The problem with posthumous releases is rarely that they are hard to sell. If anything, a common pitfall of such projects is that they are usually motivated by an inherent marketability. All too often, records released after an artist’s death also bear the mark of foreign manipulation and contributions. Hip Hop in particular has a troubled history with post-death collaborations, features, albums, and even—and this feels weird to say—hologram performances. There are plenty of firm reminders in this culture already that an artist’s legacy continues to be pliable after death. At the same time, there is something honest and sincere in fans simply wanting more music.
J Dilla’s following and fame has only grown since his death in 2006, days after his one of his most well-known works, Donuts, was released. The battle over Dilla’s legacy has played out more publicly than most could have imagined during his prolific career. Generally speaking, this battle has been made up of two main parts. On the one hand, it is largely about freeing up Dilla’s estate so that his mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, and his children can be granted access to the earnings from his work. The other glaring issue with Dilla’s post-death career has been the use and release of his music. Recently, Stones Throw reissued the highly regarded album Donuts as a boxset of eight 7” records. What made this decision so puzzling from everything but a marketing perspective is that the album was explicitly meant to be played continuously and even consecutively. This reissue, and others like it, again raises the question of how to tastefully approach the release of more Dilla music. And, more simply, it reminds us of one nagging question, what would the artist actually want?
Music From The Lost Scrolls, Vol. 1 acts as a precursor to a full-length Lost Scrolls album being compiled by Dilla collaborator Frank Nitt with help from Ma Dukes herself. The EP, at just four tracks, is definitely granted an air of respect missing from other posthumous projects in that it is his close working partners and loved ones facilitating its release. Still, there is always some apprehension when unreleased material hits the public. And it’s fair to wonder whether or not some things should stay shelved.
Ironically, of the four tracks that appear on the EP, “The Throwaway” carries the most completed feel. With verses from Dilla’s brother Illa J and Frank Nitt himself, the track bubbles with an upbeat drive that propels the three verses forward. While “The Throwaway” had already technically been released with a video to match, its appearance here makes sense in order to add some weight to an otherwise thin sampler. The other three tracks find Dilla on his own as both a producer and emcee. The solitary instrumental track “Ruff And Rugged” bears a uniquely Dilla sound, largely owing to the synthy timbre of the prominent bassline and a signature refinement in his drum programming. “Smack A Bitch,” which in classic Dilla vignette style clocks in under a minute, has Dilla rhyming in a somewhat surprisingly profane verse befitting the title. The final track “Dewitt To Do It,” a reference to the artist’s middle name, is another Dilla double threat affair that sounds like it was culled directly from the sessions that produced Q-Tip’s debut solo album Amplified in 1999 (Dilla’s nearly mumbling delivery and cadence is definitely indebted to “The Abstract” here as well).
Overall, the Lost Scrolls EP is a nice treat for folks who are already fans of Dilla. It is definitely brimming with a sound familiar even to the most casual fans, but it is certainly not groundbreaking or pivotal alongside his catalogue of released music. Fans of Jay Dee will be easily motivated by the release, as it simply provides more music; new fans however should look elsewhere for an entry-point to the vast sounds of Dilla.