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.