Culture, Music

Choice Cuts: J Dilla – Ruff Draft

Stones Throw Records, 2007
J Dilla in the studio, surrounded by a producer's paradise of instumentals, synthesizers and rare vinyl records (Roger Erickson/Stones Throw)People of a certain persuasion still don’t consider hip hop an art form. And it doesn’t matter how many conscious cats you bring up, because, to them, when it comes to sampling and beat-making, they don’t believe the act of reusing musical phrases in new ways constitutes ‘real music’.

They’re wrong, of course, because without being moulded, shaped and, crucially, edited, songs as we know them could never be formed. This role of editing gave rise to the music producer and, today, they are very much originators in their own right.

The beats of James Yancey, aka J Dilla (Jay Dee), are among the greatest examples of music production in hip hop or any other genre. The Detroit-born producer’s life was cut tragically short in 2006 by a blood disease. But, still, his music and his legacy lives on. Dilla was obsessed with music and created dozens upon dozens of beats that appeared on studio releases and unofficial beat tapes that still circulate today.

Since his death on February 10, 2006, three days after the release of his influential final album, Donuts, the music hasn’t been silenced. There have been posthumous collections, tribute songs and albums, and his music has influenced the likes of Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Bishop Nehru and the countless budding MCs who try to entice web surfers to listen to their raps with the promise of a “Dilla beat”.

J Dilla - Ruff Draft, 500Ruff Draft is one of my favourite releases from Dilla’s prolific output. Originally released in 2003 on Mummy Records, this EP exhibits the rawness and the intuitive soulfulness that’s at the heart of much of Dilla’s music. Stones Throw reissued it in 2007 with extra tracks and the instrumentals, making this sublime EP even better.

The instrumentals here, perhaps more than the words spoken, encourage direct and immediate action. They get you pumped like a training montage in a boxing film. You feel that with ‘The $’, which sees the old-school hip hop of Eric B & Rakim and Whodini sparring against Common and Dilla’s own creations. The wavy guitars and delayed voices of ‘Nothing Like This’ rush to celebrate you like a welcoming party after a hard day’s graft. But it’s ‘Crushin’’, a tune all about getting nasty, that really gives a new meaning to the phrase ‘just do it’. Through some otherworldly alchemy, and samples from Sylvia Robinson and the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, Dilla produced a beat that’ll give you a serious eargasm.

There’s much more to say about Dilla and his legacy. But, for now, just know that Ruff Draft is a delicious selection of cuts from the prodigious producer. You might not have a car. You might be out of work. The house parties you go to might suck. But these beats make you feel like you’ve got power to change all that. To get yourself a hot ride, get a new job and get paid and make the next house party you go to the sickest, dirtiest, craziest shindig to be blessed with your presence. In other words, you’ll end your time with Dilla’s Ruff Draft feeling pretty good about yourself.

For classic albums, rarities and more, see my Choice Cuts archive.

Image: Roger Erickson/Stones Throw Records