J Dilla: The GodFather of LoFi Hip Hop

We talkin’ bout, “J Dilla? Jay Dee? The Greatest?”

J Dilla was born James Yancey in Detroit, Michigan. He had an opera singer for a mother and a jazz bassist for a father. Like many other artists, this early introduction to music being played around the house contributed a lot to why J Dilla fell in love with music.

After forming Slum Village with his friends, J Dilla took a keen interest in beat-making and would spend long periods in the basement producing beats. The rest is history…

Early Career

J Dilla’s career kicked off when Slum Village’s demo found its way to Payday Records, courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest and his friend and mentor, Amp Fiddler. Amp showed Dilla the ropes of how a studio and music production works. Amp Fiddler also introduced Dilla to the instrument he would be famous for using, the Akai MPC-3000.

J Dilla, in his early days, worked with De-La Soul, Common, A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, The Roots and is uncredited for his work with Janet Jackson and Busta Rhymes.

Signature Style

In a piece with the Guardian titled, “J Dilla: the Mozart of hip-hop“, the classical music virtuoso Miguel Ferguson says, “Dilla manifested his genius. He worked hard, and when his peers were interested in vanity, Dilla was interested in the exploration of music.”

So, what makes J Dilla such a genius, and why is he considered one of the pioneers of lo-fi hip-hop? Here are the key factors contributing to his strokes of genius:

Background in Composition

Dilla’s music- both originals and remixes- is very easy on the ears of his listeners. However, producers and musicians who have taken time to deconstruct his work speak of a lot of thought and technicality in his method. This can partially be attributed to his composition background as a cellist. What’s most interesting is that he wasn’t trying to be technical; his training just shone through.

Dilla Time

In his biography of J Dilla, aptly named Dilla Time, Dan Charnas claims Dilla reinvented rhythm. To understand the gravity of this, you first have to understand a few basics about hip-hop culture.

Hip-Hop in the 90s was characterized by three distinct things: drum machines, synthesizers, and sample-heavy beats. The drum programming in the drum machines was like a pulse, with equal, predictable intervals. If you listen to productions from then (and sample heavy hip hop’s resurgence now), you can feel it in the rhythm and how artists floated over such beats.

J Dilla, however, took a different approach. He credits this to his mentor, Amp Fiddler, who introduced him to the MPC-3000 and encouraged him to learn by trial and not by following the manual. As he did this, Dilla learned how to take advantage of a function that most other producers hadn’t yet discovered, swing.

He used two main instruments then – the SP-1200 and the MPC-3000. The SP-1200’s programming had a swing function. You could make your samples even or uneven. However, everything would swing together. If you chose to swing your kick, you would have to swing your snare too.

The MPC-3000 also had a swing function, but you could swing different elements as a producer. Dilla was one of the few who understood this function at the time and learned how to use it to create his signature sound and rhythm, what is famously referred to as “Dilla Time.” J Dilla often ignored the quantization function of the MPC-3000 – a function used to line up melodies using MIDI perfectly and used the swing along with his natural rhythm (swing) to create a rhythm that wasn’t always “on the beat,” creating a less rigid feel to his music.

Sampling Style

The first genius element in J Dilla’s sampling technique was his fusion of different types of rhythms simultaneously. He merged the “straight” Western rhythm with swing rhythms. Few producers did so then. His influence to mix these two rhythms came from his understanding of using the Akai MPC-3000 and his love of jazz and soul records.

The second element in his sampling technique was that he decelerated his samples. You can hear this very clearly if you listen to Conant Gardens and how “A tribute to Wes” by Little Bower has been slowed down. He said of this technique, “I would spend a lot of time listening to music, and I would get really excited when I noticed a mistake.” To him, the small mistakes, when a drummer missed a beat and was just behind or ahead of everyone else, made for something beautiful.

Another small but critical factors that made his music unique was using his equalizer to filter through frequencies and ensure everything sounded clean, minimal, but compelling. J Dilla also used odd timings of 5s and 7s.

With all these techniques, the unique tool in his belt was his uncanny ability to manipulate sounds- and to know just when to delay something, play it straight or add an extra kick. He said he was so good at his sampling because of how much time he spent familiarizing himself with the couple of samplers he refused to deviate from. You can tell just how special this is when you listen to people who have tried to imitate his sound. Few producers sound as effortless as he did.

Dilla’s Preferred Tools

Before falling in love with the MPC-3000, J Dilla started with the SP-12, then the SP-1200, moved to the MPC-60, the MPC-60 II, and finally the MPC 3000. Rumor has it that he created his last album, Donuts, on the SP-303 and a stack of records with a turntable in his hospital room. In his last interview, he said that he likes to keep it simple, “An MPC and a couple of turntables. That’s really it.”

Dilla’s Influence on LoFi Hip Hop

Although lo-fi hip-hop has gained a lot of popularity in the late years of the 20th century, it has been in existence before then.

J Dilla is considered a pioneer of lo-fi hip-hop because his sound had lo-fi elements, and his techniques/tools have been adopted heavily by the lo-fi hip hop scene.

His beats were laid-back, and his samples were soulful and jazzy. This was unlike the traditional hip-hop of his time that was more hard-core. Lo-fi hip-hop is much the same, aiming for relaxing beats and a nostalgic feel.

Furthermore, because he chose to ignore the quantization function of the MPC-3000 and his decision to create rhythms that were a little bit off, he gave his music a “human” and relaxed feel. The sound wasn’t perfectly mechanized but gave allowance for a little freehand. For example, one of his pieces that has been sampled a lot for lo-fi hip-hop is “One Upon a Time.” If you listen to it, you can notice a freehand baseline that is also behind the beat. In the same way, lo-fi hip-hop gives that “undermixed” feel, with both intentional and unintentional errors in beats.

Finally, any lo-fi hip-hop producer would tell you that they scour through thousands of records to find that perfect sample. This is the same process Dilla used when creating-collecting thousands of records to find the perfect one. J Dilla’s process is one that has heavily influenced how lo-fi producers approach and create their music.

J Dilla’s legacy is more present now than it ever was. All you have to do is listen to his songs on any streaming platform (or vinyl) to notice the influence he still has. Long live J Dilla, as QuestLove was quoted as saying in Dilla Time, “your musician’s musician’s favorite musician.”