‘Dilla Time’ Captures an Offbeat Genius

Dan Charnas’s exhaustively detailed biography shows how J Dilla changed music forever

Macmillan Publishers
Morten Høi Jensen

How do we explain — how do we account for — the reverence and awe lavished on the late hip-hop producer James Dewett Yancey, alternately known to his fans as Jay Dee and J Dilla? He is celebrated annually with “Dilla Days” in cities across the country. In 2017 the composer Miguel Atwood-Ferguson performed a tribute to him at New York’s Lincoln Center. His MPC3000 drum machine is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. My brother and I have framed posters of him in our respective homes and t-shirts that read “J Dilla Changed My Life.” Why?

To answer that question, any self-respecting Dillaphile would exhort you to simply listen. Listen to The Pharcyde’s 1995 single “Runnin’,” and pay careful attention to the kick drum: notice how it never quite falls in the same place, how it refuses alignment with the time grid, creating a lazy, lumbering sound. Listen to “Don’t Cry” from J Dilla’s celebrated instrumental album Donuts, which, at first, consists of just a few loops of The Escorts’s 1974 song “I Can’t Stand (To See You Cry),” before being suddenly resequenced at the 40-second mark, as Dilla plays the original sample’s kick and snare drum in a faster tempo. Or, again from Donuts, listen to “Lightworks” and hear what J Dilla could do with a Raymond Scott cosmetics jingle from the 1960s: the way, for instance, that he manipulates the vocal sample to say “light up the spliffs” instead of “his heart does flips.”

If that doesn’t persuade you of the uniqueness of J Dilla’s musical achievement, then Dan Charnas’s engrossing new book, Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm, should do the trick. In a narrative that is part biography and part music history lesson, Charnas offers a straightforward and simple answer to the question of J Dilla’s musical reputation: he is revered because he “transformed the sound of popular music in a way that his more famous peers have not.” Charnas means this literally. Before Dilla, he says, popular music had two “time-feels”: straight time and swing time. By juxtaposing these, by playing them at the same time, J Dilla created an entirely new rhythm, one that allowed for blemish and imperfection. Put differently: the music he made on a machine sounded human.

Born in Detroit, J Dilla started his career in high school, where he formed the group Slum Village with fellow rappers T3 and Baatin. In 1994, a mutual friend passed on one of his beat tapes to Q-Tip, a founding member of A Tribe Called Quest, who recognized instantly that he was in possession of something special. Q-Tip became a mentor to Dilla, and was instrumental to his early success, including him in production collectives like The Ummah and the Soulquarians, under whose auspices Dilla began producing music for the likes of Tribe, Busta Rhymes, The Roots, D’Angelo, Common, and Erykah Badu. Before long, producers J Dilla had grown up idolizing, like Pete Rock, were coming to Detroit to visit him.

And yet, despite his impact, J Dilla remained, in the words of Questlove, “your musician’s musician’s musician.” Whether because of his own anti-talent for careerism or his many struggles with record labels, J Dilla never quite gained the recognition he deserved, even as his techniques were appropriated throughout the music industry. Many hip-hop artists and producers to emerge in the late 90s and early 2000s bore the unmistakable imprint of his sound: D’Angelo, Kanye West, Hi-Tek, 9th Wonder. Then, controversially, there was the matter of Janet Jackson’s chart-topping 1997 single “Got ‘til It’s Gone,” rumored to have been produced by J Dilla, but which Jackson maintained was simply “inspired” by him.

Not that he really cared about going mainstream. J Dilla, like his musical style, was all about thwarting expectations. He maintained an almost monastic work ethic and continued to experiment with different styles and sounds, even if that meant alienating audiences. (His production on Common’s 2002 album Electric Circus, like the album itself, divided critics). This boundary-pushing kept him on the fringes, which in turn meant that he frequently collaborated with more eccentric and less popular artists, like the similarly heterogenous producer Madlib, the metal-masked rapper MF DOOM, and fellow Detroit natives like Guilty Simpson and Frank-n-Dank — all the while being praised and admired by hip-hop royalty like Dr. Dre, Pharrell Williams, and Kanye West described by Charnas as “a human tornado of bluster and beats”).

J Dilla remained, in the words of Questlove, “your musician’s musician’s musician.”

Then, in January 2003, J Dilla was diagnosed with TTP, a rare blood disorder that severely affected his kidneys. Henceforth, he’d have to undergo thrice-weekly dialysis treatment — treatment he acquiesced to only reluctantly, and sometimes not at all. Ever unforthcoming, he kept his illness a secret from his friends; in 2005, he told Q-Tip that he was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome. Later that same year, a trip to Brazil was cut short when a doctor in São Paulo warned J Dilla that he risked dying if he did not book a medical flight back to the United States. The small group he was traveling with, which included Madlib, had no idea just how sick he was.

In 2004, J Dilla relocated to Los Angeles, living in an apartment owned by Common with a view of the San Fernando valley. His mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, practically moved there herself; over the years she had become part mother, part consiglieri to her son, looking out for his personal and financial interests both. Puzzlingly, she would often support J Dilla’s refusal of medical treatment, despite his deteriorating health and frequent relapses. In late 2005, when the now wheelchair-bound J Dilla was offered a European tour, she didn’t try to stop him from going, despite pleas from his friends to do so.

On February 7, 2006, the Oxnard-based record label Stones Throw, which had released J Dilla and Madlib’s 2003 collaboration Champion Sound, put out Donuts, an instrumental album J Dilla had worked on in and out of the hospital during his time in Los Angeles. Charnas is honest enough to pour cold water on the oft-repeated myth that J Dilla recorded it from his deathbed; according to Dilla Time, he devoted less attention to Donuts in his final months than he did to other projects, thus dispelling the interpretation of Donuts as a musically encoded goodbye to his friends and family. Which, in a literal sense, it actually was: on the morning of February 10, three days after the release of Donuts, J Dilla died in the presence of his mother and his friend Maurice “Bobo” Lamb. He was 32 years old.


At 458 pages, Charnas’s book suffers from more than a few longeurs, like a ten-page account of Roger Linn’s development of the LM-1 drum machine, or a seven-page history of the city planning of Detroit. Nor do I think the reader gains much from knowing that J Dilla’s father “often grilled in the backyard,” or that J Dilla placed his equipment “on an old wooden bar in the north side of the room” of his parents’ basement. Still, Charnas’s fastidious attention to detail is that of the enthusiast, not the pedant; Dilla Time trembles with love for its subject — not just J Dilla, but the whole history of hip-hop, especially the development of the genre’s production techniques, explained and sometimes illustrated in generous detail.

But while admiring, Charnas’s portrait is not particularly flattering. Dilla’s musical embrace of error and imperfection extended to his personal conduct, too; he cheated on girlfriends, got a half dozen women pregnant (his mother paid for the abortions), and often spent more time at Detroit’s spangled strip clubs than he did at home. He slapped a girlfriend and once pulled a loaded gun on a close friend. For all that he is associated with “conscious” artists like Common and A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla’s interests were always more material: cars, clothes, jewelry. A green Lexus 450 with gold trim he bought in 1995 is referred to as “the green dick,” for all the women it supposedly attracted.

Yet for all the virtues of Dilla Time, a book can only ever be an auxiliary conduit to J Dilla, or any other musician, for that matter. The best and only way of getting to know him is through his music: the wobbly basslines, the stuttering drums, the characteristic blaring of a siren, sampled from Mantronix’s “King of Beats.” What’s more, Charnas’s answer to the question of J Dilla’s posthumous reputation, while persuasive, feels incomplete. Surely the reason such a cult of fandom has been built up around Dilla is not only because of his technical innovation. Why is he celebrated every February? Why do so many people profess such love for him? Why do I?

In Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, a documentary film about the record label Stones Throw, there is a clip of J Dilla and Madlib’s first meeting in the flesh, a moving moment in which the admiration they already had for one another is palpable. It was an admiration that would not only deepen over the years but become a source of inspiration for both. As Erykah Badu once said of them, “They make beats all day long. That’s what they do. All. Day. Long.” In Dilla Time, Charnas recounts a moment near the end of J Dilla’s life, when he and Madlib are described as working together in near-silence, communicating only through their music and an occasional “Woooo!” or “Yeeeaahh.”

It is this fraternal quality that comes closest, I think, to explaining my own devotion to Dilla, because it is a devotion I share with my younger brother. The first time we became aware of him was in 2001 or 2002, when we saw the music video for Slum Village’s “Raise it Up,” which is produced by J Dilla, who also performs the first verse. On a Saturday afternoon many years later, we were sitting at a bar in Brooklyn when Donuts came on: for the 44 minutes the album lasts we nodded along in determined stupor, immersed in its restless and unresolved collage of musical styles.

If it’s true, as the novelist Ralph Ellison suggests in an essay on jazz, that the enjoyment of music is always “suffused with past experience,” then J Dilla’s music will always put me in mind of the hours, the days, I’ve spent listening to it with my brother. But maybe it’s suffused with something else, too: just as Donuts challenges our notions of what is forward and backward (the first track is labelled as an “outro”), so, perhaps, what I am hearing is the hope or expectation of a future experience, too: the next time we sit down together, pour those first drinks, and listen as the familiar, stuttering voice announces: “J-J-J-J-Dilla, Dilla, Dilla….”

Ten Essential J Dilla beats

  • “Runnin’” by The Pharcyde, from Labcabincalifornia (1995)
  • “Didn’t Cha Know” by Erykah Badu, from Mama’s Gun (2000)
  • “Dooinit” by Common, from Like Water for Chocolate (2000)
  • “Think Twice” by J Dilla, from Welcome 2 Detroit (2001)
  • “The Red” by J Dilla and Madlib, from Champion Sound (2003)
  • “Oblighetto (Remix)” by Jack McDuff and J Dilla, from Blue Note Revisited (2004)
  • “Yesterday” by J Dilla, from Jay Love Japan (2007)
  • “Workinonit” by J Dilla, from Donuts (2006)
  • “Lightworks” by J Dilla, from Donuts (2006) / “Lightworks” by MF DOOM, from Born Like This (2009)
  • “Fall in Love” by Slum Village, from Fantastic Vol 2.10 (2010)

Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Works of Jens Peter Jacobsen. He lives in Brooklyn.