ‘Dilla Time’ was. I didn’t even have a name. I just felt I needed to name it because the students loved him, and I wanted to get behind that.” Afterward, his department chair at NYU, Jason King, suggested that he teach an entire class on Dilla and take the students to Detroit. As a man of learning who is married to a Detroit native, this was an easy sell for Charnas.
In summer of 2017 Charnas and 20 of his students flew to the Motor City to immerse themselves in the community that nurtured their musical hero.
“It was difficult because it was expensive for the students, so it was a bit of a burden on them,” Charnas begins. “There was a blizzard. Ma Dukes was supposed to fly in but she couldn’t. All the flights were canceled. Students’ planes were late getting in, but we managed to do it. We had three really good days there. We met with family members and got them a tour of the donut shop. We took students to the house on McDougall and Nevada in Conant Gardens. We had lunch at Buddy’s Pizza, where Waajeed joined us and said he had many business meetings with Slum Village. Then we came back to New York and for seven weeks we had the class. And then in the course we were joined by Tre from The Pharcyde, Brian Cross, Bob Power, Questlove and Ma Dukes, who did Skype in as well. It was fun. It was really, really, real.”
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However, in teaching the course, Charnas realized there was a dearth of material for his syllabus. And seven years after his passing, the growing legend of J Dilla was missing what made him truly special.
“When you’re a professor and you’re putting together a syllabus, you’re really looking for good things to read. Everywhere I was reading was like, ‘Well, Dilla didn’t quantize, and that’s what he did.’ Come on, man,” Charnas says. Quantization is the ability to move recorded audio and place it on the nearest grid position that is musically relevant, keeping a strict time. It’s a function on many digital audio workstations like the AKAI MPC 3000 that Dilla used to make many of his beats. “These are beat makers saying this thing. Haven’t you ever used an MPC? Don’t you know what it does? Don’t you know that the very special thing about that drum machine is that he actually did use the timing functions on it? Can’t you hear that? Why don’t you write about it?” So, what began as a “quick little science book” about music turned into a four-year quest for truth.
One of the more pervasive parables about J Dilla was that he had a mathematical formula for making beats. The legend was started by Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, Dilla’s friend, mentor and production partner in The Ummah, and corroborated by Ma Dukes. But did he really have a formula?
“I think the most right answer, before this book, was given to you by [Slum Village members] Young RJ and T3 when they told you, ‘He’ll give me a piece of it. He’ll give Young RJ a piece of it. He’ll give somebody else a piece of it. But he gave nobody it all together,’” he says referring to an interview conducted by this writer in 2010. “But I do not believe that Q-Tip was saying he has a formula for his beats. I think what Q-Tip was saying is ‘He showed me a physics equation from when he was at Davis, when he was taking math at Benjamin O. Davis Technical High School.’ That’s what I think Q-Tip was saying, at least the way I read that. ‘He wrote out this equation for me.’ It’s crazy. And then somehow it became, ‘Oh, it’s his mathematical formula for beats.’”
However, Charnas did channel his experience as a record producer, A&R and journalist into decoding exactly what made Dilla’s technique, an intentional conflict of straight time (an even pulse) and swing time (an uneven pulse), so unique and influential. Music theory can be heady for some, but like Dilla, Charnas wanted to make the extraordinary palatable while excavating the beauty in the seemingly mundane. In collaboration with his NYU colleague Jeff Peretz, Charnas created a pedagogy to explain the complexity of Dilla’s techniques.
“One thing I knew that I couldn’t do is do any musical notation in this book,” Charnas says matter-of-factly. “There could not be any notes and staves. People would run. So, expressing ‘straight’ verse ‘swung’ with grids, that’s a language that Jeff gave to me to use. He helped me do a lot of the analysis for all this. [Readers] understand time as a linear thing, and they understand bars that line up with each other and bars that don’t line up with each other. You can see the conflict in front of you with two tracks of bars, where they don’t align. The hope was that it would make it click for people.”
Dilla’s musical innovations would first confound and then inspire his peers like Questlove of The Roots and DJ Jazzy Jeff. But for Yancey, it was bittersweet. Dilla’s reaction to first hearing Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek’s “The Blast,” with its rushed snare and lilting bassline, exclaiming “That’s MY shit,” is just one of the many enlightening moments in the book.
But of equal interest, Charnas speaks to the women in Dilla’s life — his mother and the mothers of his children, Monica and Joy — to unpack the non-music conflicts that impacted his personal life and caused the timeline of his story post 2006 to splinter off into separate but equally valid variants that would make Marvel writers dizzy. It was this challenge that hung over Charnas’ head like the Sword Damocles as he nodded along to the beats echoing the walls that night at Brooklyn Bowl; how does someone reconcile the post mortem deification of Dilla with the history of James and his undeniable impact on music?
“This is what I’m thinking about while I’m hanging out [at Donuts Are Forever]. I am struggling with this because this is unreadable. ‘Nobody is going to read this.’ Then it just occurred to me, well, why am I using the map of Detroit anyway? I’m using the map of Detroit because it’s a broken grid. It’s a conflicted polyrhythm. Well, why can’t I use the map of Detroit to teach the music stuff? So then those go together. And then the family history goes on top of it.”
While Charnas’s The Big Payback was spun off into the VH1 TV series, The Breaks, he doesn’t presume that this book will be turned into a biopic or TV show about Dilla. In fact, he hopes that it inspires those closest to James to tell their own stories.
“I actually feel like anything that’s done about Dilla is a good thing. I really try not to be proprietary about it because people don’t own stories. That’s another thing that people really don’t understand. It’s our job as journalists and storytellers to tell these stories. I want Maureen to have a book. I want Frank [Nitt of Frank N Dank] to have a book. There are lots of people who could create great stories of their own. Maybe there will be another Dilla book at some point. It’d be fantastic. Let a million flowers bloom.”
Dan Charnas’s Dilla Time is out now MCD Press.