Questlove on Why J Dilla Was the Best Rap Producer of All Time

It was six years ago today (February 10) that J Dilla lost his fight with lupus and TTP. The Detroit native had already left a lasting mark on music, but seemed to only be scratching the surface of what he was capable of. Dilla lent his touch to tracks for A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Common, Mos Def,  Slum Village, The Pharcyde, and, of course, The Roots, among others. The Philadelphia-based band’s drummer, Questlove, was a good friend of Dilla’s. He also happens to be one of the most knowledgeable, talented and celebrated musicians that hip-hop has to offer, having worked with everyone from hip-hop icons like Jay-Z to mainstream darlings like John Mayer and Christina Aguilera. He also thinks that his friend was the greatest rap producer of all time. Here, he helps celebrate Dilla’s legacy, as he tells XXL what it was about Jay Dee’s sound, style and approach that was so amazing. —As Told to Adam Fleischer (@adamXXL)

As far as our definition of hip-hop production is concerned—as far as making beats—[Dilla] is absolutely without peer. Many will come after him and surpass him and do even crazier tricks, but for what my eyes have seen in those short nine years that I’ve known him, that’s going to be a very tall order to live up to. It’s [been]…God, six years since he passed [and] I still use his beats as the energy power pellets to my Pacmanology, if you will.

[Why? Because] I like his kick patches better than anyone; I love his snare patches better than anyone; I love his sample chops better than anyone; I like his ability to flip samples better than anyone; I like his engineering better than anyone; I love his chord structure better than anyone; I love his bass tones better than anyone. It really just starts there. And having listened to all of his beat creations, and over-analyzed them over a hundred times each, there’s just an extreme pristine presentation. Even the stuff that you’re lukewarm on as an average listener, you can’t deny.

You also gotta think about his range. His range is bar none. He’s gone through [four] production phases in his professional career. He didn’t stick to one. That’s the thing that really separates him from everyone in hip-hop. He started off with that post-Tribe, boom bap with [the] loud kushy drums and a bouncy bassline—[which] especially did well for The Pharcyde album and Tribe records. But then in a snap, he went to—once he started working with us, with the Soulquarians—he started playing the stuff live. The most hilarious thing of it all was that he was not technically a musician. But he was able to get the sound that he heard in his head, not only executed onto tape, but he did it in such an original way that it actually started to change our view of how we made music.

The day after he recorded “Think Twice,” for Welcome to Detroit, I look at the drum set, and I was like, “Wait, you recorded that on this?” And it was the most dingiest, dirtiest, not even second-hand. [It] looked like the Fat Albert junkyard gang drum set. Screws were missing; some of the heads were broken. Matter of fact, he didn’t even use real drumsticks on “Think Twice.” He used a vibraphone mallet, and he had a broken drumstick that he got some toilet paper from the bathroom, and some rubber bands. I was like, “You would rather go through this MacGuyver shit than buy new drumsticks?” He’s like, “I didn’t know where to get ’em this late at night; I had to make due.” I was like, “Well, why did you hit the drums with the mallet?” He was like, “I didn’t want the dynamic to be too aggressive. I wanted to sound muted, so I decided to play the drums with the soft cotton mallet.” It looked like putting a marshmallow at the end of a toothpick [Laughs]. Next thing I know, I’m now flying to Philadelphia—I think the next week, [to work on] The Roots’ Phrenology record [and] I tracked both “Quills” and “Pussy Galore” the same way. I went and got some orchestra mallets, and then I too started, just ’cause I seen how he got that sound.

  • Macksteez

    XXL, More Of This Stuff!!!

  • that nigga

    Dope article Quest!!

  • welcome2detroit

    Wow, wasn’t expecting to see this today. This is by far the best article i’ve found on your website or in your magazine.

  • http://Kickmag.net Tamara

    As usual Questlove breaks it down. You need to do a class on hip-hop production theory.

  • http://iareconscious.tumblr.com iAreConscious

    indeed…

  • Kava

    Dope…RIP (^^JDilla^^)

  • RIO

    J DILLA MADE ME WANT TO START MAKING MUSIC!!! BEFORE I KNEW IT WAS HIM, I LOVED HIS SOUND!!! HE WAS SO SLEPT ON HERE IN THE D YET THE TRUE HEADZ, SUCH AS MYSELF, WERE DIGGIN HIM!!! SALUTE TO ONE OF THE BEST TO EVER DO IT!!! R.I.P. IT’S NATIONAL DILLA DAY HERE IN THE D AND WORLDWIDE!!! PEACE………..

  • http://www.parachoquescromados.wordpress.com Daniel Sanchez

    Touching.

  • Sha

    Wow!!!! Nice surprise from XXL….. This is what your magazine should be about….

    I’ve always said that J-Dilla “was” and “is” the greatest hip-hop producer of all time. His range was incredible. And it was all authentic.

    Dr. Dre is good for selling a record. Pete Rock moved hip-hop from phase one to phase two. DJ Premier brought “the beat” and “the sample” to the forefront of hip hop. Kanye is the beat-seamstress, weaving together the future and the past days of hip hop. 9th wonder is a time machine back to the glory days of hip hop. BUT…..

    None of them could hold a candle to DILLA. And they all know it!!! Everyone of them. Co-sign the hell out of this one with Questlove. DILLA IS THE BEST PRODUCER OF ALL TIME!!!

  • Watz

    Read, examine and analyse this piece of journalism , then compare to xxlmags ‘don trip has the name christopher wallace’ to see a textual depiction of night and day. This is what hiphop articles should be about. informative incite. Questlove, continue to let your intellect shine and your voice be heard.

    J -Dilla was an amazing producer with a gift for infectious and creative sonic, without doubt one of the most special and outstanding producers in any timeline of hiphop, revered, remembered and celebrated – all you new comers to music youtube his work NOW

  • http://kicdrumproducts.com DRUMAT!C

    XXL where is the cover feature, honoring one of the greatest musician/hip-hop producers of our time? Amazing article, but why not give us an issue dedicated to the Dilla man? More of this type of material is what’s going to save the music from sinking in a sea of nonsensical “wrap muzack!”

    • daz

      very true… need more articles like this one… i also saw where quest love was talking about how he made the little brother beat that kweli and yasiin bey rhyme on. that amazed me… very creative cat. we lost a genius 6 years ago… i am glad he left us this great music…

  • N-Jin

    wow, what a great story!

  • http://straightspittin.com Vin Roc

    J Dilla is a true hip hop genuis. I mixed many of his records and he is amazing. The craziest part of JD is that until you pulled up all of the tracks on one of his joints you had no idea what he was thinking but once all the faders are up it will blow your mind and make you say what was this dude thinking and how the hell did he get here. There is now swing like a J Dilla swing. JD is the definition of a hip hop producer. Chop it up! Thats hip hop. I miss you brother.

  • Chazz

    Definatley the most in-depth article I’ve read recently. I did wonder about those song names! Thanks Questo!

  • http://soundcloud.com/robbythelistener Robby the listener

    I recently challenged some of my friends to make a cd compilation under the premise that we could only possess ONE Hip-Hop cd only. I saved the best for last on my cd & it is the only beat with no rhymes on the whole cd, ‘Waves’.

  • JO DILLA

    inspiring article, quest! RIP Dilla.

  • Jay

    GREAT article! BUT, I would LOVE to see a J Dilla cover on one of your mags dedicated to him. You guys should’ve done that for this month but oh well. It’s never too late for next month, hehe. :)

  • Eaz

    I always thought that donuts isn’t “a complete instrumental album”. Dilla is reachin us on e-ve-ry track. Two can win and this sample only wun can win. The title says everything about what he thinks/feels while the sample tell us what everybody, what life tells us, but the title says what’s on dilla’s mind. From the outro to the unreleased track “signs”, like keep lookin on dilla signs. His legacy makes him eternal. Dilla changed my life too.

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  • TRUTH ALL DAY

    so illy tho http://youtu.be/Sgph0pBF_dg peep this video

  • TRUTH ALL DAY

    the best tribute TheNamesMillen One For Dilla (A J Dilla tribute ) (Official Video)