Pop Playground
Jay Dee: A Hip-Hop Craftsman



i was 16 or 17 when Common’s Like Water for Chocolate dropped. I was an alienated teenager growing up in a diverse public high school, trying to keep a low profile in a racially and economically divided atmosphere. In my eyes, I could transcend the divisions by running from my early embrace of rap; by burrowing in the Blue Note catalogues and Mingus discographies and carving out my own comfortable space. It was music that I had unparalleled love for and that could love me back unconditionally, with no political implications or signals of social allegiance. But it was Like Water for Chocolate that drew me back to hip-hop’s grasp. And although it was trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s presence that initially “legitimized” the album for me, I fell in love with Jay Dee’s luxurious, swirling soul.

It’s sad, but it seems like Jay Dee’s sudden death is going to do more for his profile than his music did when it he was actually making it. I don’t say this as an attack on critics or fans, because I am just as guilty as anyone. I’m disappointed in myself now, sitting here with headphones and listening to nothing but Jay Dee’s extensive catalogue, disappointed that it took these unfortunate circumstances for me to fully appreciate the breadth of his sound. He got hated on for a number of things for which he wasn’t responsible, including the ‘decline’ of Tribe and a corny neo-soul aesthetic that stripped the fun and/or edge from rap music in favor of a smoothed out middle ground, a pseudo-spiritual yuppie/boho aesthetic that eschewed anything determinedly populist. In short, he was to blame for making rap ‘respectable.’ The problem with this sort of faux-populist interpretation of Dilla’s work is that it ignores the music, and Jay Dee’s beats were anything but middle-of-the-road; they were creative and personal, inspiring, life affirming, unique. And while some folks that gravitated towards his distinct style may have enforced a codified, classist conformity, Dilla himself was consistently upending expectations. Critics got caught up in politics; he was hated on for not being true school like Pete Rock, and got slept on for being too much like Pete Rock, for not quantizing his snare-claps, for not making hits.

For all the talk of his scene’s insularity, his ear was incredibly ‘pop’ and his sonic palette broad. He dropped tracks like “Stakes Is High,” with rugged Havoc-style production, smooth R&B; with D’Angelo, and reinvented Q-Tip to such a degree that folks would call Tip’s Amplified a ‘jiggy’ album, an up-tempo dance release that Puffy could have produced. Jay Dee could do space-age bump, as on Slum Village’s “Raise It Up.” And there was Pharcyde’s “Running,” which with a few minor melodic tweaks was transformed into epic pop for Mya’s “Fallen.” And even though he always remained relatively underground, his influence on the world of hip-hop and R&B; is unmistakable; with D’Angelo he would influence the whole of R&B;, from Rodney Jerkins rhythmically jagged robo-funk to the lush sounds of neo-soul. And his indie peers, too, would remain influenced by his refined Detroit sound. But Dilla was not underground for lack of skill; he was underground because he knew the sound he wanted and it wasn’t in the clubs or on the streets. It was personal.

For Jay Dee, sound was key. One word to describe his aesthetic might be ‘lush,’ or even more generally, craft. His sound could be smooth heavenly funk, or jagged and jazzy, with loose, groove-heavy drums. Listeners would scrunch up noses and say “that is nassssty,” like a jazz fan hearing a trumpet growl or drum soloist shifting from free-form solo to stable groove. Dilla was a producer’s producer, a man whose beats sounded labored-over, for whom sonic precision was vital. Sound was spiritual, religious; samples never defined his songs; he defined them, warping and molding his musical elements to fit his vision. But perhaps the real key was his fearlessness; when critics checked him on both sides as too conservative, or not respectful, he kept on inspiring a generation of hip-hop and soul artists to love music. In high school I dreamt of transcending boundaries; Jay Dee actually did.

Jay Dee, a founding member of the rap group Slum Village, died Friday at the age of 32. His most recent album Donuts can be purchased via the Stones Throw website here, while a mix of some of his best work can be found here for a limited time.


By: David Drake
Published on: 2006-02-13
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