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Friday, April 06, 2007

Dilla's Year

J Dilla

Ruff Draft
Year: 2003
Label: Mummy Records
Reissue Year: 2007
Label: Stones Throw

The Shining
Year: 2006
Label: BBE

Year: 2006
Label: Stones Throw

Though I’d listened to Dilla before he passed away last February, I never heard him ‘til a few weeks after Donuts was put out. That’s just over a year now -- not that long ago in real time but when sounds are so good it seems that time passes slower, like you’re really enjoying every moment to its fullest.

Donuts is simply one of the most emotional records that I’ve ever experienced on every level. The story behind it – Dilla creating the masterpiece while dying – only adds to the plethora of feelings the instrumental album rides.

So quickly the record moves through certain passages that will hypnotize as they move. Like the trembling flow of “Waves” to the heavy bump of “Light My Fire” to the laid-back mood of “The New,” then WHOA!, the sorrow beauty of “Stop!” J gives up the perfect amount of time to each track, usually a minute or so.

One of the wicked cool things (yeah, I’m from Massachusetts) that I’ve found about this album is that you can often times hit rewind when a song ends that you don’t want to stop listening to and it feels like it never lost a beat! So many times I’ve been entranced for 10 to 15 plays in a row, especially the brassy “Gobstopper,” and R&B swirled “Time: The Donuts of the Heart,” among others. The under 45 minute album has many times clocked in at well over an hour!

Other tracks that really got me on this album are the piano-lined deep beat of “Mash” the Jackson 5 tweaked-elevation of “Two Can Win” and mysterious “Hi.” Check out the sickness Dilla on the downer “Walkinonit.” But this isn’t your singles record; it’s a continuous flow of all life’s feelings and must be listened start to finish for full affect.

If ever an album needed a serious dark-room-headphone-listen, where you could here each and every layer of sound, Donuts is that record. And so many of the tracks that you first heard on Donuts would get the royal treatment by Ghostface, The Roots, Common and D’Angelo.

The next big Dilla release of 2006 was The Shining. A spectacular record in so many ways, it sees many of J’s closest people taking the mic to his sweet beats. The first hotdog comes early with Common on the bouncing “E=MC2.” The soulful Pharoahe Monch knows what “Love” means and Dilla’s production is at its finest flash.

“Baby” finds Guilty Simpson at his most romantic:

You can catch Guilty Simpson at a rave with babes
Packing a ’38 snub and a razor blade…

And when the shit’s smokin’ where the logo’s at
And the witnesses won’t tell the po po jack
That’s how it is when we fuck shit up
Keep the girls horny and the blunts lit up

The Roots’ Black Thought is given a mellow production with a percussive clattering and dazzles the mic on “Love Movin’.” There’s also a couple of nice instrumental passages in “Love Jones” and “Over The Breaks.” But what most blazes on The Shining is the all Dilla on “Won’t Do.” All I can think about is having a blast under water in the 70s, which I think I missed the point of the song because J is trying to tell me that he needs many women in his life to be satisfied. Anyway, it’s the man at his highest!

The Shining is a great album, suffering only because it sometimes feels like an All-Star team of friends getting together to pay tribute to Dilla. And in reality that’s what it is – a great record that was almost done when Dilla passed away that was glazed with love of his deepest friends.

To cap off the year of celebrating an extraordinary life, Stones Throw reissued Ruff Draft, a work that Dilla had released in 2003. All I had heard from the short work was “Nothing Like This,” which pretty much blew my mind the first time I heard in on the Stones Throw compilation Chrome Children.

Before just a few weeks ago, the work was an out-of-print vinyl only rarity. On this project Dilla was proving that he wasn’t a one-trick dude as he takes the mic on his amazing productions. As J explains in the intro:

“Before we get this started, let me explain it. It’s Ruff Draft. For my real niggaz only. DJs that play that real live shit. You wanna bounce in your whip with that real live shit. Sound like it’s straight from the ma’fuckin’ cassette! Ruff Draft... Let’s do it.”

Although there aren’t even a lot of actual full length tracks on the disc, what’s there is sure-fire classic. “Let’s Take It Back” sprinkles keyboard with that Dilla bounce. “Reckless Driving” is just a sick ride. It flashes that Dilla vocal mash that’s got so many sonic sound layers. His production sometimes reminds me of a martial arts master, boasting all elements of concentrated perfection.

When Dilla gets “The $” it’s a smooth synthy-beat affair, best rhymes and all. I love it when he says:

Dealin’ with the gangsta shit
(Now let me say it again, and say it with feelin’)

Dealin’ with the gangsta shit
Hit it spits the flame, hit it get the bank and split

Another track that just kills is “Make’em NV.” With a simple beat, a spinning vibe line and more Dilla swirls it’s the darkest cut on the record for sure. “Wild” is sampled with some little kid ranting off the chorus of Slade’s “Cum on Feel the Noize,” with some claps and a short guitar line. Quite a clever idea and it wasn’t even available on the original vinyl.

Last November at the Stones Throw 10th Anniversary show in Baltimore it was plain to see how much that crew missed Dilla. EVERYONE misses him, including me, who never met him, and really just began listening to him in a sense. Hopefully there will be many more releases in the future so the fun will never stop!

You can find Dilla’s work on these from the last year:

Ghostface Killah “Whip You With A Strap” and “Beauty Jackson” from Fishscale
The Roots “Can’t Stop This” from Game Theory
Madlib “Take It Back” from the Chrome Children compilation
Guilty Simpson “Clap Your Hands” from the Chrome Children compilation
Busta Rhymes “You Can’t Hold A Torch” from The Big Bang


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