while waxing hyperbolic is probably only natural when memorializing the deceased, it’s pretty hard to overstate the influence that Jay Dee (nee James Yancey) had on the direction of urban music at the turn of the century. Dilla, who passed away last weekend after a long battle with lupus, was freakishly prolific, and toiled in obscurity while smithing beats for seminal works like The Pharcyde’s stellar second album Labcabincalifornia and De La Soul’s classic Stakes is High. his beats evoked moody jazz and intense soul, and he flaunted his uncanny ear for sampling when he took over production on A Tribe Called Quest’s final two albums, Beats, Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement; he composed the majority of Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, as well as standout tracks on D’Angelo’s magnum opus Voodoo and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun.
Dilla was also an accomplished MC in his own right, and he left Slum Village, the hip-hop group he founded, to follow his myriad sonic impulses while continuing to work with acts like Mos Def and Talib Kweli. he became something of a legend as his unreleased beat tapes were downloaded and traded by an increasingly ravenous fan base, eager to hear the ideas he was throwing around in between projects. and over the last year, he toured Europe — mainly from a wheelchair — as his condition deteriorated.
His album Donuts was released just a few days before his death, and served as the unfortunate punctuation for an artist who was revered by some of black music’s most talented and cutting edge musicians.
Dilla appeared on Wale Oyedije’s One Day…Everything Changed on the track “There’s a War Going On,” and i spoke to Wale about how that collaboration came to be.
Q: how did Dilla first come onto your radar? do you remember the first time you heard his sound?
Wale: well, like most people, i had heard him before knowing of him. and its interesting because — indirectly — he’s one of the people that drew me into hip-hop. i was an indie rock/grunge kid in high school and fell in love with The Pharcyde’s “Runnin” cause it was based on a guitar loop. i didn’t really become aware of him until relatively recently. i didn’t like [Jay Dee’s group Slum Village] when they first came out because i was in my “Kweli” phase — and they weren’t talking about anything. plus they said “bitch” a lot.
Q: [laughs] yeah. Labcabincalifornia was one of the albums that i really kinda became possessive of [when it came out], and i didn’t even know until about last year that he’d had any involvement with it. because like you said, i had no clue who he was back in …96?
Wale: yup. and same thing… i loved his work on Tribe’s Beats, Rhymes and Life. i had no idea it was him.
Q: how did “There’s a War Going On” come about ?
Wale: Okay so that summer was my big Dilla summer basically.
Q: how so?
Wale: while i had known of him, that’s when i really became obsessive. and i listened to everything. this was in ‘04. summer/fall. so i was listening to “Fuck The Police” one day…
Q: what about his sound did you dig so much?
Wale: well I’ve always respected his beats. it was actually then, that i started to love him as an MC. some people do, some don’t. i just like his brash, over-the-top style. not particularly clever or wordy, but just really… for lack of a better word, his “swagger” — that shit is so overused. but yeah, he talked like he believed what he was saying. songs like “Make ‘Em NV,” which were basically against whatever i was interested in — it’s about flossing your ice — would become my anthem.
Wale: just because of the way he spits. he didn’t lack conviction at all. so i was listening to “Fuck the Police,” and thought it would be interesting to do an Afrobeat-type remake. so i looped the drums. some people were upset about that, but i’ve never really been bothered by that sort of thing. and the song ended up turning into what it was. at this point i still hadn’t met him, the connection was there though because of my work with [MF Doom]. Doom/Madlib, Madlib/Dilla.
[note: in 2003, MF Doom worked with Madlib on their Madvillainy project, and Madlib teamed up with Jay Dilla the same year to release Champion Sound as the group Jaylib.] i forget who brought it up, either me or my manager. but we were like, “yo, i wonder what J would think of this.”
so we make a few calls. typical “your-people-call-my-people” situation. and he loved it. so he recorded his verses in the spaces and sent it back. the reason its structured kind of funny…i wanted it to be typical verse/chorus/verse. but he basically just recorded in the blank spaces where i wasn’t singing. that’s why you hear him at the very beginning and in the middle. kind of hard to explain, but i found it awkward at first, then grew to love it.
Q: did you two ever get to meet in person?
Wale: yeah later on when i was in LA. for the album release. the reason he says “Wale O!” on the song is because he was scared of mispronouncing my name. even then, we didn’t know it but i believe he was having health issues. he does the joint, we put it out . we’d never even talked on the phone or had any kind of correspondence — a lot of music is done like that these days, unfortunately. basically, a business transaction. “gimme the loot/I’ll give you the song.”
Q: was that the last time you’d spoke to him?
Wale: the night i met him was the only time we ever spoke . so what happened was, it was a Doom show and we couldn’t get in for whatever reason. it was a crazy night. my manager managed Doom as well and had to pull rank to get in. so i’m in the street handing out flyers for one of my shows and J hops out to go in and someone stops him, shows him the flyer and [he] calls me over. i wouldn’t have recognized him otherwise, probably. he was my height or shorter, really skinny wearing baggy clothes. he dapped and hugged me up and all that. we talked for a second, then he was like, “i’ll see you inside.” and he bounced [laughs.] i didn’t want to be like “um, can you please get me in?”
Wale: so, eventually, we straighten it out and i get in. it’s a circus backstage. I talk to doom and them. lots of hip-hop dudes in the indie scene are there, and i was telling Dave about this. you see it on the boards — the Dilla fanaticism — but it’s just as bad in person. i honestly felt bad for him. there were all these dudes around him just sitting around soaking him up like vultures, asking him inane questions. he and i made nervous small talk for a while sitting next to each other, but really we didn’t know each other. we were just two guys who did a song together i met Madlib later as well, similar situation. we didn’t really talk. what i noticed about both of them…well J is a lot less introverted. they’d make polite small talk with people and answer the questions, but they’d much rather be home doing their thing. it seemed like a lot of people had Dilla up on this pedestal — rightfully so, but they almost saw him as god-like. it was just weird to me seeing that happen in person.
Q: He seems to get a level of adoration usually reserved for, you know, Jigga and folks like that.
Wale: yeah, exactly.
Q: has his sound — the notorious snares and all that — influenced yours?
Wale: definitely. the whole “One Day” album is, for the most part, me doing Dilla-lite, [but] not as badly as some other people who have co-opted his sound. and my later stuff has changed as well. but if you look at what a wide influence he’s had, it’s incredible. he literally changed the game. so yeah, i only got a small window into his world, i guess. but in retrospect, its the type of thing people would kill for.
Q: yeah. he’s been involved with so many of the artists that were the soundtrack of my late teens early adulthood. i had a picture on my wall back in college from a Vibe magazine shoot: Mos, Talib, Ahmir, James Poyser, Q-Tip, Badu, D’Angelo and Dilla.
Wale: yeah man. if things worked out better they could have all done so much more together.
Q: is there any one work of his you’re especially fond of?
Wale: there’s a long ass list. probably Fantastic Vol. 2, beatwise. his Ruff Draft EP. i mean there’s so much stuff. the thing about him Wale: you can tell he was a good person. not so much through his rapping, because that was run of the mill — “fuck bitches/get money.” but he had that rare dedication to his craft that you don’t see around. i don’t think he would ever have blown up. people say “this was going to be his year.” i doubt it; people like him aren’t made for stardom. we’ve seen their type throughout history. i’m sure he’ll have an even greater legion of fans now that he’s passed, which is unfortunate. i hope his family benefits somehow. i feel for his mom, who went on tour with him [while he was sick] but I’m sure seeing all those fans showing love for her kid made her appreciate [his choices more]. i don’t know if you saw the URB cover last year or whenever Jaylib came out. he was blown up really fat, i guess due to the medicine. i don’t know when he started, but the pics that were out a few months ago looked really bad.
Q: when you found out he died, what was your first reaction?
Wale: numbness. i didn’t feel true sadness — and i still haven’t honestly — until i read about how his mom found him in his room, unresponsive. that really hurt me, knowing the kind of personality he was. i prefer to celebrate him than to grieve. he’s the kind of dude that would want to go to a strip club and wile out with his boys. i don’t think he’d want us all to be in a teary-eyed funeral procession. he’d want people to make music.
Q: where’d you hear about his mom finding him?
Wale: it was just part of an article…it’s just hard because i know she has been with him taking care of him and no parent should have to outlive their kid. and like people said, he was probably in some pain. so maybe its better for him this way. i don’t worry about not getting any more music, because he already gave more than some do in their lifetimes. and I’m sure he had more on layaway than Tupac.