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Late beat maker J Dilla’s best work reviewed

10 years go by since Dilla’s death; a master producer’s legacy lives on

Jackson Croy, Staff Photographer
Originally published February 24, 2016

James Dewitt Yancey aka J Dilla/Jay Dee released his final album, “Donuts” to the public on Feb. 7, 2006. Three days later, he died of complications from Lupus. On his deathbed, 29 of the 31 tracks on “Donuts” were created. On its tenth anniversary, Dilla’s final work remains as creative and innovative as the day it was released.

Alongside “Donuts,” Dilla released many solo works including “Welcome 2 Detroit,” “Ruff Draft,” and many beat tapes as well as posthumous releases. Dilla’s instrumentals are often found on other artists’ albums, though. Pharcyde, Common, De La Soul and Erykah Badu all feature production from Dilla on multiple occasions in their music.

Widely acclaimed for his sparse beats and samples from sources that may well never be discovered, Dilla had an ear for his music. He pioneered techniques that define the genre as it stands today, and he changed the lives of millions through his soulful beats. Dilla may have sat in the background, avoiding the spotlight, but his beats have brought delicious funk to the hip-hop foreground.

Best tracks (not in order)

Pharcyde – “Runnin”

Role: Producer

The classic single from Pharcyde’s second studio album features some of Dee’s most memorable cuts and scratches as well as a priceless guitar sample and classic punchy drum break. Complete with a sampled saxophone solo, this jam is good for anything from B-Boying to kickin’ it with ya’ boyz.

Erykah Badu – “Booty”

Role: Co-Producer, Drums and Bass

This track off Badu’s second album, “Mama’s Gun,” successfully bridges the gap between Dilla’s typical brand of hip hop and just plain funk. A fat Moog bassline under a sparse drum break is perfect for Badu’s “2 a.m.-hook-up” style.

De La Soul – “Stakes is High”

Role: Producer

Booming jazz bass, piercing horns and memorable vocal samples perfectly complement rappers Posdnuos, Maseo and Trugoy’s gritty golden-age flows and have every listener “talkin’ bout the vibe.”

A Tribe Called Quest – “1nce Again”

Role: Producer

Choppy drums, chords that barely stand out from the background and grimy filtered basslines once again perfectly enunciate Dilla’s unmistakeable style as Tribe completely kills this ice-cold beat.

J Dilla – “Last Donut of the Night”

Role: Artist

In the context of the album, the power behind this track can bring a tear to the eye. Made just weeks before his death and in the same bed that he would pass away in, this is the closing track to “Donuts” as well as Dilla’s antemortem musical presence.

Honorable Mentions

Common – “The Light”

Slum Village – “Tell Me ft. D’Angelo”

Pharcyde – Somethin That Means Somethin”

J Dilla – “Dime Piece Remix ft. Dwele

J Dilla – “Lightworks”

J Dilla – “Workinonit”

J Dilla – “Light My Fire”

J Dilla – “Dillatronic #7”

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Late beat maker J Dilla’s best work reviewed