It’s difficult to come to grips with the idea of J Dilla being gone for 15 years now, considering how much his creative spirit continues to prosper in his absence.
February 10 marked a grim milestone in the passing of the man born James Dewitt Yancey, but 2021 is teeming with happier anniversaries to celebrate this artist who changed the game for both underground and mainstream hip-hop in the mid-to-late-1990s with his revolutionary sampling and beat techniques.
The Detroit-born producer’s solo masterpiece, Donuts, was released on his birthday only three days before losing his battle to lupus. The acclaimed album turned 15 years old on February 7. His posthumous third solo LP, The Shining, will also turn 15 in August of this year.
February 26 marked the 20th anniversary of Dilla’s lauded debut as a solo artist, Welcome 2 Detroit, which BBE commemorated in the form of a stunning anniversary edition reimagined as a deluxe 7-inch vinyl box set. It boasts instrumentals, two brand-new interpretations by Azymuth and DJ Muro, previously unreleased alternative mixes, and studio outtakes pressed over a dozen 45s.
There’s also a pair of significant East Coast rap classics celebrating 25th anniversaries in 2021, both of which feature Dilla’s early collaborative works in commercial hip-hop. First up, De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High,” whose scathing dissection of gangsta rap and the music industry on the album of the same name got them into beef with Tupac Shakur and Naughty by Nature while, at the same time, cultivating hip-hop’s future in collaborating with Dilla, then known as Jay Dee.
The other is Beats, Rhymes and Life, the criminally underrated fourth LP from A Tribe Called Quest. Dilla and Tribe members Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad constructed most of the beats as a production trio known as The Ummah, which turns 25 on July 30th.
Another massive milestone marking its 25th anniversary in the Dillaverse is the formation of his venerated group, Slum Village, alongside high school friends T3 and the late Baatin (who passed on in 2009), which yielded two certified rap classics in 1997’s Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 and 1998’s Fantastic Vol. 2 before Dilla left the trio to go solo.
In 2021, the man dubbed “the godfather of lo-fi hip-hop” continues to inspire artists from all over the globe. His sample-based form of instrumentation has given way to fascinating new avenues as Japan’s chillhop movement of producers making hip-hop beats for studying and sleeping, as well as modern jazz, where musicians study Dilla’s rhythm theories with the same sense of respect and attention as they would someone like Charles Mingus or Max Roach.
To honor Dilla and this massive succession of anniversaries in 2021, Discogs — with a major assist from our good friends at WhoSampled — has put together this list of the coolest samples touched by the hand of James Yancey throughout his 11 years on active duty in this art we call hip-hop.
Song: The Pharcyde “Runnin'” (1995)
Sample: Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfa “Saudade Vem Correndo” (1963)
One of Dilla’s first major credits as a producer can be found on the vastly underrated release from The Pharcyde. This single off of Labcabincalifornia is an early display of Dilla’s distinctive sampledelic sound. He worked out a five-minute beat from a tiny snippet of Luiz Floriano Bonfá’s guitar from “Saudade Vem Correndo” off his 1963’s Jazz Samba Encore! with sax giant Stan Getz, who also turns up on the track right before Bootie Brown’s verse.
Song: A Tribe Called Quest “1nce Again” (1996)
Sample: Gary Burton Quartet “I’m Your Pal” (1967)
Having first met Dilla while on the road with Lollapalooza in the summer of 1994, A Tribe Called Quest quickly took to his production style and shortly thereafter brought him into the in-house production group called The Ummah, rounded out by Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed-Muhammad. Dilla is all over Tribe’s fourth album, Beats, Rhymes and Life, and his production style can be heard immediately on the album’s first single, “1nce Again.” He must not have used more than two or three seconds of “I’m Your Pal” featured on the Gary Burton Quartet’s 1967 LP Lofty Fake Anagram, but he created this indelible Tribe beat from a minor fragment of Burton’s vibes and Steve Swallow’s double bass conversing in a quiet moment.
Song: De La Soul “Stakes Is High” (1996)
Sample: Ahmad Jamal “Swahililand” (1974)
Dilla not only continued to showcase his deep knowledge of jazz early in his career but also his ability to pick up moments in compositions that would be overlooked by any other beat miner then transform them into a banger. No other track from his first year on the national hip-hop stage was as indicative of this as the title track from De La Soul’s fourth album, Stakes Is High, where he looks to pianist Ahmad Jamal’s 1974 fusion LP Swahililand, digging eight minutes and nine seconds into its epic title track for that signature reverberating horn blast which serves as the beat’s indelible bedrock.
Song: Q-Tip “Vivrant Thing” (1998)
Sample: Love Unlimited Orchestra “I Wanna Stay” (1975)
When Q-Tip went solo and released his anticipated artist debut, Amplified, in 1999, hardcore backpacker types were rankled by the album’s allegiance to club accessibility over poetic consciousness. Credit Dilla for helping Tip emerge from his shell with kinetic, dancefloor-ready movers like the album’s biggest single, which slows down the opening groove to 1975’s “I Wanna Stay” by Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra enough to make bodies move.
Song: Common “The Light” (2000)
Sample: Henry Kaiser “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1984)
Few songs in modern hip-hop exemplify such an honest expression of respect and appreciation for a woman from a man quite like this love poem Common created for his then-girlfriend Erykah Badu. And while Dilla built the majority of the Like Water for Chocolate standout from an uplifting 1980 song by smooth jazz favorite Bobby Caldwell, towards the end of the track you’ll notice the beat shifts into a fragmented guitar scale, which Dilla grabbed deep inside of the 20-minute-long title track to Bay Area experimental guitar great Henry Kaiser’s 1984 exploration of Asian string music, It’s a Wonderful Life.
Song: Slum Village “Untitled/Fantastic” (2000)
Sample: Stereolab “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse” (1997)
Stereolab’ Dots and Loops emerged just as hip-hop music was taking a major creative turn in 1997, evolving in real-time against the backdrop of a renewed interest in analog synths and ’60s kitsch left-of-the-dial on college radio. It should be no surprise a deep music explorer like Dilla had this album from the French rock band on his radar at the time, and it is in Dots and Loops where he found the gurgling Moog riff he needed for the track from Slum Village’s classic LP Fantastic Vol. 2, procuring it from about four minutes into Dots and Loops‘ near-15 minute centerpiece “Refractions in the Plastic Pulse.”
Song: Erykah Badu “Didn’t Cha Know” (2000)
Sample: Tarika Blue “Dreamflower” (1976)
Tarika Blue was a fusion band based out of New York whose short-lived existence in the mid-’70s was largely unknown beyond the local funk and jazz communities on the East Coast. That is, of course, until Dilla clipped a particularly sultry break from “Dreamflower,” the opening cut to Tarika Blue’s eponymous second record, for the signature love jam off the aforementioned Ms. Badu’s Soulquarians-laced sophomore set Mama’s Gun, whose earthy atmospherics and seductive sway earned Erykah a Grammy nod for Best R&B song in 2001.
Song: J Dilla feat. Dwele “Think Twice” (2001)
Sample: Donald Byrd “Think Twice” (1974)
Dilla was so critical in helping introduce a whole new generation of funk-minded music fans to jazz trumpet master Donald Byrd’s work with Larry and Fonce Mizell in the 1970s. This highlight of the freshly reissued Welcome 2 Detroit is actually considered a cover version of this Byrd/Mizell staple from 1975’s jazz-funk classic Stepping into Tomorrow and is laced by the understated horn work of Detroit rapper and singer Dwele doing his best Byrd call on trumpet.
Song: Jaylib “The Heist” (2003)
Sample: Throbbing Gristle “Persuasion” (1979)
Dilla only recorded one full-length with Madlib, his cosmic brother from Oxnard, California. Yet, 2003’s Champion Sound remains a high watermark for both producers thanks to the friendly game of one-ups-manship in which this power pair engage across the album’s 19 tracks. But the prize for “most imaginative concoction of samples” certainly goes to Jay, whose beat on “The Heist” is an interpolation of three very unorthodox sources, the first two being a pair of prog-rock essentials in “The Advent of Panurge” from the 1972 Gentle Giant LP, Octopus, and the 19-minute-long space jam “Out-Bloody-Rageous” off the Soft Machine’s Third from 1970. However, Dilla also breaks off a perfect little piece of analog horror from “Persuasion,” the creepiest cut off the creepiest album by English industrial music pioneers Throbbing Gristle, 1979’s mesmerizing and disturbing 20 Jazz Funk Greats. Knowing Dilla even spent any time with that record is a testament to the supremacy of his ears.
Song: Pete Rock feat J Dilla “Niggaz Know” (2004)
Sample: War “Heartbeat” (1975)
One thing both Dilla and New York hip-hop legend Pete Rock had in common was how much their advancements in beat-making overshadowed their skills as MCs in their own rights, which is exactly what makes hearing this collaboration between the two men such a special treat. Both dudes apparently saved some of their best lines for this toe-to-toe moment, fully charged by a hazy funk riff from War guitarist Howard Scott nicked off a super deep cut off the LBC funk greats’ chart-topping 1975 LP Why Can’t We Be Friends?.
Song: J Dilla “Workinonit” (2006)
Sample: 10cc “Worst Band in the World” (1974)
Easily one of Dilla’s most recognizable compositions and a centerpiece of Donuts, “Workinonit” was thrust back into the spotlight in the fall of 2020 when the folks who own the rights to the song catalog of the art pop group 10cc decided to sue over copyright infringements after Dave Chapelle used the instrumental on two of his Netflix specials. But that hardly cramps the shine of how Dilla transforms the band’s 1974 deliciously melodic razz at music biz egotism into an inspiring paean to perpetual motion. This song kicks off the album that helped change the game for instrumental hip-hop for the next 15 years and beyond.
Song: J Dilla feat. Common “E=MC2” (2006)
Sample: Manzel “Midnight Theme” (1979)
Even if you are a casual hip-hop fan, there’s no doubt you’ve heard this skull-crushing drum break from 1979 by Kentucky funk band Manzel. Cypress Hill’s “How I Can Just Kill a Man,” “Rumpshaker” by Wreckx-N-Effects, and the Ghostface Killah-captained Wu-Tang Clan posse cut “Winter Warz” are just three of the nearly 117 rap tracks that utilized “Midnight Theme” through the years. But leave it to Dilla to flip such a well-worn sample like he did on this Common-blessed cut from the producer’s posthumously released third LP, The Shining. It’s rare hearing Lonnie Lynn this forceful on the mic, or this well-worn breakbeat sounding so immediate and menacing.
Song: Ghostface Killah “Whip You With a Strap” (2006)
Sample: Luther Ingram “To the Other Man” (1972)
Along with Madlib moonlighting as Lord Quas, Dilla was right up in the frontlines of manipulating vocals for choruses on rap songs in the 21st century. And perhaps even arguably more so than “The Light” is this sobering, soulful collab with Grandpa Ghost where Dilla speeds up the opening lines from Luther Ingram’s 1972 ballad “To the Other Man,” flipping it back and forth as a conduit for Ghostface’s own dark childhood revelations. This beat also appears on Donuts as “One for Ghost.”
Song: J Dilla feat. Guilty Simpson “Take Notice” (2007)
Sample: David Bowie “Soul Love” (1972)
On just about every album in his catalog, David Bowie has left a breadcrumb trail of killer breaks for producers to discover. But Dilla found some pure gold in Mick Woodmansey’s opening groove to “Soul Love” — the song sandwiched between the two best tracks on Side A of Bowie’s glam opus The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars — for this track featured on the 2007 Stones Throw reissue of Dilla’s experimental Ruff Draft EP from 2003. El-P might have beat Dilla to the punch in using the “Soul Love” break first on Fantastic Damage‘s “Innocent Soldier”. But the way Jay gave Woody’s original groove such a sinister edge, especially when supplemented with the gritty mic delivery of longtime Dilla favorite Guilty Simpson, is what officially put this drum snap on the rap map.
Song: J. Dilla “Milk Money” (2009)
Sample: Kenny Loggins “Make the Move” (1980)
The gopher-booty-shaking anthem “I’m Alright” is generally the Kenny Loggins song most people know off the soundtrack to the beloved 1980 golf comedy Caddyshack. But Dilla chose to go with a deeper Kenny cut from the album, pruning off those ghostly, gated vocal harmonies at the beginning of the song to use as the bed for this instrumental highlight from the posthumous 2009 LP Jay Stay Paid, a collection of 28 previously unreleased Dilla joints curated by none other than Pete Rock.
Sample credits courtesy of WhoSampled.