Three Examples of Dilla Swing

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J Dilla has had a massive influence on Ian Chang’s playing — especially when it comes to his relationship with time.

In this lesson we’ll take a close look at the timing and feel in a few of Dilla’s most famous grooves, and how you might incorporate the feel of those grooves into your own playing and productions.

Transcribing and Practicing

If you’ve never transcribed before, it’s one of the absolute best activities a drummer (or producer!) can do to improve their sense of internal rhythm and to learn the feel of other players and producers. One way to transcribe is to literally just play along to a record, which Ian highly recommends doing.

Another way is to write down the part in whatever notation option comes best to you, be that traditional music notation, or writing things out on the MIDI piano roll in your DAW. The big advantage to transcribing in the DAW is that we can zoom way in to the audio file and see exactly how the individual hits land in relation to the grid, and align our MIDI notes accordingly.

You can usually see the transients (the high amplitude sound at the beginning of a sound waveform) in the audio file and line it up, so it looks something like this: 

Still, the most important thing is to use your ears to hear how different elements of a particular beat or performance are interacting with one another. You can zoom in on the audio file to get an initial sense, but ultimately, you need to listen to your production or your performance of the beat against what you’re referencing to get a good sense of whether or not you’re nailing a particular feel or groove.

Let’s put this style of transcribing into action to learn about a few of Dilla’s beats.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: “Celebrate National Jazz Appreciation Month With These 7 Lessons.”

Example 1: “So Far to Go”

This is a track that many drummers and producers site as a source of deep influence for stretching out and abstracting time. Hit play on the track and try to internalize the feel of the first 8 bars or so.

The drums and bass seem to be chugging along at a tight and steady eighth-note subdivision, with a bit of a laid-back feel. But at the end of the second bar, seemingly out of nowhere, we hear a big accent on a quarter-note triplet, just before the loop begins again.

That hi-hat hit also pulls against the straight-eighth bass hit on the “and” of beat 4, creating a really off-kilter push and pull in the last two beats of the loop.

Take a look at those last two beats on the piano roll:

In the full two-bar transcription below, check out the placement of the drum hits over time in relation to the grid, and also between the kicks, snares, and hi-hats.

It’s almost as if it speeds up for the first couple of beats, and then steadily drags for the remaining several beats, until the open hi-hat comes out of left field and hits the “reset” button on our whole understanding of where the pulse is.

Now that’s an abstract beat!

Keep in mind that the exact placement of these notes may vary by a few milliseconds depending on the exact drum synth or samples you might be using for your kick, your snare, your hi-hat, etc., but this will get you into the ballpark of the feel.

Example 2: “Say It”

This beat has a classic Dilla feel.

The hi-hats that fall on the beat are played straight ahead, but all the hi-hats that land on upbeats (otherwise known as the “and” of the beat) are nudged back slightly (although not so far that they become triplets). They’re just somewhere in their own space, and when they feel right, you just know it!

Check it out:

Notice how the kicks that land on the “ands” with the hi-hats are also delayed in the same way as the hi-hats. Meanwhile, the snares are mostly ahead of the beat, which makes those laid-back hi-hats feel even more displaced.

This is exactly the sort of displaced eighth note “ands” that Ian illustrated, and is definitely a feel worth getting familiar with.

Check out the isolated loop for “Say It,” below:

This is about as close to “quintessential” as “Dilla swing” gets! 

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Our 10 Favorite Essential Instrumental Hip-Hop Tracks.”

Example 3: “U-Love”

Lastly, let’s check out one of Dilla’s most beloved beats, “U-Love.” The beat itself is a boom-bap style. It’s got a laid-back feel characteristic of most of Dilla’s beats, but with a slightly different flavor. 

In this case, the feel of the high hats are all behind, as are the snares, but never quite in exactly the same spot. In fact, all of the hi-hats are behind except for the last upbeat, which is a very different feel from the delayed upbeats we saw in “Say It.”

Instead, in the one place we see sixteenth notes towards the end of beat 2, those subdivisions are very delayed in classic Dilla fashion. Meanwhile, the kicks on those same sixteenth-note subdivisions are delayed with the hi-hats, while the rest of the kicks are right on the grid. 

Check out what that all looks and sounds like in the isolated loop below:

One other thing to notice is how the kicks that land on beat one of bar one and beat one of bar three serve as anchor points to the groove. It’s these on-beat hits that give the other hits something to pull against and create the sense of release when the loop comes back around.

Transcribe two bars of a beat you find compelling for its use of abstract time. 

Zoom way in in your DAW to make sure you get an accurate view of the timing of the groove, and make a quick transcription using some basic samples. If you’re a drummer, try practicing the groove after transcribing it with a new sense of which notes are ahead or behind of the beat, and by how much.

Don’t worry too much about the sound of the samples for now, unless you want to expand your transcription into a production of your own. The most important part of this exercise is getting a feel for how one of your favorite producers or drummers abstracts the sense of time in a particular groove.

If you’re a Soundfly subscriber, share what you come up with in our community Discord. We’d love to hear it!

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