Updated: Feb 7, 2022
Welcome to Timeless Affairs, the corner of Steppin' Into Tomorrow, where we'd like to shine a spotlight on essential albums that have shaped our culture (and lives in some cases). We lovingly revisit, explore and zoom in on these gems in their full length. Digging out stories and fun facts from the making of the masterpieces that have built the foundation of the music today and continue to shape the future.
Around this time each year, the life of the Detroit beat-maker legend, one of the most respected producers of all time in music: James Dewitt Yancey a.k.a. Jay Dee / J Dilla is celebrated in all corners across the globe. On top of that, towards the end of Dilla Month, today also marks the 20th anniversary of his debut solo album under the name J Dilla: ‘Welcome To Detroit’. Thus, it only feels right to raise it up for the late, great J Dilla, salute his otherworldly genius and honor the legacy he’s left with us.
“His music embraces the soul, heart and mind of the listener, because it is built on love. His music is a recipe for loving others and the disappointment that sometimes affects us when we dare to care.” - Ma Dukes
First things first, let's put things into perspective a bit. Growing up in Detroit (a.k.a. Motor City, home of Motown Records), Conant Garden district on the city’s lower East side, James Yancey was brought up as the eldest of four children in a musical household. Mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, is a trained vocalist in classical and jazz, a former opera singer. Father Beverly Dewitt Yancey, jazz teacher and bass player, and also a songwriter who ghost-wrote the major hit “It’s a Shame” for the Spinners. According to Ma Dukes, all types of genres were played at the house all the time, from gospel, through classical, jazz, funk, soul, country music, you name it. Nonetheless, with James Brown at the center stage. “Dilla’s first influence at a year old was the James Brown sound. Before he could stand up in the playpen, he’d get taken over by the music. That feeling that he had then, I think he always wanted to transfer that into something he created. He wanted us to feel how he felt listening to that James Brown music, I believe.”
As a kid, James learned to play piano, guitar, cello, trumpet, violin, and drums. Even DJing and rapping during the High School years as MC Silk, before anything else. However, once introduced to the Akai MPC machine by the amazing musician and producer Amp Fiddler, it quickly became the main instrument that he continued to master to the point of perfection. Later also getting inspired and following in the footsteps of his idol Pete Rock amongst others. Dilla was all about the feel and his skills on the MPC were untouchable. He didn’t believe in reading manuals or automating anything. Not to get into the mechanics too much, but the bottom line here is that if things are slightly offbeat, the quantize function allows beatmakers to line everything up perfectly into positions within the measure, during composition of a music track. Instead of doing that, he programmed his drums manually, filling these square pads with pure soul. Guiding the machine into translating humanity in the most profound and unique way and, at the same time, using live instruments to season these beats.
Dilla has continued to create music as a co-founder and one-third of the acclaimed group Slum Village. Producing the last two albums of the beloved A Tribe Called Quest, along with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, forming a production collective called The Ummah. He was an essential member of the Soulquarians collective, and he worked alongside numerous iconic names such as Busta Rhymes, The Roots, MF DOOM, Madlib, Pharcyde, De La Soul, Janet Jackson among many others…
‘Welcome 2 Detroit’ was his debut solo album and the first project, on which he performed under the name J Dilla, symbolically preparing the listeners to hear a new side of him. Released just about 8 months after the ‘Fantastic, Vol.2’ by Slum Village that introduced the group to the world at large. Reppin’ Detroit, paying tribute to his hometown, he chose the name of the album accordingly and the entire record is carried out in the proper spirit of the D. Raw and unfiltered.
The album came out on the independent London-based BBE label, since with them, he got to keep the kind of creative freedom he wouldn’t get with a major, or anywhere else. Welcome 2 Detroit was the first release on the label that inspired and set off the producer-led Beat Generation series that have brought incredible hip hop instrumentals to light over the years to come and played a very important role in the beat culture in general.
*BBE, in the forward-thinking-labels case, is short for Barely Breaking Even, although there also is a track on the album called 'B.B.E.' that distills Detroit's techno element with a Kraftwerk Trans-Europa Express sample. In this respect, though, it’s an abbreviation for Big Booty Express. Might as well be a subtle nod, but who knows.
The artwork itself gives away the key role strip clubs played in the creative process. According to Dank of Frank-N-Dank, Dilla loved going to the strip club every day of the week. Preferably Chocolate City that since 2016 doesn’t exist anymore. ”Strip club ain’t always about chasin’ ass’s, it’s about good vibes.” The girl you see on the cover is Dank’s High School friend Dominique.
Including several features of a number of local MC heroes like Frank-N-Dank, Phat Kat, Beej, Ta’Raach & Big Tone and Elzhi. Actually, this album officially introduced “Detroit's Best Kept Secret”, the one-and-only Elzhi to the world for the first time. ‘Come Get It’ launched many frequent collaborations between the two. There’s also an early appearance by the L.A.-based rapper Blu, featuring on ‘The Clapper’. Dilla spits hot bars over the crooked beat on ‘Beej-N-Dem’, so you already know he’s nasty on the mic too.
The live instrumentation element is real eminent on here just as well. On "African Rhythms", a cover of an afrobeat song by Oneness of Juju, all of the original instruments are replayed live, including a mimic of the spoken word intro. Musically there are appearances by Dwele on guitar, keys and horns on multiple tracks, and by Frank on claves on the cover of the classic 70’s Earth, Wind & Fire instrumental ‘Brazilian Groove’. Karriem Riggins is holding down the drums & percussion and you can really feel it in the ‘Rico Suave Bossa Nova’ jam, inspired by the Brazilian band Azymuth.
In the liner notes of the album, Dilla states: “I fell in love with Brazilian music the day I listened to a Sérgio Mendes album. We used to have jam sessions in the studio after work was done, (and) one day my mans Karriem Riggins came through. I asked him for "Bossa nova". He gave me exactly what I needed.”
That said, it’s important to keep in mind that Jay was known for constantly digging for vinyl in record stores. He’d spend hours and hours discovering obscure artists of all genres and letting their spirit shine through in a way that only he knew how. On this occasion, we’ve put together a playlist that honours the original samples, offering a sneak peek into the general vibe behind the scenes of making the record. It’s a journey that will take you through all of the music used on this album and if you pay close attention, you might just be able to identify the particular parts he’d used. Regardless, though, it’s all good music.
‘Think Twice’ is a real highlight track on the album, since it reflects Dilla's jazz upbringing and he actually let his singing voice shine on it. Featuring Dwele and his younger brother Antwan on the horns (trumpet and trombone), Dilla even plays the piano with a guitar pick in the opening of the song.
“He reached into the piano and with his hand inside, he starts picking the strings instead of using the keys and it sounds exactly like what I described. This wasn’t even a thing (laughs) because he was always experimenting, it was just like – all of a sudden, he’s out there and he’s like, “Will you record this?” -Todd Fairall, engineer, excerpt from the oral history by John Vanderpuije
Furthermore, Think Twice is a cover of jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd's breezy piece with the same name from his album Stepping Into Tomorrow (yes, just like the name of this blog), serendipitously. The song, over time, turned into a classic and has been reimagined in hip hop, house and beyond, countless times.
His contributions really can’t be overstated, all of that ground-breaking music, touching every genre imaginable with his production. Still influencing some of the biggest names in the game today. J Dilla lived as a representation of complete humility, a strong personality and proper honouring of musicians that he loved in his life. The importance of the man‘s presence on this planet remains steady despite his early passing in 2006, only three days after his 32nd birthday. Gone way, way too soon.
This post could be really long and we can definitely agree that J Dilla’s genius is very well-grounded at this point. So instead, let’s just let the music speak for itself now. Following is one of the most cherished tributes to the man himself to soothe your soul this weekend with the love of music in its purest form.
Much love and thank you, Mr. Yancey. Rest in Beats.
* Last, but not least, there is some good news: if you don’t have your own Welcome 2 Detroit copy, you can now cop the freshly released 20th Anniversary Edition Deluxe 7’’ Box Set that includes 12 discs, instrumentals, unreleased alternative mixes, outtakes and brand new reinterpretations by Azymuth and DJ Muro. On top of that, oral history written by the British writer and filmmaker John Vanderpuije, with a detailed breakdown of the making of the album, and stories from those who were there. Dwele, Karriem Riggins, Amp Fiddler, Big Tone, Frank Nitt, Ma Dukes, and more.
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