The late great J Dilla, aka Jay Dee, aka James Dewitt Yancey, is one of the most popular and influential musicans and producers in modern music. Rightly credited as being a forefather of the entire neo soul movement and defining a humanised, organic feel to hip hop beats that has since become the blueprint for a significant chunk of music, Dilla’s influence spreads not just through hip hop but soul, jazz, drum and bass, garage, house, and pretty much all modern music — and all from a career tragically cut short at 32 when he died from complications relating to lupus and thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP).
Much is mythologised about J Dilla’s style, dissected and theorised as much as any classical musician. The truth is that Dilla’s sound was so diverse that any single formula will inevitably fall short of capturing his brilliance, and so rooted in musicality that any over-academising turns things into an exercise in pastiche. Rather than look at what goes on in J Dilla’s music through analytical eyes, let’s listen through our creative ear and take away some key concepts that we can integrate into our personal music-making philosophy…
J Dilla Swing
Perhaps the most talked about of all of J Dilla’s influence is his approach to groove. Most producers and beatmakers from the advent of the drum machine until Dilla revolutionised things in the mid 1990s took advantage of the programmable nature of drum machines, with hits that neatly and precisely fell on 16th notes. Swing settings in drum machines, especially the legendary MPC series, added some groove and flavour to these static patterns, but they still sounded distinctly programmed.
Dilla’s approach was different: rather than program and quantise drums on 16th notes, he often opted for a much more organic feel, playing them in by hand and allowing individual hits to stray away from the strict grid of quantisation. I say often because this wasn’t always the case, and differing anecdotes have different insights as to the extent that Dilla manually moved and quantised individual hits. The MPC3000, J Dilla’s instrument of choice for the majority of his career, had a 96PPQ resolution. PPQ stands for ‘parts per quarter-note’, and this means that in the space of every quarter note there are 96 places a note can land. That’s 24 places every 16th note, so either side of a 16th note a note can come in 12 ‘ticks’ early or late. Compared to later drum machines and most DAWs, this timing is fairly low resolution — ten times this at 960PPQ is the modern standard, and even higher is possible.
Why does this matter, and what’s the takeaway here? Firstly, a tick at 96PPQ assuming a BPM of 90BPM is just fractionally under 7ms. At 960PPQ it becomes under 0.7ms. If we’re going to take the super analytical route, which I’m advising against, this at least shows that thinking about things in single millisecond values is overkill and there’s a limit to the amount of resolution we need to get a groove. It also shows that a purely algorithmic swing value can’t possibly capture the vibrancy and variance of timing every note compared to playing live. What’s really important is the feel of the rhythm, and the distance between triggered sounds in context with each other.
If we quantise every note in a drum pattern, even if we’re using a high resolution and ‘smart’ system like Ableton Live‘s grooves, then we will inevitably end up pulling close-by notes directly on top of each other. If we play and record completely without quantisation, there may be room to manually shift notes to get an optimum groove going. The better we get at actually playing things in live the closer we’ll be to this optimum without having to move anything, but what ‘optimum’ even means can vary wildly from song to song, intention to intention. The key is to listen and feel the music, considering tension and release between every note. Is the kick early or is the snare late? Are those hi-hats dragging or is the beat forward? Everything comes from the anchoring point, the first beat in a phrase. Being aware of, and manipulating, tension and release is the secret to a truly emotive sense of swing and groove.
If you want to get a better idea of how being aware of rhythm can help you make better music, why not take a look at Essential Music Production?
J Dilla Samples
Sampling is the backbone of hip hop music, and it can be approached in a million different ways. What’s more important, the notes being played? The instruments used? The recording techniques and environment? All too often, new producers and beatmakers approach sampling as nothing more than a way to dispense with creativity and don’t allow themselves to be fully conscious of what is drawing them toward sampling something in the first place. Fundamentally, what we’re doing when we make music is manipulating matter by generating waves that we can sense, and that creates a message, an emotional involvement. A sample is a tool for that purpose. Every sound’s unique tones, timbre, texture, and timing has a message, and we lock into that message and adapt and share it with our listeners.
When we stop thinking of a sound to sample as a means to an end and begin to tune in to what the sound says to us, we unlock the potential to convey that message and amplify it with the rest of our production. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a looped melodic phrase, a texture, or pieces of a broader piece that we chop up and rearrange into something different, the DNA of that sample is an intrinsic part of our music and we share it with the world by our intention.
J Dilla Synths
The most famous of all J Dilla’s synths was the Minimoog Voyager — it’s currently in the Smithsonian Museum of African American History next to his MPC 3000. Other than that, the Korg MicroKorg also featured in his studio. Compared to the behemoth sound design capabilities of a modern software synth like Serum, Vital, or indeed Ableton’s Wavetable device, a three oscillator analogue monosynth and a four voice preset-based digital synth are pretty simple devices. Lo and behold, again we see how something being complicated doesn’t make it better.
The most important thing to remember when using any synth is that the ideal is to make it make a musical idea sound good. All too often we can get caught up in the quest to make a synth make an ‘interesting’ sound, forgetting that, really, all it takes is a few tweaks on the knobs of a subtractive mono synth to make a thick, satisfying bass. What it really takes to make emotive music is the notes used and the timing of the playing, not the complexity of the patch, and given the same MicroKorg preset two practised musicians will use its rudimentary quick tweak knobs to achieve the character they’re after and the resulting notes played are what make their music sound great.
J Dilla Production Techniques
One of the most common pitfalls of music production is to begin to assume that the reason that something doesn’t sound the way we want is that we aren’t ‘producing’ the sound in enough detail. Sound design is clearly the core of making music, but getting forensic with EQ, compression, and all manner of other effects is usually a fool’s errand. Sound design is how something sounds, and it’s incredibly important to get a real, organic feeling of how the way something sounds moves us emotionally before we start to get into the book learning of moving dials to specific positions and looking at charts and spectograms! Feel first, technicalities later.
J Dilla is of an era where this approach — become one with what you’re hearing — was easy. His MPC3000 has a text only screen, no effects to speak of, just the ability to adjust timing, pitch, and amplitude and filtering. The Roland Boss SP-303 he was famed for using on Donuts is the ultimate lo-fi device, with its workflow encouraging stamping sequences into an un-editable audio file via resampling. It’s always a useful mindful exercise to consider the way musicians of the past created incredible music with rudimentary equipment, and Dilla’s ability to create magic with just a sampler and occasionally a keyboard or two, not a screen in sight, is testament to the fact that if we focus on the feel of the music, everything else takes care of itself.
This isn’t to say that Dilla’s music wasn’t mixed and then mastered at dedicated studios, but two points are important to note on that: firstly, a number of J Dilla beat tapes are out there that are pretty much the outputs of an MPC going into a cassette recorder. They still sound amazing. Secondly, the mix and then master simply fine tuned the existing feel of the music. All the actual sound design and production happened at the creation stage.
If you want to get a really good handle on all the stages of music production from creation to sequencing to mixing and mastering, and understand what different gear is and does before you spend a ton of money figuring out what does and doesn’t work for you, check out Essential Music Production for a massive head start!
Why J Dilla was so Important
If there’s one thing we can all learn from J Dilla, it’s that unlocking our own inherent sense of musicality, really letting ourselves and our message come through the music, is more important than any setting in a DAW or academic styled tutorial of the mathematical reasoning behind something. That stuff can be fun, but it has to come after the feel.
To unlock the ability to let the feeling come out, we do have to have a fundamental understanding of what goes into music prodcution. If you want to get there fast, and understand the basics through to intermediate and advanced understanding of what goes into music production and how everything in a studio (virtual or hardware) works, then Essential Music Production is ideal for you. If you want to get a good understanding of how to really feel music, not simply abide by rules, then Essential Music Theory will be an invaluable part of your journey!