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Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Disco D

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“50 Cent’s “Ski Mask Way” is a track that’ll pop-up on college radio mix shows or in-between sets at a hip-hop show and it makes everyone just kinda feel weird. No one really knows whether to just stand still like “Okay” arms crossed because it’s a track from 50 Cent or to nod their head approvingly or go nuts over it. I’ve seen hands swing up and then drop back down when an entire crowd didn’t totally go wild for “Ski Mask Way”. For most people, “Ski Mask Way” is producer Disco D’s legacy and it isn’t a bad one.

So clearly rooted in the the hyped-up soul production of the early 2000s–Kanye and Just Blaze grabbing from Pete Rock, but Puffy too–”Ski Mask Way” is still a stand-out of the micro-trend that ended up major. Especially notable is the embrace of empty space, the confidence to stop, start, roll back, and push forward the dusty, squeaky O Jays vocals over and over again. There’s moments of this song where all the music stops, which is crazy. This is what happens though when you’re some goofy white kid DJ responsible for developing “Ghettotech” (or however you choose to spell it), one of the many hundred high BPM, spastic strands of regional dance music. Those clipped vocals, the complete ripping-apart of the track, especially in the last minute or so, when it’s just sort of this malfunctioning loop of keys, strings, and vocals, is the kind of production prowess honed mixing and cutting balls-out dance music.

That’s to say, while it makes more sense for a Ghettotech kid to have made Trick Daddy’s “I Pop” , “Ski Mask Way” is operating similarly when it comes to warm, wizened open-space. Even the execrable “Popozao”, the first sneak-peek we got of Britney Spears ex Kevin Federline’s music career was mind-bogglingly, subtly, weirdly catchy. And contains the very same comfort in absence.

Or just think of it this way: Disco D got 50 to quote Goodie Mob. That a wonderfully goofy white kid DJ made the gulliest–and most soulful–track on 50 Cent’s otherwise hedge-betting The Massacre is an oft-noted irony, but it’s not really an irony at all. Disco was responsible for “Ghettotech”, as I already mentioned, and he was one of the many DJs of the early 2000s to get really into music from Brazil…but he briefly married some Brazilian Playboy model, which is some weird form of authenticity, right?

Committing suicide as your career’s just warming up is a weird form of authenticity too though. For an overview of Disco’s career and a piece of music journalism you’ll print-out and pour over for years to come, check out Adam Matthew’s “The Death of Disco” from the July 24, 2007 issue of The Village Voice. The producer/DJ/entrepreneur (like actually, not just a guy who jumped onto some weird trends, some of his business plans were prophetic) suffered from bipolar disorder and it ultimately led to his suicide in January of 2007. It’s real easy to reduce people to symbols when they commit suicide, but Disco seems to represent so many troubled, trying-to-cope suburban but not really suburban white kids that are into hip-hop. “Authenticity” doesn’t truly enter the picture ever in hip-hop, but there’s a deep, hardened sense of dejection and tough-minded realism that makes so many kids gravitate towards hip-hop. Whether the stuff 50 Cent or much better rappers describe in their songs hits home directly, it’s the carefree nihilism that only develops when you first, really, really care about like, everything, that bleeds through hip-hop and makes it “authentic”. There’s shit at-stake in hip-hop. Disco D knew this and he put it in those rap beats he made that are worth something.

Disco D hanged himself in his parents’ home eight or nine days before my best friend shot himself in his apartment. Mike made beats too. A lot of them. But they never got fully completed. He’d always stop and move on once they were a skeleton, a fairly complex skeleton with crumbling vocals or some super crazy organ flourish he’d tossed-in but a skeleton nonetheless. A great Mike story is him getting an organ from some old couple advertising it in the paper and then kinda sorta intimidating them into giving it to him for cheaper when he got there. Every beat hovered around 60% finished and then he stopped altogether really. He was pretty hopeless about the beats being much more than “okay”. You couldn’t even tell him why they were good or oh-so-close to being really good. He’d already decided they weren’t that good. Fucking asshole.”

Written by Brandon

July 21st, 2009 at 4:50 am

Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Jimmy Spicer

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“Jimmy Spicer’s decade or so of rap singles (he never made an album) are on the rapping tip, remarkably consistent. He spent the decade-plus rapping in a vampire voice or with a ridiculous accent and pronouncing shit like you’d just had the flu the week prior with only smart, subtle variation in voice and cadence. Spicer saw no reason for reinvention or a need to grow “hard” even as beats shifted away from rudimentary–or I should say “rudimentary”–funk loops (“Adventures of Super Rhyme”) towards electro (“The Bubble Bunch” and “Money”) and ultimately, on the Rick Rubin-produced “Beat the Clock/This Is It”, those first glimpses of hard-as-fuck drums that’d dominate the next decade and a half of hip-hop…”

Written by Brandon

November 7th, 2008 at 4:00 am

Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Jay-Z


Like a week ago, Christopher posted an excellent entry on Jay-Z that I totally forgot to mention. I usually tease you with a notable paragraph from the piece, but this one’s too good to do that to. Check it out:

“Thurston Moore, in Punk:Attitude opined during the standard late 70’s/80’s NYC comparison between the adjacent development of punk and hip-hop as art/social movements that while the punk kids eschewed all material signifiers of wealth for myriad ideological reasons, hip-hop embraced and celebrated money and fat gold rope chains and all that shit. For a number of historical and sociological reasons, this was an insightful, if obvious, comment on the capitalist spirit that came to represent mainstream rap and is fully embodied, like Leviathan to government, by the Unitarian God MC, Jay-Hova.

Jay-Z, first and foremost, is probably the most important musical artist to me personally. Not necessarily my favorite and certainly not the best, but someone I’ve grown up with since I was 8 or 9, when I used to listen to the radio all the time because music had yet to be demystified to me so everything was new and wonderful and interesting and every radio station was my favorite, even classical and jazz. During that time I started listening to New York’s own infamous Hot 97 radio station, which itself embodies a lot of the negatives and embarrassing fuckery of hip-hop this decade, where I first heard “Ain’t No Nigga”. Around ‘96 I would see tons of Pac and Biggie videos on MTV Jams, but Jay didn’t really get that much airplay outside of New York at the time. I remember dueting the hook with this chick named Sharde in the second grade or so who I had a crush on for most of elementary school while a classmate who was trying to mac her was getting all salty. Jay served as the non-pop soundtrack to me life as a little kid in Brooklyn, back when my block would have parties in the summer and my grandfather would get ripped on Friday nights with his old-ass Caribbean friends and listen to 80’s funk and recent shit like Domino and TLC.

My love of my borough and my neighborhood became a love of Jay-Z somewhere around age 10 when Biggie died. Before Jay, Biggie and Pac were my favorite rappers, but I was too young to really get emotional over their deaths. School continued, and Puffy and Mase were making singles so it wouldn’t phase me until late into high school, much like the death of Kurt Cobain. But in the process of the two biggest solo rappers getting gunned down, this guy who bled Brooklyn, specifically Bed-Stuy somehow started ascending into the position left in the wake of their passing. Then Jay’s videos started getting more airplay. I got to see “Who You Wit II” on MTV Jams when they were about to cancel it and it was relegated to a ghostly hostless video block full of posthumous Biggie videos and shit like “Breaker, Breaker” by GZA. Then during the apparent rebirth/rebranding of Def Jam and release of Hard Knock Life, dude was everywhere. When he played the 1999 VMA’s, he kept shit Brooklyn. It gave us the continued aplomb to, honestly, shit on all of the other boroughs who at the time didn’t really have much going for them on the East Coast.We were obnoxious and almost nationalistic in our pride, but who could blame us? Our boy was the king. Still not huge on a national level the way other rappers were, but well on his way and definitely, through successful singles and critical reverence, got bigger with each album. Plus it didn’t hurt that dude quickly became king of the club “bangers”.

Even when Jay faltered, like on the Vol. 3 The Life and Times of S. Carter and The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, he would still have 4 singles and corresponding videos out, non-album airplay, multi-platinum sales and the reverence of almost every rap fan, or at the least every rap fan under 30, for sure. In retrospect, that success backed up his transparent claims to be “a business, maaaaan”. I’m not sure if at some point in the mid-90’s he had taken some Learning Annex marketing/financing classes but like any good capitalist, he corresponded to changes in the marketplace quickly and flirted with the commonly accepted concept of art only when it seemed prudent to do so.

Everything from his rap style to his image shifted every two records or so as East Coast rap flirted with bigger, less basement-y and sample-laden beats. In an early video for a track from about ‘95 back when Jay sort of looked like a 6′+ version of Skee-Lo called “I Can’t Get Wit’ That” the video was done in the projects and he was dressed like any dude would be on a summer day in the Stuy. But by the time his first two albums dropped, it was mob imagery, tailored suits, expensive leather, Cuban cigars, etc., etc. It was obviously in reaction to the success of Nas’ second album and Raekwon’s “Purple Tape”, and maybe to a lesser extent recent albums by Kool G Rap. The flash and glitz of the jiggy era lasted until DMX helped changed the template and took everything back to the hardness that had been excised by the Bad Boy model, and Jay followed in suit with Timbs, white tees and du-rags and proceeded to drop an album that was essentially nothing but singles, a large portion of which got heavy video airplay on the Box and MTV.

The business model between 1999 and 2001 was a weird calculated mix of club rap, confessional songs, usually about absent fathers and family, and coke rap. However, the two-album rule remained in effect and coming off the cocky, self-indulgent brank marketing posse record that was Roc La Familia, the brand had to evolve, thus defining the sound of the decade, “chipmunk soul”, with The Blueprint. It could be argued that marketing an album as more confessional and soulful and the ensuing deluge of critical acclaim was just as calculated as the fall Roc-A-Wear lineup, but getting that boost from the acclaim was probably the last time his business acumen and his product would converge with good results. With the release of possibly the worst double album ever, a record that somehow managed to sound glossier than Rock La Familia and be filled with more filler than Vol 3. and yet go multi-platinum, Blueprint 2. Even as much as I enjoyed “Excuse Me Miss” seeing fellow half-caste Lenny Kravitz embarrass himself with Jay on SNL doing “Guns and Roses” only seemed to backup concerns that Jay had finally fallen the fuck off after 6 years.

So what do you do? You cravenly release a single disc edition of the same abortion, then announce your retirement and “boredom”. With you hitmaking status cemented, two critically acclaimed albums, two great records and three or so bricks content-wise, it seemed wise for Jay to fall back and then employ the law of supply-and-demand to not only make himself more valuable than he was during the Blueprint 2-era, but to ignite discussion, rumor, analysis and ensure, with a previously unheard act of “retiring” from rap setting precedent and ensuring stannery for years to come. Though The Black Album was disappointing due to a few instances of lax quality control and the seeming finality of it all, he went out on a decent note.

Until he realized he needed more edible diamonds for his Cristal and put out two tag-team partial-births with R. Kelly and Linkin Park, respectively, thus annihilating almost all coolness and mystery and goodwill his announcement may have produced. Not only was his commercialism unwarranted at this point, it was wholly inefficient, as the Roc began to fall apart, leaving Kanye West the sole non-Jay-Z act to succeed. 50 Cent would then usurp Jay’s throne on all fronts and rap went through a Southern renaissance of sorts commercially. And then in a series of predictable and disappointing moves, Jay returns after information leaks about Kingdom Come, and drops his second worse LP to date, a commercially crass and middling attempt at redefining himself and expanding beyond the 3 or 4 themes he’s always rapped about. From the afterthought album cover to the labored rhyming to the unforgivable amount of tepid R&B tracks that were surely left over from B’Day, it still managed to push units and sate his pop fans but turned to be a huge mistake, a rare one for Jay in which his capitalism would actual diminish his returns and success and render him an afterthought within the rapidly moving rap landscape. Even his forced movie tie-in with American Gangster, that managed to have a surprising amount of good, though not essential songs, showed signs of Jay being lost. And for a laundry list of reasons, I was honestly angry. Angry that he’d do everything people predicted, angry that he’d push out a late-term of an album, and angry that he’d lost his step and that his idea of lyrical maturity was ripping off GAP-era Common’s corniness, but in a higher tax bracket. NYC rap was, and is dead and there would not be a Superman to save it from Papoose or MIMS. Jay’s hardline financial ambition seemed sad for how unnecessary it was and how much of a compulsion it seems and how much of his “cool factor” and mystique was sacrificed for it. His comparisons to the Grateful Dead were apt, as, masterful live act he had become, he was becoming very much a Madonna/Rolling Stones sort of artist, pumping out lackluster records and opening themselves up to brutal critical derision in making themselves a shallow touring act.

And, beef with lyrics, the failure of the ROC, his popularization of the “hustla not rapper” breed of MC’s, whisper rapping and etc aside, the tragedy to me personally of Jay-Z is that I no longer felt that personal connection to who he was and what he represented. When I see him now, I don’t think of Brooklyn, I think of Foxwoods, Las Vegas, the Bellagio and whatever gaudy casino is in Dubai. In his never-ending consumption, he had completely lost the plot, and in that sense and more, he is hip-hop.”

Written by Brandon

November 7th, 2008 at 3:50 am

Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Egyptian Lover


“Every DJ’s schtick is that they’re the greatest or the best at what they do, but Egypytian Lover’s self-obsession act went a step further. Side Two of his debut ‘On the Nile’ begins with a shortened version of his hit “Egypt, Egypt” and then, instead of keeping the party going, it’s followed by “I Cry (Night after Night)”. “I Cry” is a confessional, electro jam that’s less “slow-song for the ladies” album concession and more like, a song that makes explicit the implicit, depressive feeling that underscores most, if not all dance music.

If you listened hard enough, those 808s-of-death breakdowns on “Egypt Egypt”—especially the 12-inch version—stopped sounding fun and got a little creepy and it just kind of made sense that the party would stop or take a break for a song, so that the Lover can announce, over top snapping drums and watery synths, how he goes to bed every night in tears. “

Written by Brandon

September 2nd, 2008 at 7:27 am

Biographical Dictionary of Rap: Tupac Shakur

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More than any of those definitive images of 2Pac, strutting down the street in a hospital gown, ‘Mad Max’-ed out in the ‘California Love’ video, or the entire ‘Me Against the World’ album- it’s the video he directed for Mac Mall’s ‘Ghetto Theme’ that gets closest to unpacking Tupac Shakur.

The video’s the kind of thing that hip-hop outsiders- the people that always break the biggest and least deserving rappers- would see and approve of because of its cloying anti-violence message. Basically, Mall gets shot over a dice game, his spirit leaves his body and accompanies his now wracked-with-guilt shooter, watches his mourning friends and family, and in the final moments, stops a mourning friend (played by Tupac) from retaliating and shooting Mall’s shooter, who still wracked with guilt, is crying at Mall’s grave. It’s quintessential Tupac, this uncomfortable mix of ghetto realness, embarrassingly sincere sentimentality, and cloying manipulation. It’s also pretty good and very affecting.

But it’s primarily good for contrast because it’s Tupac interpreting and ultimately, misreading the work of another, better, actual West Coast artist, Mac Mall. ‘Ghetto Theme’, the song, is the second to last track on ‘Illegal Business?’- that question mark at the end of the title is more political than anything Tupac ever dropped- and is the realistic but heartfelt plea to you know, “stop the violence” after an album that properly mixes street and pimp talk with frustrated indictments of violence and government corruption. Mall’s annoyed with guys like Tupac (or who Tupac would become) when he says stuff like, “Damn, I thought we were smarter than that”. I’d add, Mall reaches into the reality of reckless youth and blah blah blah in his brief shit-talking performance at the beginning of the video in a way that Tupac only performed in ‘Juice’. You feel it in the video and all over ‘Illegal Business?’; Put in a Tupac movie or a Tupac album and you feel Tupac trying to make you feel it.

Of course, people love a performance and not a performance, and Tupac gave complacent thugs, overzealous Marley/Dylan worshipping rock critics looking for the next rockist or pseudo-rockist poet to write about, sad white kids with slutty moms in middle school, and everyone else someone to embrace. And he courted these fans significantly more than actual rap fans. His apparent disinterest in the quality of beats he rapped on is an example, but more important and rarely discussed is the way Tupac mixed his vocal ridiculously high- an obvious concession to non-rap listener’s ears, making it easier to hear his convoluted and contradictory (not complex) message songs.

Tupac’s intelligence was about average and this is why he’s so appealing to the average person; he makes them feel good about themselves but rarely challenges them. His songs suck out the gray area in which hip-hop thrived and replaced it with the much easier to digest black (angry, “I don’t give a fuck” songs) or white- saccharine songs of regret and outrage that feel less like introspection and more like admitting flaws enough to cover one’s ass. ‘Me Against the World’ is essential listening; ‘Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z’ has its charms, it’s like diet, caffeine free West Coast rap.

Written by Brandon

March 20th, 2008 at 8:12 pm

Biographical Dictionary of Rap Entry: Common

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No matter what kind of rap fan I’m talking to, I end up having to qualify my thoughts on Common. See, if they are my kind of rap fan, the knee-jerk haters of the so-called “conscious” set that make jokes about Common eating granola, then I gotta remind them of just how fucking good early Common could be. If they are a conscious rap fan who really thinks its cool that Common eats granola, out comes my protracted rant about how everything from his persona to his politics is muddled beyond comprehension and he’s made himself nothing more than the go-to for everyone from “heads” to kinda fat Jewish girls that like “some” hip-hop.

Resurrection is an absolute masterpiece, one of the five or so best rap albums ever. Way better than Illmatic, which came out the same year and in my head, the albums forever linked and just like Illmatic (and so many other rap debuts), it’s an album that gives off the feeling of totally being inside the head of the rapper; you know, them saying the shit they wanted to say and before labels or their own fucking “creativity” screwed everything up. The “sometimes, sometimes…” break on ‘Thisisme’ makes me cry every time I hear it. Resurrection is a portrait of Common, warts and all, bad punchlines and on-point rapping and all, and features plenty of insight into one thing and one thing only: Common. He drops great confessions that are decidedly un-hip-hop without being purposefully un-hip-hop, just real: “I didn’t grow up po’ po’/but once you get grown and out on your own/Bills upon bills upon bills is what you have.” Resurrection is pretty much the bougie rap album Common would claim to be making from Like Water For Choclate to the present time. His problems, not enough money, too much fast-food and beer, have as much to do with those kinda fat “some hip-hop”-liking girls I mentioned earlier as they do with someone deep “in the struggle”.

There’s also something incredibly male and even masculine about Resurrection; the easy place to start is ‘I Used to Love H.E.R’ which is oft-cited as being you know a little closed-minded about what girls (metaphor or not) can do with their vaginas. Common comes through in that the album feels and sounds alienated in a way that girls just never really are; it’s a remarkable literature-caliber portrayal of a slightly educated twentysomething (Nirvana who?). On the album, Common’s aware of his problems and wants to fix them but is half-scared and half-lazy and half-enjoying being a fuckup so it’s all a messy loop of living rapped over messy-but-clean jazz and keyboard loops. He’s also weirdly un-ironic and not self-aware like a lot of confused twentysomething dudes (yes face it, Common is basically a dude); only a rapper with little irony or little interest in proofreading would not only rap a line like “and you could tell/By the way her titties hung” but end the verse with it!

At the same time, the album is a jarring transition from Can I Borrow a Dollar? (a great title by the way). No I.D went from pretty ill slightly wiser boom-bap to beats that move and gel together through the subtlest of keyboard touches and other genius sonic detail. Meanwhile, Common calms it down a little and makes the perfect use of his perpetually stuffed-up-like-he’s-got-a-cold flow. Many look back and like to joke or at least reference stuff like ‘Heidi Hoe’ to describe just how different he was when he first spit, but Common is the same dumbass he’s always been. His most winning aspect is a penchant for emotionally honest details that never seem cloying and his worst aspect is the one he’s been totally working-on for more than a decade: his political and social observations (if they can even be called that). It doesn’t surprise me that he dropped out of college because he’s exactly the kind of guy that would go and then drop out and then talk about how he didn’t need it and how (as he says on Resurrection) “I went to school for fourteen years and my best teacher was experience”; Common’s something of a dullard, really.

It’s fun to make fun of Electric Circus’ or the so clichéd they literally mean nothing stuff on Finding Forever (love is not a mystery…it’s everything?) but they are already there on Resurrection when he says junk like “I hope you wake up in time for the revolution/Or you gonna be like/I can’t believe it, I got shot!” and it works on that album because the whole concept behind it is a confused young guy just being real. It’s the same joyful ignorance found on the first N.W.A record (no really, it is); a decade later however, you realize he hasn’t learned much of anything about anything but he thinks he’s got the world figured out…his supposed resurgence with the help of Kanye West is highly overrated and Be and Finding Forever being celebrated shows just how far the Lonnie Lyn has fallen.

Written by Brandon

November 30th, 2007 at 11:55 am

New Biographical Dictionary of Rap Entries: UGK & Big Moe

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But first thing’s fucking first: We’re all going to die of Staph infections! Are you ready??

Christopher wrote an excellent entry on UGK for this weird project being called ‘The Biographical Dictionary of Rap’. I really like how personal and honest it is and how that moves into some great comments on UGK’s very rarified sense of “trill”-ness:

“Like most people not up on southern rap, my first experience with UGK was in early 2000 when “Big Pimpin’” came out, and I kept thinking “Who the fuck is Ug-kuh?” At the time, I thought one of them was UGK and didn’t know which one. I also wondered why they were on the song, but stopped thinking about it when I heard Pimp C’s verse, which was pretty fucking great. It turned out to be a classic single, but I didn’t give the guys another thought, even after BET’s Rap City started programming a lot of southern rap around late 2000, until Spin did one of those “hip” magazine genre/sub-genre starter kits and name dropped a bunch of southern rap albums they thought were the best. The only ones I recall from the article were an 8 Ball and MJG record, and Ridin’ Dirty…”

I also wrote an entry on Big Moe; sort of an extension of what I said in my quick entry from Monday…

Written by Brandon

October 19th, 2007 at 4:03 am

New Biographical Dictionary of Rap Entry: Big L by Kevin Earley

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Sorry for the lack of entries this week, I should have one up later today. For now, here’s Kevin Earley’s entry on Big L. He sent it a few weeks ago and somehow, I thought I already posted it…also, I did the discography for it, so if there are any notable mixtapes, compilations, etc. missing, tell me.

“Big L exemplifies the gritty, punchline heavy battle raps mastered by his mentor, Lord Finesse. The recent trend of New York rappers aiming to “Bring New York Back” (in particular Papoose) with flurries of mixtapes and freestyles, seem to follow in the blueprint that Big L left. Big L is the logical progression of Lord Finesse’s style into the early and late Nineties. As a part of the legendary D.I.T.C. crew, Big L seemed poised to conquer mainstream rap, as rumors of Roc-a-fella signings whirled about before his tragic murder in 1999…”

I also was thinking that since it has gone beyond entries only by me, there’s no need for the entries to be about different rappers every time. I mean, for now with there being only a couple of entries, it seems weird to have “doubles” but ideally, it would just be a mess of super-subjective mini-essays on rappers, so over-lapping is fine.

Written by Brandon

September 28th, 2007 at 4:01 am

New Biographical Dictionary of Rap Entry: Slug by Daniel Krow

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Daniel Krow, blogger for The Party’s Crashing Us added an entry on the rapper Slug. It’s very good and respectful while still addressing the white, indie rapper’s “problematic” relationship with rap. I particularly like the part where he says Slug wants to be a singer-songwriter. It was a good choice because I don’t want the “dictionary” to reflect my views and biases but sort of be messy and contradictory. If I wrote all of it or forced the rappers that got entries, the whole thing would be predictable.

The first time I really listened to Slug, I felt unclean. An unspoken rule when rapping about partying and casual sex is that you keep it light and bawdy, celebrating all the transitory pleasures of getting drunk off your ass and hooking up with a stranger while cutting away right before things get weird and complicated. Slug doesn’t follow this rule. His rhymes are full of blackouts, hangovers, and hateful glances from girls he barely knows. The world of Slug’s rhymes is messy and ugly and often without redemption, mostly because Slug’s attempts at uplift sound like a junkie swearing he’s going to quit drugs, get a job, get married, etc, even though the idea of those things were what made him start using in the first place…

Written by Brandon

September 13th, 2007 at 4:02 pm

Biographical Dictionary of Film Entry: J Dilla

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First though- do any kind readers of this blog live in New York and have a place for myself and Monique (editor/my girlfriend) to stay Tuesday, September 11th? My Father has a business trip to New York on Wednesday but Tuesday night is the Kanye in-store at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square- maybe even someone out there was planning on going anyways? I could even give you like a 100 bucks or so. I know that’s sort of weird but if anybody does, e-mail me: .

We’re both very nice and polite guests and really just need a place to sleep for the night. My only stipulation is NO ASSRAPE.

So, yeah. It’s been a busy week, starting teaching and all, so I’m a little behind on regular posts but I did manage to knock-out another entry for The Biographical Dictionary of Rap:

“Jay Dilla aka Jay Dee (James Yancey)
b. Detroit, Michigan, 1974-2006
1996: Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia. 1996: Slum Village’s Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1. 1996: A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes, Life. 1998: A Tribe Called Quest’s The Love Movement. 1999: Q-Tip’s Amplified.2000: D’Angelo’s Voodoo. 2000: Common’s Like Water for Chocolate. 2000: Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. 2000: Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 2.2001: Fuck the Police Single. 2001: Welcome 2 Detroit.2002: Common’s Electric Circus. 2003: Jaylib’s Champion Sound. 2003: Ruff Draft EP. 2006: Donuts. 2006: The Shining. 2007: Phat Kat’s Carte Blanche.200?: Jay Love Japan.

Dilla is that odd kid in your elementary school, never talking, head-down, drawing weird comic book worlds with little interest in recess, as if he discovered alienation and angst six grades before everybody else. You peek over at his drawing and he covers it up, maybe even has a 49ers folder ready to stick over ridiculously detailed sketches. That image might be the result of posthumous idealization, but the true stories cum legends, how he hid in the car with his Mom outside of the Grammys, how he made beats in the hospital rail-thin and dying, are inspiring whether they are totally true or not because the music sounds like a dude that did that stuff. I recall reading after his death that he was survived by children…can you imagine Dilla having sex? I thought he never left the studio?!

Especially after his death, Dilla was referred to over and over again as “the producer’s producer” and while that may be accurate- his reputation among a wide variety of beatmakers and serious rap nerds is unmatched- his style is too out-there and rarified to really take that title. It is more appropriately given to someone like DJ Premier because the “blank’s blank” in any artform generally suggests unmatched virtuosity, that is only fully appreciated by the obsessives and it was not Dilla’s virtuosity that made his music fly over the heads of the normies but his disinterest in not being obscure.

He’s the kind of guy that will forever be an influence on others but short of his development of the “neo-soul” sound, Dilla was not tangibly “significant”. Pharrell Williams’ thick, loud drums have their roots in a Dilla influence and Kanye West’s grab-from-anywhere-obvious-or-obscure sampling does too, but neither of them are “Dilla-esque”. That’s because no one really sounds like Dilla and it will forever stay that way.

The early work, for the most part, really is “producer’s producer” type stuff. A lot of it, defined the too-subtle, too-laid back bohemian neo-soul, “concious” sound that bores me to tears. He got an early reputation as the guy who “ruined” Tribe and the Pharcyde and while there might be some validity to the Tribe accusations, those Pharcyde beats are undeniable. Labcabincalifornia isn’t “fun” but it’s not boring and it’s actually mature and you know, not “mature”. It seems however, that into the 2000s, he grew tired of maturity and “maturity”. Recognizing that “neo-soul” had become a grotesque cliche, Dilla began releasing solo works that succeeded any of his work for others.

2001 saw him leaving the group he helped found Slum Village, switching his name from Jay Dee to J Dilla, allegedly to avoid confusion with Jermaine Dupri but I think, to reflect a change in attitude. The single Fuck the Police has a beat and message immediate as his earlier work had been contained and subtle. That same year, on the BBE label, he released Welcome 2 Detroit featuring a bunch of friends and an insanely varied but cohesive group of songs. His Donald Byrd cover ‘Think Twice’ is a wonderful 70s soul-jazz vamp, that is a homage without winking or nodding, even the super-sexy keyboard intro doesn’t sound like camp- but then it ends with 40 or so seconds of audio of a bunch of friends talking and then running from random gunfire; Dilla began to define himself by contrast and contradiction.

In 2002, he was diagnosed with a rare, incurable blood disease. Although his integrity was always unmatched, it’s hard not to read an increased not giving a shit to the fact that he had an incurable disease. It appears that he began completely following his muse (not that he hadn’t already but still-), working on Common’s polarizing Electric Circus and showing little interest in giving production to acts that weren’t his friends. That same year, a solo album and album with Detroit rappers Frank-N-Dank, went unreleased by MCA and as the liner notes for Stones Throw’s re-release off Ruff Draft tell the story, this inspired him to make that EP (knowing he was going to probably die early had something to do with it too).

Ruff Draft is Dilla’s statement of intent, although not his most accomplished or best release, it feels angry, contrarian, and inspired. Over increasingly avant samples, whirls of sounds and lo-fi beats, he spits with equal anger against those killing the game and the backpackers: “And those backpackers wanna confuse it/Niggas is icy ain’t got nothing to do with the music” (from ‘Make Em’ NV’). One interlude is simply a poorly recorded answering machine message of a woman bitching him out and that segues into ‘Crushin’ an off-kilter half-groove containing the chant “I wanna fuck all night”. Of course, the album also contains the emotional ‘Nothing Like This’ a love song and an outro track that cites friends and influences; again with the contrast. His collaboration with the Madlib, Champion Sound, is well-loved by fans but I find it to be only halfway engaging (the Dilla half).

In 2005, his health problems became more public and more apparent and he was also diagnosed with Lupus. The stories are well-known and touching: Dilla in and out of the hospital, working on beats from a hospital bed, his Mom and friends at his side. Donuts, released on his birthday in 2006 (and what turned out to be three days before is death), is his masterpiece. Knee-jerk cynics suggested that it would not have been embraced the way it was/is/will be if it were not on the heels of his death, but that’s missing the point because it is an album about death. I’d understand if the posthumous The Shining received vast amounts of praise the way Donuts did, but it did not because one is a complete, complex piece or art and one is a conventional producer album, with different rappers on each song (the instrumental version of The Shining however, makes for a great listen).This guy that runs this great record store in Baltimore told my friend that Donuts is “[J-Dilla’s] love-letter to the world” and that isn’t far-off. I won’t even attempt to articulate the greatness of Donuts, you just need to hear it.

Songs You Should Have On Your IPod:
‘Stakes Is High’ (off De La Soul’s Stakes Is High)
‘Runnin’ (off Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia)
‘Somethin That Means Something’ (off Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia)
‘Got ‘Til Its Gone’ (off Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope)
‘Dynamite’ (off the Roots’ Things Fall Apart)
‘The Light’ (off Common’s Like Water for Chocolate)
‘Thelonius’ (off Common’s Like Water for Chocolate)
‘Let’s Grow’ (off Lyricist’s Lounge 2, song by Royce Da 5′9″)
‘Climax’ (off Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 2)
‘Fuck the Police’ (off Fuck the Police Single)
‘Think Twice’ (off Welcome 2 Detroit)
‘Pause’ (off Welcome 2 Detroit)
‘The $’ (off Ruff Draft EP)
‘Crushin (Yeah)’ (off Ruff Draft EP)
‘Starz’ (off Jaylib’s Champion Sound)
‘Reunion [MC Only]‘ (off Slum Village’s Detroit Deli)
‘Time: Donut of the Heart’ (off Donuts)
‘Dilla Says Go’ (off Donuts)
‘Last Donuts of the Night’ (off Donuts)
‘Whip You With A Strap’ (off Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale)
‘So Far to Go’ (off The Shining)”

Written by Brandon

September 7th, 2007 at 6:32 pm