James Dewitt Yancey has garnered all the posthumous acclaim you’d expect for a hip-hop visionary underappreciated outside of his circles. Whether it be for his impeccable choice of samples through a multitude of different styles, his uncanny knack of blowing your mind with his musicianship or his humility in a sea of egos and gold chains, he is revered as a legend beyond the realms of hip-hop music, and rightfully so. But perhaps something that he doesn’t get enough credit for, publicly at least, is his drumming techniques, both acoustic and digital. The Detroit producer was mean on the MPC but his live drumming had influences on a number of his peers, particularly Questlove and Kariem Riggins, who have since helped carry his legacy on.
The story goes that Amp Fiddler, a fellow Detroitian, was the man who gave Dilla his first MPC. It had a minor fault and no manual at hand, but he found a way to get it working and the rest is hip-hop history. From there, he improved his craft and soon surpassed his main idols—Pete Rock and DJ Premier. At Dilla’s wake, Pete Rock remaked that he used to be the king but Dilla had taken the crown soon after. His technique started similarly to his peers of the time. The early ’90s gave birth to “jazz rap” and the complementing drum breaks that came with it, thanks to Prince Paul and A Tribe Called Quest. By 1993, Tribe and co. had moved onto free drumming, in the pocket, classic boom bap.
When it came time for Dilla to show what he had to offer on a major stage for The Pharcyde, it was 1995 and a year after what is known by fans as the “Second Golden Age” period of 1993-1994. “Runnin’” heralded the start of an illustrious career. Producing under the name “Jay Dee,” his music triggered the attention of Q-Tip and he managed to acquire his services for Tribe’s final two albums. Despite the internal strife Tribe were experiencing, Jay Dee, now performing under the collective name of The Ummah, let his music do the talking. Unlike the drum programming on Labcabincalifornia, the patterns on Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement were a lot looser, slightly off time at moments. This apparent “sloppiness” was no accident, however. Jay was playing it human. Allowing the kicks and snares to be slightly out of time moved the percussion aware from a machine feel and gave added weight to the swing and soul of the music. The two albums he featured on weren’t met with the same acclaim as the first three Tribe albums but that was more due to the ongoing strife between Tip and Phife as opposed to Jay Dee’s production quality.
Questlove once told XXL Magazine a story of how Dilla had used a beaten up drum kit on the Donald Byrd cover “Think Twice” for Welcome 2 Detroit. Dilla had used a vibraphone mallet and a broken drumstick with toilet paper and rubber bands wrapped around it because he didn’t know where to get proper drumsticks late at night. His reasoning for using a mallet was to keep the dynamic less aggressive. Questlove subsequently went out and bought orchestra mallets and tried it out when he had to fly out to Philly. Even before that time, Dilla had been instrumental (pun intended) in the rhythmic and percussive elements of D’Angelo’s Voodoo (although not officially credited), pushing the human element of the drum programming all the way. Questlove clearly learnt a lot from this approach as his performances on the opener “Playa Playa,” for example, exhibits the funky swing of the rimshot against the booming bass drum to give a distinct sound that permeated throughout the whole album. As Quest said himself, “The idea was to sound disciplined, but with a total human feel.” Talking to Okayplayer, Quest remarked that “Word Play” on Tribe’s Beats, Rhymes & Life singlehandedly changed his thinking towards drumming, because of the sloppiness of the kick, executed with “finesse and defiance.“ Looking at where he is right now in terms of success, that was a pretty big influence.
By the time Dilla’s second “era” came around, the gritty street feel mixed with the brief beginnings of his electro phase, Karriem Riggins had already known the Detroit producer for five years, having met him through Common in ’96. In that time, he had provided his drumming expertise on “2 U 4 U” and later produced “The Clapper” for Welcome 2 Detroit. Dilla’s influence on Riggins was as profound, maybe more so after the release of his debut album, Alone/Together, which featured the track “J Dilla The Greatest.” “I learned different ways to get certain feels out of the machine, to basically convey an idea,” he told XXL Mag. “Turning the time shifting off and playing the track live. I think his approach was different every time.” Riggins illustrated the point further in a video with Peanut Butter Wolf and J.Rocc. Using the machine, be it a MPC or one of the newer Maschines, as a tool rather than the music maker allowed for more human flexibility in production.
Ask most producers right now some of their main influences and you’ll hear Dilla’s name mentioned pretty much every time. The reason behind this may differ from musician to musician but the general crux of it comes from his approach to the whole process, from start to finish. There’s also an element of curiosity; what sample did he use on that cut, how did he get the snare to sound like that without it being too brash? Video series like Waajeed’s “Bling47 Breaks Dilla Edition” answered some of those burning questions with the purpose to demystify Dilla and his production, according to Waajeed himself. Jazz drummer Damion Reid, talking to NPR Music, expressed his admiration for Dilla’s ability to encompass every element within his compositions, “every drum, every nuance, every atmospheric sound was strategically placed. Jay Dee embodied, to me, the culmination of all those things.” Last year, ERIMAJ released his debut album Conflict Of A Man and featured his take on Dilla’s “Nothing Like This,” one of his most enigmatic works. Drummer/producer Jamire Williams captured the essence of the original, the arena anthem percussion, while adapting it to cater to his own style with the added Rhodes and guitar.
The sheer number of drummers and drummers-turned-producers with some connection to Dilla through direct communication or a mutual stylistic respect is mind boggling. Dilla, the patron saint of modern day drummers.
(originally written for Revive Music)