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Digging into 'Dilla Time,' and the legacy of a rhythm pioneer

James Dewitt Yancey — better known in the world as J Dilla, or Jay Dee — occupies a hallowed place in Black American Music. An expert crate digger, beatmaker and emcee, Dilla embodied the pure culture of hip-hop, even as he altered the fabric of time. His soundscapes, infectious and highly personalized, contoured a generation whose ranks include A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Erykah Badu, Common and Bilal.

Dilla’s core innovation was to marry rhythms both straight and swung, recentering the groove. That beat science has sprawled into the present day, far beyond his direct radius of influence. We’d go so far as to say Dilla belongs to an elite cadre of artists — behind the likes of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and James Brown — whose very conception of pulse changed the landscape of modern music. We operate on his grid.

All of this factors into an essential new text by Dan Charnas, titled Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm. Publishing Feb. 1 on MCD/FSG, it’s a painstakingly reported book that unpacks not only who Dilla was as an artist, but how precisely his innovation worked, and why it matters.

So in this episode of Jazz United, we discuss Dilla’s life and legacy — in conversation with Charnas, a veteran journalist and music industry professional who developed his book with a course at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU. Charnas recalls his first moment of reckoning in the mid 1990s, when he flew to Detroit to meet a mysterious young producer in a basement studio; reflects on his strategic approach to narrative in Dilla Time; and reaffirms his conviction about how widely Dilla’s rhythmic signature has traveled.

It’s Dilla Time on Jazz United; welcome to the show.

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Jazz United is produced by Trevor Smith for WBGO Studios.

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Greg Bryant has been a longtime curator of improvisational music. At the age of 3 in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee, he was borrowing his father’s records and spinning them on his Fisher Price turntable. Taking in diverse sounds of artistry from Miles Davis, Les McCann, James Brown, Weather Report and Jimi Hendrix gave shape to Greg's musical foundation and started him on a path of nonstop exploration.
A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.