Closing out Dilla Month, I’d like to share my thoughts and experiences on Dilla’s final album that was released while he was still alive (audio)
When I first started thinking about doing my Dilla Month tribute, I originally wasn’t going to talk about this album. I figured, everyone has talked about this ad nauseum and I couldn’t think of anything to add to the conversation that hadn’t already been said. But after listening to the incredible, touching tribute dissection of this album by Boiler Room (which you can listen to here), where the presenter said something along the lines of, “this album means something different to everyone.”, I decided it was worth offering my own two cents to this classic album.
But this is going to be less of a review of the content of the album, and more of my ever changing opinion of it and how over the ten years of listening to it (I bought originally back on CD in the spring of 2006, and have subsequently bought it two more times on vinyl). If you need an in-depth look at the content of the album, just Google it. There are tons of reviews out there that praise the living daylights out of this album. But if you need a review in the classic sense, I’ll give it to you in brief:
This is a masterclass album of sampling and the perfect example of sampling as art form. Ten out of ten. Every hip-hop/Dilla head needs to own this! And shame on you if you don’t.
Now that’s out of the way, I wanted to share my experiences with the album and how time has only made me appreciate it more and more.
Back in 2006, when I was still living around Chicago but about to make the jump to moving to Japan, I was working at a package design company on in the northwest suburbs as an intern. Occasionally, when I was bored on lunch break, I would zip over to Boarder’s Book Store to look at music that I might be interested in. Back then, I was still habitually buying CDs every week or so and at the time, I was just really starting to get into Stones Throw and what they were about. At that time, I still was pretty new to hip-hop but I loved stuff like Prefuse 73 and DJ Shadow (I was also pretty new to electronic music, as I was slowly gravitating away from rock music in 2006). So when I heard about Dilla’s passing through Stones Throw and other music websites, and also having heard that it was largely an instrumental beat tape, I decided to pick the album up. And without realizing it, that moment changed my life.
I remember immediately throwing into my car CD player and feeling uncertain as to what I had just bought upon my first listen. Sure, it “bumps in the whip” (shout out to Feefo from Dead End Hip-Hop), but all the tracks were so short and seemingly random. A new song would start almost as soon as last track had started (the majority of the tracks on here don’t even hit the two minute mark, and some are even only 30 seconds long), and by the time I thought I had a handle on the album, it was already over (the album being just barely over 40 minutes long).
In the previously mentioned Boiler Room presentation, he talks about being disappointed by this album from his original listen because to him, he said it sounded too basic to be Dilla. Dilla, throughout the 90s and even into the 2000s, had been known for his funky, layered, jazzy productions. Yet a cursory listen of this just felt like straight loops of obvious samples. I totally agree with him; my virgin ears didn’t know really anything about sampling and intricate it could get but it definitely seemed like I was missing something.
But something inside me said, “Keep listening!” and gradually, the album started making sense to me. Over the ten years since when I originally bought the album, I learned more about how sampling works (which by the way, this album is anything BUT simple if you really listen to it) and discovered this album is filled with WTF moments all over the place (again, you really should listen to that Boiler Room presentation). Despite all the song’s brief nature, I slowly found myself loving everyone one of them. Seriously, there is not a single wasted moment on this entire album. Once this album clicks for you, it’s guaranteed to become one of your favorites, like it did for me.
Now normally, I’d just stop there, but there’s one more thing I need to talk about: the hidden messages. I hadn’t really entertained the notion that Dilla had included all sorts of coded messages to his friends and family about his knowledge that he was going to die until some years after the album had come out. In 2014, I got a copy of the 33 1/3 series that discusses the album’s deeper meaning and how it’s an allusion to the 5 stages of grief (you know, disbelief, bartering, anger, acceptance, that kind of stuff). After figuring that I had the album all figured out, I discovered this album goes way deeper than I had originally thought. And then, most recently with the Boiler Room presentation, which breaks down the tracks even further (listen to it already, dammit!), it really disproves the idea that these are just random collection of ideas; that from the song titles, to the samples themselves, this whole album is way of saying goodbye to everyone. Looking back to when the album came out (February 7th, 2006, his birthday), to when he passed (February 10th, 2006), it really does line up well with the theories. It really just adds one more layer of depth to an already deep album.
I would go as far as to say it’s probably the most deceptive albums in hip-hop; an album that is still being decoded and discussed to this very day. Taking strictly from the merits of beat tape/hip-hop album, however, it still holds up. Every listen will reveal something new to you. A new appreciation will come out of repeated play. It’s an album that absolutely changed my life, not only as hip-hop head, but as a music head, forever. For that, I can only say, Thank You Jay Dee.
R.I.P. James Yancey aka Jay Dee aka Jay Dilla aka McNasty (February 7th, 1974 – February 10th, 2006)
With that, I’d like to conclude this year’s Dilla Month tribute! Hopefully you enjoyed it, gained some insight into this other-worldly hip-hop producer’s catalog!