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.
THERE’s a number of international artists who will pack venues this South African Summer/Spring. And if Erykah Badu’s recent performance on NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert is anything to go by, South Africans are in for an unforgettable, engaging performance at this year’s Delicious Festival from the Queen of Neo-Soul.
Her career spans more than two decades and in that times she’s released five studio albums, a mixtape, one live album, played a number of sets as a DJ and also released a compilation project. But there are three things which stand out about Badu. If you’re fortunate to have a ticket for the Delicious Festival, look out for these three things when she’s on stage:
Google her and see the images that pop-up. It’s just amazing to see how much her look has transformed through the years. On stage, her style is another presentation on its own accompanying the music. She’s done the all-natural look before the doek became fashionable, mixed it up by rocking an orange hued suit swathed in an indigenous blanked topped with a hat, she has worn dungarees with accessories all over her-but still somehow looks cool!
But whatever change she embraces, those beautiful piercing hazel eyes are a mainstay of her beauty. Her unique style, which is not influenced by a personal stylist, has and continues to inspire men and women to embrace their uniqueness and the comfort of expressing it without feeling awkward about it, but rather appreciating the cathartic experience that comes with the fun process. Her style is a symbol of her personality- she tries, if it works for her it does, if it doesn’t then it is what it is.
Some artists can express themselves as good in person, as they do behind the mic. They have a sense of humour, they articulate their thoughts well and don’t take themselves too serious. In the live performances I’ve seen and heard of Badu, she always throws in some banter and shares her opinion about anything between her performances- similar to a Clarence Carter. She’s a 47 year-old with a young spirit, who manages to have fun with her band on stage, like a new artist would.
At the beginning of her NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert performance, while introducing her band she quipped that drummer Cleon Edwards is her son, Seven, whose father is André 3000, which had the audience in stitches. It’s not surprising that she’s pondering the idea of stand-up comedy. More than just being a funny sista, she’s also in control and in charge. She never switches-off when performing- she’s like that classmate who caused trouble but somehow, got good grades.
She walked butt naked on the street, in the Window Seat video in protest. “…it was shot guerrilla style, no crew, 1 take, no closed set, no warning, 2 min., Downtown Dallas, then ran like hell,” she wrote on her Twitter about the video shoot. It took place at the site of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the video, she walks on the pavement removing her clothes, until she arrives right where Kennedy was shot, stark naked.
In a television interview on, The Wanda Sykes Show she said “My point was grossly misunderstood all over America. JFK is one of my heroes, one of the nation’s heroes. John F. Kennedy was a revolutionary; he was not afraid to butt heads with America, and I was not afraid to show America my butt-naked truth.”
HER HIGH QUALITY MUSIC
I hope Jill Scott doesn’t read this, but Badu is the Queen of Neo-Soul. There is no other female on the planet, who truly embodies Queen of Neo-Soul as Badu. Record label executive Kedar Massenburg rightly dubbed it Neo-Soul, which is a better representation of our generation. What distinguishes Neo-Soul from other types of music, is that it embraces the other genres. Jazz, Hip Hop, Rock, R&B, Gospel, Soul, and everything else under the sun. Badu’s music captures that very essence, without compromising on the quality and her standards. The older generation appreciate her more because she’s like a conduit of great female vocalists of old such as Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. While youngins connect with her funk and hop that even a young Janelle Monáe can’t match up to.
She’s a multi-award winning artist who equally receives love from the commercial space and also on the streets. You can’t deny her. She has five studio albums which include the poignant 1997 debut Baduizm and Mama’s Gun which has been changing the game since 2000 and three other albums to her name. The two aforementioned albums have classics which are favourites for a lot of her ardent and new listeners, but what’s pleasantly mind perplexing is how she keeps tweaking them but has maintains their core over the decades.
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?