Review | Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer who Reinvented Rhythm

Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer who Reinvented Rhythm. By Dan Charnas. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 2022. 

Reviewed by Aisha Gallion





“So Far To Go” is likely the first song I ever heard by Dilla. My teenage self recalls it feeling magnetic. I look to it now as a lover’s ode and a labor of love (by Karriem Riggins, D’Angelo, and Common as well). That latter phrase is what comes to mind considering Dan Charnas’ Dilla Time. With love and care, Charnas moves readers through and beyond biography and musicology with this complex account of a misunderstood and deeply revered Black man’s life and music. In this book, readers witness all the masterful attention given to James Yancey’s (Dilla, Jay Dee) humanity and genius. I personally felt a clearer understanding of the life, love, and loss experienced by the artist “who reinvented rhythm.”

Dan Charnas organizes Dilla Time by splitting it into two “tracks” on a grid. One that discusses Dilla’s life, while the other explores music (technology, musicology, history, theory, etc.) of the time with relation to how it ties back to Dilla. Dan Charnas, with the help of Jeff Peretz, joins clear musical examples (and nifty rhythm charts) with sociocultural and personal narrative. All elements combined made me feel like I was watching everything play out in front of me. Each track plays smoothly. Always connecting to the personal connections in Dilla’s life and Black music culture without a hitch.

The first chapters of the book oscillate between biographic and musicological chapters. In the beginning, Charnas jumps us straight into a chance sonic encounter between Dilla and Questlove in North Carolina circa 1994. The short vignette revealed that Questlove felt the drum production was “wrong” on the Dilla-produced Pharcyde cut “Bullshit.” Like many other musicians and music listeners, Questlove would come to learn that one’s perception of wrong is informed by personal experience, space/place, and one’s own foundational understanding of music. Moreover, Dilla’s rhythmic choices were far from being haphazardly thrown together. Both are guiding principles throughout Dilla Time. And, both facts from Charnas lead readers to Dilla’s musical and physical birthplace: Detroit.

This second chapter highlights the parallels between the spatial history and music cultural history of Detroit. Charnas explains the differences between straight time versus swing time. While Europeans attempted to enforce straight time and a Greek architectural model on Detroit, the African retention of syncopation (plus its child: swing time) swept U.S. popular music. We are given a view into Black life in Detroit during the early 20th century through Dilla’s great-grandfather, Red Cornish. A chronicling of the journey with musical players + pursuits from Motown to Funk to Techno in Detroit rounds out this chapter.

Throughout the third to fifth chapters (the first act), we are guided through Dilla’s familial history. Everything from his parent’s union (Dewitt and Maureen Yancey), Dilla’s’ birth, siblings, his grade school years, and early friendships + musical mentors. Even more, with these intimate accounts we see that Dilla was raised in a musical family. His musical nascence would begin with he and his siblings performing in their family room. This would lead into him DJing middle school dances and forming two music groups (i.e. ssenepod and Slum Village). The impact and support of family, friends, community, and specifically from Black women, undergirds these moments.

His foundational understandings of music were also a notable theme through these chapters. In addition, Charnas details a deep history on the incorporation of machines into music. From metronomic machines to synthesizers to beat machines, each evolution in machine was complimented by a new musical development: Techno in Detroit forming alongside House (Chicago) and Electro (NYC).

The second act of this book could be described as Dilla’s literal and musical coming of age as “Jay Dee,” the producer. All the folks he grew in community with became key players in his growth and sound. Yet, there were of course difficulties: the frustrations that come with the falling through of record deals for Slum Village, Dilla’s first serious romantic relationships, lack of payment issues for his work. More prominently, after Dilla received his first production credits with The Pharcyde, Phat Kat, and others, his unique “time feel” began to crop up in other songs that he didn’t produce. We are left to consider the politics of ownership in production. Can one own a musical sound? What is for certain they can be the one who revolutionizes it.

Before this innovation though, there were key developers and developments outlined regarding sampling technology and drum machines (i.e. COMPAL 80àLM-1àAkai MPC60). Charnas examines how various musicians utilized drum machines to strike a balance between imitating a drummer and machines taking the lead. Once Dilla moved from his E-mu SP-1200 to the MPC3000 and mastered it we begin arriving to the title of this book. Dilla Time refers to more than just the title of this tome. Charnas coins this phrase to notate Dilla’s way of producing. Not only that, but he gets down to the details of what exactly we hear rhythmically when we’re listening to a Dilla track. According to Charnas we hear “…the deliberate juxtaposition of multiple expressions of straight time and swung time simultaneously, a conscious cultivation of rhythmic friction…” (146).

In this third act, Dilla is forming relationships and making music with those who will come to be known as the Soulquarians. Everyone cites Dilla as the main rhythm + time feel crafter behind the line of albums that were released in 1999 and 2000 – the Neo-Soul explosion. Dilla’s time feel skillset was the perfect addition to the talent that accompanied a movement in music that combined hip hop, soul, and funk, but also so many other music cultures. As Dilla’s musical collaborations, partnerships, and influence rose, his sound also spread just as wide. That didn’t come without rocky moments in his romantic, parental, and professional relationships. Additionally, Charnas notes the changes that come along with Dilla’s many opportunities, but also the disappointment and anger that he felt being continuously not recognized. The need to stake claim to what is his built surprising partnerships, but this period saw the end of some partnerships as well (see Slum Village).

With this fourth act, Charnas begins with focusing on how computers (DAWs) were changing the way and the rate at which music was made. Moreover, we are guided through how the creation of became a connector for fans of not only The Roots, but Dilla’s fans as well. The formation of Foreign Exchange and Little Brother is a main point here. In the second part, readers are shown how a rare blood disease diagnosis shook Dilla’s world and everyone around him. He would be supported most (as always) by his mother. The world still turned, as his music friends had to continue working with or without him. Charnas debunks some myths around Dilla’s creative process during the last years of his life. He ends with a heart-wrenching account of Dilla’s passing.

The final act first brings up the conversation regarding the complications that arise with loss, grieving, and legacy. Dilla’s passing led to tributes from fans and friends alike. Even more, the grief brought conflicts to light. Tensions rose whether it was copyright issues or Maureen fighting for her son’s estate. Readers are left thinking over the long, arduous fight of protecting Dilla’s legacy, but also what to do with his legacy. And, on the other side, allowing fans and friends alike the opportunity to process their grief. The second part explores what Dilla’s contributions have pushed others to do and explore concerning rhythm: Robert Glasper’s emergence and rejection in the jazz + R&B world, Kendrick Lamar + Terrace Martin on To Pimp A Butterfly, and the formation of Hiatus Kaiyote all were influenced by the composer’s work. Complex and critical discussions on rhythm in the field of musicology also amped up before and during Dilla’s afterlife: Anne Danielsen’s work observing rhythm on the microscopic level at the University of Oslo + Vijay Iyer on microtiming and microrhythm. Charnas ends recounting the amends made between the people in Dilla’s life, as well as how his two daughters are doing in the present day.

Dan Charnas accomplishes a great deal in this book. More than I can do justice in a short review. However, what I applaud as one of his most honorable deeds is his ability to write in such a way that commands readers to see as many sides (and longstanding musical contributions) of Dilla, Jay Dee, James as we possibly can. Readers will recognize, too, how these “many sides” affected everyone around him. This is done without taking sides or watering down moments where Dilla was wrong in his attitude/ways. As a result, we might find ourselves more curious and critical in our assertions regarding artists of our time and the past. Whether you are a longtime fan of Dilla, or have never heard of him before, Dan Charnas makes readers want to know more about Dilla and other hip hop artists: Who is making what, what are they making, how exactly are they creatively innovating it, and what is the legacy they are leaving behind?

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