What the hell am I meant to do here? I wasn’t anywhere near conscious of good music while J Dilla was alive, let alone any ‘true’ sense of hip-hop. I have to dig back then, and see if I can’t pick out a list of what I – unqualified, god knows – think are his best, greatest, most loin-girding and smooth, soulful tracks.
I give up already. That’s almost impossible. I can’t handle the burden of choice so I’m going to turn around in a circle five times until I’m dizzy and then prod a finger on an imaginary globe and see if I can’t find a theme to give me some focus. Might as well just dive in!
Neo soul is my bracket today; it’s as good as anything, because an attempt to categorise or stunt Dilla’s body of work would be arbitrary. So it might as well be arbitrary in a way that lets me zoom in on a few certain years where one man defined the common spirit of a handful of hip-hop legends. They, under him and with each other, became the exponents of a musical movement that was the most soulful and pure-art since soul itself.
Jay Dee was a genius in the purest sense: an artist who quavered alongside his music, who understood the art of producing so fully that his productions seem, even now, to drag the times rather than keep step with them. For a small insight into these talents, this short clip of ?uestlove’s RBMA lecture is recommended viewing.
Here we go then. If you’re a fan there’s no way you’ll agree with (all of) my selections. But these are the ones that I keep coming back to, no matter how far I stray into other genres, from other eras. They represent neo soul at its finest, that same silky lacquer over hip-hop beats that Erykah Badu brought to baby-making beats.
The Pharcyde – Bullshit
It does well to start at the beginning. Before he was big in his own right, Dilla had a heavy hand in The Pharcyde’s production. This track kicks off their sophomore album, Labcabincalifornia. Keep an ear out for that irregular kick pattern. Completely disjointed, and perfect.
The Roots – Dynamite
The Roots and their ringmaster, Ahmir ‘?estlove’ Thompson, had a midwife’s vision that helped define the neo soul sound. Recognising that J Dilla shared the same spirit, he was enveloped within that artistic community. They firmly saw hip-hop and r&b to be worthy outlets for left-brained, intelligent musicians.
J-88 – The Look Of Love Pt. 1
Quintessential Slum Village from Best Kept Secret, a compilation of sorts. Label disputes threatened to sit on these gold bars (such pun we have!), so S.V. went right ahead and put it out under the pseudonym J-88.
J Dilla – So Far To Go (Feat Common & D’Angelo)
Released on 2006’s The Shining, this nevertheless showcases the honeyed approach to music of two of neo soul’s messiahs, Common and D’Angelo.
Janet Jackson – Got ‘Til It’s Gone (Ummah Jay Dee’s Revenge Remix)
Janet Jackson remix – Full disclosure: this doesn’t fit my time-frame at all. Or maybe it does. I just don’t know. I wouldn’t take me seriously or assume that anything so far obeys my own conditions. What a great, great track though.
Listen to all five tracks as a playlist below: