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.
With the US being dominated by Caucasians in numbers, it’s no wonder black Americans feel safe and at home when they’re on the African continent.
“In America, especially now with Trump, there are certain spaces that are very uncomfortable to be in as a black man. One, you never know how certain people feel and then two, because you know now how certain people feel. Before you’d assume it was racism…”says US rapper Javier Starks.
Starks spoke to Tha Bravado while in the country for the O.R Tambo music project titled Voices On OR. It is a collaborative double-disc album between South African and USA artists and some politicians, paying homage to the life of the late former ANC president.
Starks was in the country for a week, together with talented musician Miles Mosley who is also part of the project. They have been in studio throughout the week, but a bit sad for first time visitor Starks, because he hasn’t had the opportunity to experience South Africa and all its multifaceted beauty.
“There’s a pain in my heart, it’s like ahhhhh….it would’ve been nice to see Soweto, would’ve been nice to see other things. But I am very grateful just to be here-not a single moment in the studio has felt like ‘oh man, we still here’ every minute has been real. From the moment that I landed here, I felt very welcomed you know,” he says.
Unlike stable mate Mosley, who is on three tracks on the album, Starks is featured once on Voices On OR. “The lyrics I wrote for the song I wrote back home. While I was writing I did a lot of research on Tambo and God, this dude is a champion.” The track is titled Promise Land.
The double album is musically directed by renowned singer Gloria Bosman while seasoned saxophonist McCoy Mrubata is tasked with the role of producing. Among others, the project will include Jonathan Butler, Tsepo Tshola, Mandisa Dlanga, Jabu Magubane, Herbie Tsoaeli and Steve Dyer. Performances in the recording will be characterized by interpretations of musical themes based on events around Tambo’s life. It’s due for release in October this year.
A fairly new artist in the industry, but has been fortunate to be surrounded by great musician such as Mosely and Robert Glasper. “More than anything else, being around people like Miles and all these kats who are really talented, I really get to learn a lot. It really broadens my perspective in how I approach music, in how I see music because these guys aren’t just masters of their genre, which emcees and rappers tend to be you know,” says Starks.
Starks met Glasper in 2012, just a year after the latter released his critically acclaimed Black Radio album. The two met at an event, DC Loves Dilla, which celebrates the work of late virtuoso producer J.Dilla. Unzipping his hoodie, Starks shows me his t-shit with a Dilla illustration on it, he tells me that performed three songs from Dilla’s countless produced joints at the event, which Glasper was also billed to perform at.
“I did Busta Rhymes’s Woo-hah because Dill did a remix of it, I did Common’s Payback is a Grandmother and Common’s The Light. After I was done with my set, I hear this guy playing the piano and I was like ‘damn, this guy’s really good’ and I went up to him after his set and told him he was really dope…we sat there and watched the Slum Village set from backstage together, and went out to dinner with those guys [Glasper and his band].”
The two have built a solid relationship since and whenever Glasper is in town the two link up. In 2015 during Grammy weekend, Glasper invited Stark to a meet and greet that he was attending. “I flew myself to Cali, I didn’t have a place to stay and told myself I’m gonna sleep in the car-I’m gonna make it work and I’ll be there regardless. I got there, and found out it was a concert. I’m standing outside the line, I’m like this ain’t no meet and greet. I got inside and I was in the front row and 20-30 into his set, he’s [Glasper] like ‘eyo Javier, come kick some rhymes’. I had his number and we would chat and he knew I was there, but we never talked about me rhyming. It was so spur of the moment. When he said come kick some rhymes, that’s when I learnt I’m about to rap,” says Stark.
True to their bond, Glasper offered Starks his hotel room, since he’s was leaving town for another gig.
He is s socially conscious emcee who is very economical with the words because he doesn’t curse on any of his records. “I can perform at your local club, I can perform at a school library, I can perform at a church and I can perform anywhere you know. That’s the beauty of being curse free and keeping your music uplifting and real –people can relate to that. You think about the stuff that most people rap about, it has its time and place- but most people can’t relate to shooting people or doing drugs, driving fancy cars and spending dollars. My goal is to show people that it works, not just because I say so, but look at my Instagram I’m everywhere because it works.”
In your music collection there’s at least one album created between 1998-2003 at the Electric Lady studios. That was the period which the studio homed the music collective The Soulquarians, the gods of the Neo-soul sound.
In 1998 D’Angelo moved into Electric Lady Studios in New York to record his Voodo album. He roped in drummer Questlove to work on the follow-up to Brown Sugar and because of the long studio hours, the drummer simultaneously moved the recording of the Roots LP Things Fall Apart to Electric Lady.
Questlove and D’Angelo’s chemistry was sparked by their love for classic songs from years gone by. The core of the Soulquarians was completed by composer James Poyser, Detroit genius producer J Dilla, Common and Erykah Badu. Although they never want to be tied to the genre, the Soulquarians are heavy influencers of the Neo-Soul sound we know today. Their influence can be heard in some of today’s artists such as Robert Glasper, Rayvn Lenae, NxWorries and MoRuf.
Not suggesting that these musicians no longer work together, because they do, but here are some of the classic albums that were produced in that period of them working together in one space sharing their gifts.
The 13 track album which was overshadowed by D’Angelo’s strip down and steamy down video in Untitled (How Does It Feel), which left a lasting effect on a lot of women. But it was a masterpiece from the music genius which had a funky soulful Hip Hop feel thanks to J Dilla’s sick sampling. D’Angelo featured Red Man and Method Man in Left and Right. Such was the level of artistry here that Q. Tip had initially laced a verse for the song but it was deemed lukewarm hence D’Angelo roped in the New York duo. The album bagged a Grammy.
THE ROOTS-Things Falls Apart
This was a follow-up to their Illadelph Halflife project which came out in ‘96. It’s this the project here that earned them critical acclaim from industry fundis and probably that ‘legendary’ tag too. It was the group’s novel experience at selling over 500 000 copies. The Roots won the Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group at the Grammys for You Got Me featuring Erykah Badu. Stand out songs here include Act Too (Love of my life) and Step Into The Realm.
COMMON-Like Water For Chocolate
Common just sounds extra nice on J Dilla beats. Dooinit is one of the finest tracks where Common rips the beat and some rappers with the energy of Julius Malema at a rally behind the mic. While songs like The Light and 6th Sense remain classics till this day, Payback Is A Grandmother, Film Called Pimp and Song For Assata were gems that many never paid close attention to. There’s a great balance of social commentary, love, lyricism and musicality throughout the album.
ERYKAH BADU-Mama’s Gun
Mama’s Gun is probably the album that made a lot of the young fans of Badu fall in love with her music. It’s unbelievable how an album can be so cohesive with a cocktail different sounds. Cleva is a beautiful Jazz joint that doesn’t sound out of place alongside the sticky Jay Dee drums on Didn’t Cha Know. So many musicians consciously and subconsciously use this album as blueprint to creating a Neo Soul project. This is a classic-I can visualize myself listening to this at 60. Orange Moon and Bag Lady are just some of the classic joints in this album.
Some people said this album was Common’s regress after Like Water For Chocolate which came out two years prior. But this project was simply ahead of its time. It was great body of music by the Chicago rapper. It had influences of Rock, electronic and funk soaked in the Soulquarians sounds. Common once said that he wasn’t feeling Hip Hop at the time of creation and his choice of sound was influenced by Jimi Henrix and Pink Floyd. Stand out tracks here include Between Me, You and Liberation, Heaven Somewhere, Ferris Wheel and Soul Power.
What’s your favourite Soulquarians influenced album?