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.

  • 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)