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.
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.