omething kept bothering Questlove about the first J Dilla production he heard. He ran to the front of a club to get a better listen. He later told Wax Poetics, “I never heard a kick-drum that sloppy before. I was like, ‘What. The. Fuck. Is. This?!?” The irregular kick-drum thunk in question was The Pharcyde’s eerie space-out, “Bullshit.” Soon after, The Roots’ drummer met up with Dilla and the two became fast friends in the Philly collective Soulquarians. After Dilla passed away from lupus in February, Quest declared, “I, for one, will always spread the word about his talent.”
Despite Quest’s championing, it’s hard to imagine that Dilla will ever become an icon, though. Unlike Dr. Dre, Timbaland, and the Neptunes, the Detroit native lacked a televised presence. And, perhaps more importantly, he didn’t have a signature sound. But for those who knew him, he was a King Midas. He had the touch for taking no more than a break and a beat, and exploding them in color and grace. He made orchestra samples sing like street bustle in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Find a Way,” and a brass section from Ellington’s Harlem place a hand on the shoulder of b-boys approaching middle-age in De La Soul’s “High Stakes.” Dilla concocted hip-hop like he was writing out physics equations: Donuts brilliant sketches had rhythms flow in triangles and circles instead of a straight groove—a riot of 3 AM Motown-soul, psych-rawk, and the ghosts of Soul Train dancefloors.
And then there’s The Shining. Nearly a dozen collaborators join this tribute to Dilla, one that the liner notes declare is “a testament to the fact that legends never die.” And while most of the tracks on The Shining lack the abstract ideas and flow of Donuts, it’s still an admirable record. Most profound is the undertone of sadness that runs throughout. It’s heard in the seagull-cries of a synthesizer over a grinding electro-bassline in “Over the Breaks,” the ghostly Motown serenade that’s sampled in “Love,” and the R&B organ timbres that blanket a city in fog and neon on the album closer, “Won’t Do.” One great Donuts sketch translates well here. The off-putting, sunlit-guitar bounce of “Bye” becomes the fine, melancholic ballad “So Far to Go.” (Just make sure to plug your ears before you hear Common rap, “It was you that fed my appetite for seduction / Biting and cussing / Making love and uhhh.”) The other Donuts song, “Geek Down” appears in title only. Instead of a gritty swamp-rock joint, we have Busta Rhymes tastelessly open the album by announcing, “Hey yo, hey, yo, this is a fucking emergency! Evacuate the fucking premises, bitch!” The following “E=MC2” refreshingly removes all bitter aftertastes, with Dilla spacing out on the vocoder to a trunk-shaking beat. Elsewhere, Black Thought treads through a clickity-clack pattern in “Love Movin’,” while Dilla gets minimal with the hungover “Jungle Love”’s kick-drum and hi-hat rhythm. No musical ground is broken, but the grooves are both strong and memorable.
The same can’t be said for the lyrics, despite the great love and respect expressed for Dilla throughout. When not remembering Jay, most of the rappers are content to run through the usual braggadocio and mating calls. It’s expected—Dilla spent his career taking a backseat to MC’s—but it also highlights the reason that Dilla most likely will never go on to become a legend. Unsung hero sounds about right. It’s hard to imagine that J would have had it any other way.
Reviewed by: Cameron Macdonald
Reviewed on: 2006-08-22