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Dilla Did It

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A few years back, in a roundtable discussion held at Stanford, The Coup’s Boots Riley suggested that the conscious rap label is more a reflection of aesthetics than subject matter. That a rapper could say the most ignorant thing over a smoothed out jazz loop and the positive minded crowd would still eat it up. Perhaps nobody better embodies this theory than J Dilla. The late producer/rapper spent just under a decade tricking the mocha latte crowd into buying raps about blunts and bitches by just spitting them over filtered basslines and Sylvers loops and then dropping two love songs at the end of the album. In that sense I have a lot of respect for the dude.

Pay Jay, Dilla’s previously unreleased album he recorded for MCA in 2003 was recently liberated to these internets and finds the acclaimed beat maker rapping primarily to the work of outside producers. Occasionally those of equal or greater talent shine (as is the case with Kanye’s “Takeover”-y “We F’d Up”), but for the most part it feels like a lot of these guys – Bink, Nottz, Dave West – just seem like they’re trying to play catch up with Jay. Why bring in outside producers if they’re just going to do what you do on an inferior level? [1]

As an emcee Dilla pretty frequently suffers from the same rapping producer conundrum that many great producers slaf hash good rappers – Dr. Dre, Pete Rock, Large Professor – have suffered from at various points. Though technically proficient, they seem to be just going through the motions in rapping, not really engaging the listener. The on record equivalent of not making eye contact. Maybe there’s something about spending eighteen hours a day basking in the LCD glow of a two inch MPC screen that leaves one sort of distant. [2] Sometimes this distance works to Dilla’s advantage, the most interesting tracks have a foggy, claustrophobic party vibe that is amplified by this seeming indifference. “We F’d Up” is a half drunk wall fly take on club hopping, even repurposing Kell’s “Fiesta” for the hook and “Fight Club” finds Wajeed emulating (predicting?) Dilla’s more electronic sound on some Robert Davis vs. Juan Atkins fist fight shit. I think I’d like to live in a world where this sort of shit actually blows up clubs. Though not if it sounds like “Trucks”, the ill advised Gary Numan homage that occupies similar territory but falls flat. The remainder of the record is sort of all over the place, bearing some superficial similarities to the equally hit or miss follow up Welcome To Detroit. The fan favorite single “Fuck The Police” reappears here and “Creepin’ On You” is like “Oochie Wally” for the giant headphone sect (and I mean that in the best way possible), but a lot of this is incredibly dated, 5 years might as well be 100 in rap time [3] (chimpunk soul? did he really just say “bling bling”?) Elsewhere it just seems like a Busta Rhymes record stripped of it’s charisma. It also feels a little unfinished, which is a problem you frequently encounter when listening to unfinishe

[1] It’d be like if Pimp C cut an album with a bunch of Jazze Pha & Cory Mo beats… oh, wait.
[2] Trust me, I can empathize.
[3] Did you hear the way Dilla flipped time on that one beat tape? Chopped it up, son. At first I didn’t even recognize it then I went back and looked at the clock again like “oh shit… Dilla flipped that time shit. I think he got the snare from space too.”

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