Loose Stuff: Listening To J Dilla’s “Jay Dee a.k.a. King Dilla”

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Listening to J Dillas’s “Jay Dee a.k.a. King Dilla”, a collection of brief instrumental tracks recorded by Dilla early in his career using an E-mu Systems SP-1200 drum sampler, you can hear that the key to his grooves’ grooving is their looseness. I have read a fair bit online from people speculating on what it was exactly that made Dilla’s beats (for Slum Village, The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes) so good. He played everything by hand, without quantising, is one often heard theory of Dilla’s musicality. I’m not sure if Dilla’s beats were quantised or not–or even if that matters. Listening to the music on “Jay Dee a.k.a. King Dilla” what I hear are basically steady snare, kick drum and hi hat patterns, over which are loose keyboard, bass, guitar, and vocal parts. This looseness–is it an exact looseness?–is generated in various ways: sometimes through not so tight rhythmic interlock with the drum patterns, sometimes through delay/echo effects that ping-pong parts over the beats, and sometimes by leaving space for the beats to breathe. What all the tracks share in common is a sense of rhythmic tension between the snare, kick drum, and hi hat patterns and the other sampled stuff layered on top of them. In other words, it’s not so much that any single part is way “out” rhythmically, but more that the relationships between all the parts is such that little complexities and irregularities are woven into the mix. (Charles Keil once called these “out of time” and “out of tune” irregularities participatory discrepancies.) And so the Dilla fans who speculate online about how this beat maestro made his grooves have good reason to be curious. It’s hard to be this musical–this loose–and make it sound so easy.

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