The anniversary of Jay Dee’s passing is approaching once more, and while I’ve certainly no intention to add to the annual smorgasbord of post-humous backslapping that has now sadly become custom I did want to write down an observation I came to while in Detroit this past month.
The first interview I conducted while in town was with Amp Fiddler – who taught Jay Dee the MPC. Towards the end of our time together we were joined by his brother Bubz, with whom Amp has been playing his whole life and who was also close to Jay, and did session work for George Clinton and many others. Look him up, he’s a bit of a legend.
As we ended our chat in their kitchen, I was speaking to Bubz when the thought hit me: it’s both sad and ironic that of all the things Dilla left behind when he passed, the one thing that most people latched onto was his sense of swing, his funk, the way he drummed. Call it whatever you want to call it, but if you’ve followed the evolution and explosion of the so-called beats scene in the late 00s you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s what gave birth to the term ‘post-Dilla’. It’s what gave us an army of people obsessed with the idea of unquantizing drums. And it’s a perfect example of how we, as a species, so often miss the point when we behave with a herd/group mentality.
Once Dilla passed his entire oeuvre could finally be boxed and understood as a single thing, in a way that’s not always possible when an artist is alive and continues to work. And Dilla was one of the biggest experimenters in hip hop production if you will, so there’s little doubt that if he was still alive he would have continued to trip people up by changing things up, doing things ‘fans’ wouldn’t expect him to. As Waajeed, B+ and others have told me – and gone on record publicly too – there are things Dilla left behind that are worth upholding in his name: his desire to break boundaries and push the artform and the music forward, or his incredible talent for finding samples in the most unusual places (read records). That last point came up many times during my chats in Detroit. Dez Andres brought it up, how he felt that Dilla’s biggest lesson to him was to look where most wouldn’t, to never abide by the status quo that you should/could only sample certain types of records or certain parts of a record. And it’s also the basis of Waajeed’s Dilla Breaks video series from a few years back.
Instead the collective, the herd, whatever you want to call it (and whether or not you identify yourself as part of it), latched onto Dilla’s drumming style, the one thing that you simply cannot imitate, ever. Learn from it perhaps, but what happened after his death was not a case of people learning, it was a case of people focusing on the one thing that made Dilla unique, that made him him, and using that as the basis for a template of production. And that would only ever lead to one thing: staleness and the abuse of a man’s legacy for all the wrong reasons. It’s the equivalent of a drummer taking Clyde Stubblefield as the basis for all his work, instead of as an inspiration, something to perhaps aspire to but in his own way.
I’ll be delving into this idea in more detail as I start work on the book, but I felt it was worth pointing out considering the recent chatter around Dilla’s legacy and culture vultures I’ve seen online. For more on my personal thoughts and opinions about the monetisation of Dilla’s legacy, you can check a piece from last February I wrote for Playground which includes quotes from some of the interviews I did in L.A for the book.