I Wanna Be Literated #258

I Wanna Be Literated #258

Monday, 25 July 2022

Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm
by Dan Charnas

It’s about time someone wrote a book on J Dilla. A legendary producer who I only recently became aware of, his music is intriguing and sounds vaguely familiar, and as it turns out, it’s because of certain unique element that have since become a norm of sorts in modern hip hop. J Dilla seems both a God and an underappreciated element in the genre. Let’s learn more about him and put his life into perfective.

Dan Charmas teaches a course on J Dilla at NYU and certainly seems to spend a lot time talking to those who knew and were influenced by J Dilla, and just thinking about him in general. So, who better, right?

Dilla Time (named after his signature beat rhythm) paints a somewhat comprehensive picture of the man, while still having him elude us. What we learn from this book is that J Dilla was incredibly influential in the music some heavy hitters were making, mostly because they were able to hear and be excited by what he was making. His approach to music and rhythm sounded fresh enough where artists wanted to emulate him, or just have him produce music for their albums. He originated a certain sound that everyone wanted. That esteem is clear from reading J Dilla. But another takeaway from J Dilla, and this might not be intentional by the author, is that J Dilla was kind of a huge asshole.

There are many takeaways from J Dilla’s behavior which Charmas outlines in this book, and those are that he was petty, jealous, a showoff, spoiled, inconsiderate, unprofessional, and an ego-maniac. There is story after story in Dilla Time of J Dilla being a total control freak or trying to take all the credit for collaborations or being inconsiderate (both monetarily and emotionally) to his fellow artists or friends and family. This all comes down to J Dilla being incredibly spoiled (by family and friends) to where he just didn’t feel like he needed to compensate band-members for their work, or tell his girlfriends about the other women (and children) in his life, or consider whether his selfishness would hurt others. Charmas presents this as J Dilla’s genius which everyone was in awe of and were willing to make sacrifices for, but it just looks like he’s a spoiled brat living in a bubble. For example, the guy was making huge sums of money, going to the strip clubs (which Charmas charmingly refers to at the “titty bars”), buying cars and expensive wardrobe he would never wear, while still living at home. When, at the end of his life, the plushness of the lifestyle he chose to live became incompatible with his income he couldn’t understand how it happened even though he himself always said he “never wanted to see any bills” and shirked financial responsibilities to other. Honestly, it’s hard to feel sympathetic to someone so childish. Here is a man who could not recognize his benefactors and could not look inward for improvement.

And what do we learn about Dilla’s music? Well, kudos to Charmas for trying to break down rhythm ingenuity in a book, but it’s kind of impossible to convey the importance of Dilla Time in written form. But, Charmas is writing a book, not a TV show. There are tables and grids trying to explain what J Dilla was doing that was so revolutionary, and if I understand it correctly, it has to do with the placement of the snare which would be slightly early (almost imperceptibly) giving the rhythm a different, almost swing-like, feel. He was also able to find samples in music or audio that no one was able to. That sounds cool, but I fail to see, if this was actually so ground-breaking, how ubiquitous this is in modern hip hop. What’s more, Charmas crushes so hard on him that he fails to humanize J Dilla and instead presents him as fully formed and good at production right from the get-go. Most artist work hard, make mistakes, add and learn from their experience, but Dilla Time shows J Dilla peaking as soon as he starts making beats, a natural, never struggling. Can that possibly be true?

I had high hopes for Dilla Time and I learned some cool things about the man and his music, but mostly was disappointed by this book. Oh, and the “J” in J Dilla stands for “Jerk.”

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