For the most part, whenever I heard a J Dilla (previously known as Jay Dee) beat, it sounded…off, wrong, maybe even sloppy. I couldn’t totally follow it. I wanted to like it, but I couldn’t fully appreciate it. It made me feel a bit discombobulated.
Only much later did I realize that was the intention. Dilla was not only reinventing what was known, he was inventing what was previously unknown.
As Dan Charnas writes, “What Dilla created was a third path of rhythm, juxtaposing those two time-feels [straight time and swing time], even and uneven simultaneously, creating a new, pleasurable, disorienting rhythmic friction and a new time-feel: Dilla Time.”
Dilla Time is also the title of Charnas’s new book about the legendary beatmaker, a book that is so much more than a mere biography. It’s also a history of a city, a history of music, an analysis of sound, a cultural study, and a celebration of genius (that occasionally flirts with becoming hagiography). Deeply researched and packed with vivid memories and crisp storytelling, it is also interactive, allowing the reader to experience the differences in music – both and after Dilla.
The book alternates chapters of Dilla’s life story with everything that influenced and was influenced by him, from his upbringing to his city to the music he consumed to the generation that worships him and continue to practice his sound.
The most amazing thing about J Dilla’s music is that he used a drum machine like it was a live instrument that could be easily manipulated. He was able to do by ear what others that came after him were only able to do with computer software so they could actually see the different musical elements that he simply heard and felt. His mastery was so complete that his Akai MPC 3000 is on display at the Smithsonian.
“James Dewitt Yancey cultivated a new time-feel, a third path in rhythm. That time-feel arose not from a musical scene, nor from the conservatory, nor from the avant-garde, but from one man using a machine in a basement in Detroit.”
Of course, Dilla became much more famous – and appreciated – after he died. Not too many people were wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase phrase, “J Dilla Changed My Life” while the man was still alive. While he was still producing, his appeal was more akin to an underground movement based on word of mouth than typical mainstream success: his beat tapes were passed around from person to person and his most devout fans converged onto the OkayPlayer message boards to praise him.
Posthumously, he became so much more.
The combination of a once-in-a-generation talent and a young death can lead to martyrdom, if not outright sainthood, and while Charnas certainly does not ignore Dilla’s darker side – hitting his partner; impregnating multiple women; treating friends and family like shit; hiding a second family; his addiction to the strip club – the book leans much more towards celebration – it’s clear how much Charnas revered his work – even if it manages to avoid total deification.
Charnas previously authored what I have always contended is the greatest hip-hop book in history, The Big Payback, and his descriptive writing has only improved since. Take, for instance, this sentence where he uses space imagery to elevate a simple sentence:
“D’Angelo’s star rose with his first album in 1995. After three turns around the sun, his long-awaited follow-up had yet to break the horizon.”
The book is full of such gems, all of which are valuable when considering that a work such as this, with sections devoted to such topics as city planning, production equipment, and probating an estate, could easily become directionless, overly dense, and, worst of all, boring. At times, the writing can occasionally veer into hyperbole, particularly when trying to conjure emotion, but considering the passion that continues to surround J Dilla’s music and memory, perhaps it is fitting.
After his death, Dilla’s world became messy with all sorts of individuals claiming to be acting in the late producer’s best interest and the part of the book that focuses on that also becomes a bit messy as Charnas struggles with competing narratives, recollections, and opinions.
Overall, though, it’s a magnificent piece of work. I have been writing about hip-hop music in one form or another for almost twenty years and have been a disciple of it for thirty-five, and yet there was so much that I didn’t know prior to cracking open this book. I knew J Dilla was special and important, but I never realized how special or, more importantly, why. The amount of people he influenced and the impact he had on all types of music cannot be overstated and is borne out throughout these 400-plus pages.
The man born James Dewitt Yancey knew he was unique and knew he could do things others never even imagined, but when asked about his approach to music and where his contributions fit into the larger scheme of culture and life, J Dilla would simply say, “I just want to make some shit.”
He did so much more than that.
Dilla Time will be released on February 1, 2022.
I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Christopher Pierznik is the worst-selling author of nine books. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter. Please feel free to get in touch at CPierznik99@gmail.com.