J Dilla “reinvents rhythm”, says Dan Charnas in “Dilla Time”
Dilla time. By Dan Charnas. MCD; 480 pages; $30 and £23.99
JIT SUBTITLE of this biography of hip-hop producer James Yancey—Jay Dee, J Dilla—says he “reinvented the beat.” To test this bold claim, fire up a streaming service and play D’Angelo’s album “Voodoo,” released in 2000. Once the opener, “Playa Playa,” hits its stride, about 90 seconds later, try pressing your fingers against your thigh in time with the bassline.
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You will find this almost impossible. Pino Palladino, the bass player, thought the beat sounded “wobbly”. Notes fall in the wrong places – on the wrong beat in the bar or slightly out of time, just before or behind where the ear expects them to be. The effect is to make the music dizzying and destabilizing.
What you hear is “Dilla time”, which Dan Charnas says quite convincingly reshaped the sound of hip-hop – and therefore the sound of pop – his mistake adding a human element to music that was previously focused on mechanical precision. . Mr. Charnas’ book attempts to be more than a biography: interpolated between his chapters on Dilla’s life, others explain how musical time works and how Dilla interpreted it in the pieces he created. for himself and as a producer and inspiration to others.
“Dilla Time” is at its best when the two strands come together; in the section on his work with the Soulquarians collective (which was behind ‘Voodoo’), the air of artists discovering new possibilities in music is palpable. Such passages do what good music books should do: refer you to the source material. As “Dilla Time” launches the reader on a flight through Dilla’s confusing discography – she should have included a playlist – the extent of her imagination becomes apparent.
The strictly biographical parts are more pedestrian. Mr. Charnas avoids the kind of ominous foreshadowing that spoils some biographies; but the casual insight is overwhelmed by the feeling that he has discovered more about Dilla than anyone before him and, perhaps rightly, wants the reader to know.
No detail is too small, no fact too tangential. This is especially a problem in the part covering the period after Dilla’s death in February 2006, at the age of 32. and disputes between Dilla’s estate and her family. The magic was in the music.
Nonetheless, “Dilla Time” is an important piece of songwriting, offering its African-American subject matter the respect the rock establishment has long accorded its white heroes. Dilla’s work emerges as a blend of intellect and instinct. He experienced music differently from his peers and knew how to bring to life a sound that no one else heard. Best to read up on an album such as “Donuts” – just a collection of looping Dilla beats, but done with dizzying imagination and dexterity – and be able to figure out why it sounds like that. ■
This article appeared in the Culture section of the print edition under the headline “Auditory Lessons”