Backpackers don’t get it confused, coz niggas is icy, it ain’t got nothing to do with the music.
Typically, if one were to be quizzed on which emcee dropped that line in a song, the most probable answer would be Lloyd Banks, The Game or a Fabolous, because of their fondness of ice-cold diamonds over their fingers and around their necks hanging like chandeliers. But that’s a line spat by J. Dilla in his track Make Em Envy.
Such is the deliberate and genuine contradiction of this genius producer, who will forever be known as a master sampler who gave our generation unimaginable sounds of Hip Hop, Soul and Jazz. The mention of his name will instantly have you thinking of classic albums such as Like Water For Chocolate by Common, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun and Slum Village’s Fantastic vol.2. Because of the purity and good moral standing of the music he made, people were quick to assume that if he wasn’t behind his MPC chopping beats, he was on the street alongside the Black Panther party preaching Black Nationalism and saluting every black man as his brother. But that wasn’t the case with the man whose real name was James Yancey.
“People put him in a category of what they think he’s like, but they don’t realise he was about his links. Dilla was always telling Madlib ‘man you gotta get your chain, I know a place that’ll do it…” said Stones Throw Records founder Peanut Butter Wolf in documentary.
We often forget that before artists come into their own, they are normal beings that live in an environment that influences how they see and engage with the world. Dilla grew up in the cold streets of Detroit, Michigan around regular niggas you’d find in the hood, who are normally seen as vanity slaves for their appreciation of the finer things in life.
Dilla met T3 and Baatin in high school and they formed what would be known as Slum Village. After releasing their debut album, Fantastic Vol.1 in 1997, the group was hailed as the new Tribe Called Quest – the torch bearers of conscious Hip Hop and all things soulful and Pan African. The comparison bothered Dilla, because Slum’s lyrics weren’t anything adjacent to the stuff Tribe rapped about.
“It was kinda fucked up because people put us in that category. I mean, you gotta listen to the lyrics of the shit. Niggas was talking about getting head from bitches. It was like a nigga from Native Tongues never woulda said that shit. I don’t know how to say it. It’s kinda fucked up because the audience we were trying to give to were actually people we hung around. Me, myself, I hung around regular ass Detroit cats. Not that backpack shit that people kept putting out there like that. I mean, I ain’t never carried no goddamn backpack. But like I said, I understand to a certain point. I guess that’s how the beats came off on some smooth type of shit,” Dilla once said in an interview.
The quote highlights Dilla’s realness to himself and who he is. Being compared to Tribe and the likes of De La Soul, he could’ve easily switched up and ditched the Detroit fella he grew up as, but he never did that. Instead, he chose to vent out his ignant nigga shit through his alter ego, Nigga Man. “…definitely an alter ego, he called him Nigga Man. He’ll start talking about the Range, the Dilla ‘A’ with the fifth wheel on the back…” said August Greene’s Karriem Riggins in the Still Shinning documentary. Dilla’s hood element came out when he stepped in the booth and when he wasn’t creating beats.
It is known that he’s by far the best producer of our time, but his persona is often shelved away as something that wasn’t truly J.Dillaesque. So as you bump your head to some of his most charming beats on this Dilla Month, just get to know the man behind the beat.
If the past few years in America are anything to go by, the remaining three years under President Donald Trump will conscientize US artists into producing and releasing more pro-black music with strong political undertones.
Since 2012 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting of African-American teen Trayvon Martin who died, black Americans have grown more impatient with the lethargic manner in which this and other cases have been dealt with. This gave birth to the activist Black Lives Movement which gripped the world’s attention through demonstrations throughout the country, especially in 2014 when another black teen, Michael Brown, was murdered. In a video of one of the demonstrations that went viral, protesters are heard singing Kendrick Lamar’s socially charged Alright.
Lamar’s 2015 released album, To Pimp a Butterfly, had more political undertones than all of his prior work. The cover itself was a statement; it depicts him surrounded by a mob of young black males posing in front of the White House with a passed out judge lying on the ground in front of them. On The Blacker the Berry Lamar raps about issues faced by black people, but at the end of the song he asks himself why he cried when Martin was murdered when black on black violence is commonplace in hoods-turning the question to the black community, daring them to look at themselves first.
Rappers such as Common, De La Soul, Talib Kweli, Black Thought of the The Roots, Nas and Mos Def have always been classified “conscious” rappers for their socially aware lyrics. It’s as though they were the artists expected to do the ground work of making us aware of such social ills, while others only have the burden of setting the mood at parties, bedrooms and wherever else.
Just before the release of her last album A Seat at the Table, Solange went on Twitter to say the project is “meant to provoke healing and journey of self-improvement.”
The Neo-soul, funk and hip hop influenced 20 track project is unashamedly inspired by what’s happening in that country. Both her parents have interludes where they talk about their own experiences with racial tension in America. “I’ve always been proud to be black, never wanted to be nothing else…there’s such beauty in black people, it saddens me when we’re not allowed to express that pride and if you do, it’s considered anti-white. No, you are pro-black and that’s okay…that you celebrate black culture does not mean you don’t like white culture. I get irritated when people say it’s racism…or when they complain that there’s a black history month,” says Mother Tina Knowles
D’Angelo’s Black Messiahs also majorly politically inclined. Inside the cover of the album the artist writes “ The title is about all of us. It’s about the world. It’s about people rising up in Fergurson and in Egypt and Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen.”
In the early 1970s during the war in Vietnam and the mass demonstrations by the Martin Luther King Jr. crusades and as well as protests by students on college campuses in America, Marvin Gaye was inspired to pen the poignant What’s Going On album.
“I began to evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say…I realized I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people,” said Gaye on a documentary titled Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On.
The album, which petrified Motown founder Berry Gordy at first, went on to be one of the best works Motown has ever released. The music itself did not bring about change, but the people did. The artist conscientize his many listeners and made them aware of what’s happening around them. May 1st in 1972 was proclaimed as Marvin Gaye Day by the Mayor of Washington DC.
The dynamics are quite different here in South Africa-yes artist will be seen performing at rallies for specific political parties but it’s rare seeing them voicing out their opinions, especially in their work. The likes of The Brother Moves On, Phuzekhemisi, Freshly Ground and a few dare tread on socio-political ground. It could be because the situation doesn’t look dire as yet. During the apartheid the likes of the late Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba were quite vocal about the draconian system while people like the great Fela Kuthi weren’t afraid of going up against authority in other parts of Africa.
Kwaito artist Kabelo Mabalane did take aim at poor leaders in his Immortal Volume 3 album released in 2015. In a track titled Free This Land Mabalane questions the country’s state affairs aimed at then President Jacob Zuma, without naming him. “People follow, but they don’t check their leader, that’s why they are also spinning,” he sings on the heavy afro-beat tune. Then comes the refrain “We Miss You Mbeki Where are you,” which is sampled from a 1989 protest hit by Sello ‘Chicco’Twala We Miss You Manelo.