Sadly, it’s always the dead musicians who develop the
biggest following. Underappreciated when alive, J Dilla – arguably one of the best Hip Hop minds ever – and his
records have amassed scores of new listeners since his death. But many of these
new fans maybe haven’t heard of Slum
, and because of that, weren’t exposed to his full range of talents.
Ruff Draft will help change that.

released in February 2003 as a vinyl-only album distributed by German label Groove Attack, Ruff Draft is some of Dilla‘s
last solo work before his lupus diagnosis in 2005. Now it is indie powerhouse Stones Throw (who also released Dilla’s Champion Sound collab and Donuts),
to re-issue the obscure LP.

Ruff Draft begins with a short intro:
the artist himself. “It’s Ruff Draft. For my real niggaz only. DJs that play
that real live shit…like it’s straight from the motherfucking cassette.

The album then dives into one lush soundscape after another. “Let’s Take It
Back,” the first full track, is highlighted by the strumming of tonal
synth-samples, and it relaxes your ears as he rides the beat with some adroit
emceeing. “Reckless Driving,” ups the ante as the synth-heavy light beats have
an epic, energizing feel because of the well-placed bass. As always, Dilla pulls this off without a hitch.
But he still teases you, as he knows what’s to come.

Like This” and “The $” are the album’s two biggest heavy-hitters. The first, a
love poem comprised of several simple quatrains, solidifies Dilla‘s status as one of Hip Hop’s most
unique talents. It’s a love song, but it’s far from “Thug Love.” Simple strings
and percussion are distorted to create an emotive accompaniment for his
expressive lyrics: “Incomplete when
you’re away/You turn my nights into day/You show me the light, uh-huh/Gotta
have you right away
.” On “The $,” he uses ascending horn synth samples to
give the song an old-school, b-boy feel.

and M.O.P. samples form the
background for “Make ’em NV,” a song about changes in Hip Hop culture; “These backpackers want to confuse it/Niggaz
is icy ain’t got nothing to do with the music/So, hater, mind ya biz and getcha
own/You know what time it is, we get that glow.
” The only lackluster
track on this album, “Crushin’ (Yeeeeaah!),” uses a grindable beat to describe
his seemingly endless desire for ass. It’s terribly average and notches below
what we’re accustomed from Dilla‘s
dazzling soundscapes.

original album ends with a track of shout-outs, but is reborn with several
unreleased tracks. After an alternate introduction, “Wild” takes the stage. A
sample from British glam-rock band Slade‘s
“Cum on, Feel the Noize” is processed to make the song sound child-like. “Take
Notice,” featuring fellow Detroit rapper Guilty
and an alternate outro end the album on a high note.

the album’s wonderful. He doesn’t overload you with complicated beats and
rhymes. Because of this, and because of the album’s length – it runs less than
half an hour from start to finish – you’ll be left wanting more. Dilla‘s legacy is still growing. His
popularity hasn’t yet crested nor has his name been cheapened – a la Tupac – by scores of lechers looking to
make a quick buck off of yet another subpar remix album. Along with the
all-time great emcees, Dilla is an
artist people will listen to many years from now.

just hope hip-hop’s not dead by then.

HipHopDX‘s review of Dilla‘s The Shining

Also, check out our Remembering Dilla piece