The story of J Dilla: The pioneer of modern sampling in hip-hop

Written by Tom Oldham

James Dewitt Yacey, better known as ‘J Dilla’, was a hip-hop producer throughout the late 90s and early 00s. His work has been recognised as highly influential to many hip-hop artists and he is recognised as one of the pioneers of lo-fi hip-hop. Dilla’s production style became even more apparent in the mainstream after his tragic death in 2006 due to Lupus and a rare blood disease called Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, but the beats that influenced so many had been noticeable for over a decade beforehand.

Dilla started to gain prominence in the mid-90s, producing for notable acts such as The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes and De La Soul in 1995 and 1996. His first mainstream production success came from the Hot 100 charting singles ‘Runnin’ and ‘Drop’ by The Pharcyde in 1995 which, even so early in Dilla’s production career, showed elements of what would widely become known as lo-fi hip-hop production. The track ‘Drop’ has a spacey atmosphere to it with a Beastie Boys sample from the rock influenced song ‘The New Style’ acting as the main hook of this more laid-back track. This juxtaposition of the sample to his beat is a perfect display of how Dilla beautifully cut and utilised his samples, which gave him his own unique sound, which was also characterised by his off-kilter drum programming since he didn’t use quantisation on his MPC to make sure everything was mechanically in place like many other producers at that time. His style could also be recognised by the texture on many of his sampled drums which gave them a much softer sound, largely in his kicks; this would become a heavily used technique in lo-fi hip-hop production after his passing.

After gaining more recognition over the next 5 years, J Dilla (who up until this point was still going by the name ‘Jay Dee’) released his debut solo album Welcome 2 Detroit in 2001, that lyrically largely covered life growing up in Detroit, with the production, almost completely covered by Dilla, taking influences from other genres such as jazz and soul. This reinforced his reputation as a brilliant rapper and producer, as well as being an important stepping stone for what was to come with his 2006 album Donuts.

On his 32nd birthday and only 3 days before he passed from cardiac arrest due to health complications, Dilla released his second and final studio album Donuts. With the 43-minute runtime being packed with 31 tracks, the sampling was bizarre and unique. For the most part, tiny snippets were used as samples which made the sound more abrasive and dense, with only 1 track passing 2 minutes in length.

In what might be the greatest example of his sampling genius on Donuts, Dilla chopped up kicks and snares from the 1973 track ‘I Can’t Stand To See You Cry’ by The Escorts, disregarding the melody on top of the drums completely. This was unusual since sampling traditionally centred around the melody or drum pattern in hip-hop production; it was extremely rare to see both put to use simultaneously. The result of this was an almost unrecognisable, fragmented version of the samples titled ‘Don’t Cry’. Not only was the sample beautifully cut, but according to Dilla’s close friend and fellow musician Questlove, it had a much deeper meaning. The title and lyrics were supposedly directed towards Dilla’s mother, telling her not to grieve his inevitable death when he was making this album due to his condition.

Out of the 31 tracks on this album, 29 were made from Dilla’s hospital bed with only a Boss SP-303 sampler, a small record player, and records provided by his friends and family. As his condition worsened, Dilla’s mother would have to massage his fingers due to the swelling just so that he could work on the album or he would wake up his mother in the middle of the night to move him to his instruments. When he eventually finished and released the album on his 32nd birthday, his friends visited him in hospital to celebrate the release, but by this point he was hardly able to speak or move because of his sudden decline in health. He tragically passed away only 3 days later.

Despite his untimely death, J Dilla’s legacy and influence lives on over 15 years later in the artists he has inspired. For example, Kanye West cited Dilla as a huge inspiration to him in a 2013 interview, saying that he often thinks to himself while making music ‘If Dilla was alive, would he like this?’. As well as this, artists who worked with him often reflect upon his talent and work ethic. This includes well-respected hip-hop artists such as A Tribe Called Quest members Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, Erykah Badu, Madlib, Common and many others.

Although James Yacey’s life was sadly cut short, his impact on hip-hop has survived through his music and memory. His production equipment is currently located in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C, his music has been used frequently in popular culture such as in BBC documentaries, and the J Dilla Foundation was set up to help cure people with lupus. Donuts is seen as Dilla’s magnum opus and his swan song, as well as a classic hip-hop album and one of the most influential of all time. So, next time you hear a chopped-up sample from someone like Kanye West or Kendrick Lamar or are listening to lo-fi hip-hop to study or relax, remember the work and influence of J Dilla because without him, the landscape of hip-hop that we all know and love would not be the same.