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

So to go from doing live stuff, to go to this electro phase—and even I was reluctant to do that. When we started to do Common’s Electric Circus, he was like, “Nah, man. I’m putting the drums away. I’m putting all that African sound away, and I’m going straight Kraftwerk; you coming with me?” And I was like, “Huh?” And he just brought all this prog rock stuff, and all these synthesizer records, and Thomas Dolby and Gary Numan stuff. He was like, “Nah man, let’s go straight electro stuff. Let’s do it. He just told me, “It’s 2002, let’s go somewhere else.” It was almost like Jerry Maguire: Who’s coming with me? It was really weird. What that required me to do—I thought I had established my sound, which was tight snare, tight, high pitched piccolo snare. I had really just gotten in my stride with the D’Angelo record. At that point, it had taken me six years to establish a trademark sound, which everyone now instantly knew. “Oh my god, that’s Questlove drums.” So I was kind of proud of that: Let me get my moment. But he was like, “Nah, man. Let’s go the opposite. Go the complete opposite of what you would do.” And I was just like, “Why?” He was like, “’Cause, man, this is what you gotta do. Everyone has now caught up to what you’re doing, and for you to stay ahead of the pack, you’re going to have to get uncomfortable and just go there.”

And then to his last stage, which really amazes me, because that was really him at his MacGuyver stage, which was a box of 45s by his bedside, a very cheap turntable and Pro Tools on his computer, flipping beats back and forth. The last stage of this period, that to me was more exciting, because he really wasn’t able to communicate. Which really makes Donuts that much creepier for me to hear because all of those [samples], I’m now certain beyond a shadow of a doubt, were actual messages from him. Not just him randomly choosing stuff. If you analyze everything that’s said on Donuts—from “Workinonit,” (where the sample says I’m still working—’cause that’s the thing, he was confined to a wheelchair, he really couldn’t talk, he was half his weight. To see him would freak you out and frighten you. And then he’d press play and you’re like, “Wait a minute!” And that’s when it hits you, like, “Oh, OK, the brain and the creativity inside him are still the same even though the physicality is different.”

“[Don’t Cry],” definitely [was] for his mother. My favorite one, of course, was “Waves,” which he morphed a 10cc sample from Johnny C “Don’t Do it,” to “John Do It, John Do It,” which, of course, is his little brother, Illa J. The way he found to have messages in all the songs—even the nihilistic nature of him flipping “I Don’t Really Care,” [on “Airworks”] nothing in there was [an] accident, at all. [And] that even displayed his genius more, that he communicated via sample.

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