Go Over the Breaks and Dive Deep Into Dilla

Themes and variation
J Dilla

“Dilla, Dilla, mix, mix…”

J Dilla (aka Jay Dee, born James Dewitt Yancey) was, without a doubt, one of the most creative and influential musicians of his or really, any era of music. He was a true producer, possessing not only the technical skills required to make incredible music, or the aesthetic taste to make your ears just drizzle, but also the complex artistry needed to create the kind of work that will forever be imitated, and yet never replicated.

In the latest episode of Themes and Variation, I’m joined by returning guests Julian “JSWISS” Caldwell and Charles Burchell (aka BLVK Samurai), who you may recognize from last year’s episode, “Songs That Use the Same Sample,” their course on Soundfly, The Art of Hip-Hop Production, or their own incredible musical projects.

And together, we attempt to break down some of Dilla’s songs that have had a major impact on each of us, getting into topics like sample curation and the influence that his work has had on producers and instrumentalists alike, many years after his passing. Join us, and listen in below.

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Dig even deeper with Soundfly’s companion course.

If you’re enjoying this episode, and you’d like to learn more about some of the musical topics we touched on, go ahead and visit Soundfly’s free companion course for writing prompts and additional resources. From modes to melody-writing, we’ve curated some extra resources for listeners to put stuff from the episode into action.

If you’re in need of a creative boost in your own beat making practice, feel free to check out The Art of Hip-Hop Production, exclusively on Soundfly.

Episode 17 Highlights

1. The deceptive difficulty of playing like J Dilla.

Carter: “I remember being in a lab at Berklee with like 12 bass players, all really good players and each week somebody new would bring in a track that we’d all try to learn to play along to. I brought in his (Dilla’s) remix of The Pharcyde’s ‘She Said.’ That line is like not complex harmonically at all. We went around the circle and nobody could get it right. We’ve talked about this at length but it’s either way too stiff which will never fit in a Dilla groove, or you lean way too hard in the like ‘ah it’s just super sloppy and I’ll just randomly place these notes wherever I want’ and that is not what he’s doing at all. Everything is perfectly where it needs to be, it’s just so uniquely placed.”

2. De La Soul and Dilla were a perfect match.

JSIWSS: “When I think of ‘Stakes is High’ lyrically, I think more of like the flow than even the lyrical content. And I think it’s perfect you know how you were talking about the three bar phrase and kind of how it allows little sections that are like 9 bars and 5 bars and things like that, I think the great thing about De La that was innovative is the way that they were like flowing in an unorthodox way even if it wasn’t that type of 9 bar, even if it was within a 16. The way that they would structure and words would flow from one bar to another, I think it works perfectly. The music, like the bars are odd a little bit, the way that they’re flowing is a little bit odd, but it feels right and then it’s over something that’s really hard hitting at the same time, like all, altogether is perfect. Listen, I don’t think this song is ‘groundbreaking’ lyrically in what they are saying, but just the way that it’s flowing over it is perfect, it’s such a perfect fit for a De La.”

3. Studying the music of J Dilla is a lifelong pursuit.

Charles: “Why I was so gung ho on the earlier podcast to talk about Dilla, is that I feel like as things progress you know young people who are getting into Hip-Hop, aren’t really aware of Dilla, or aren’t really aware of his impact. So, I think it’s always just important to keep pushing his narrative because I think there are so many things that are influenced by him now that people coming up and checking out new artists, don’t realize that these artists are heavily influenced by Dilla. Like, ‘ohh they got this groove, and yada yada yada…’ I feel like you know, I feel like an advocate, you know even a disciple of Dilla. I’m definitely in the school of like, I know it’s going to be my entire life’s work understanding J Dilla. I know it’s something I’m always gonna be studying.”

Collaborative Playlist

We’ve created a collaborative Spotify playlist to share every song talked about and mentioned on this episode, plus some extra Dilla favorites that didn’t make it into the episode. Feel free to add your favorite tracks produced by J Dilla as well. 

We’ll see you in two weeks with a new theme, new guests, and some new songs to break down. If you have any comments, questions, or theme suggestions, drops us a line at [email protected]!

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