J Dilla’s Matter to a Movement

J Dilla in the studio of fellow producer Madlib | Photo by Roger Erickson

J Dilla in the studio of fellow producer Madlib | Photo by Roger Erickson

Producers very rarely develop the same kinds of public profiles as the artists whose works they assist/architect/benignly neglect. Rap and hip-hop has managed to elevate the status of producers, but only somewhat – in this world, the producer only reaches that level of fame through effective branding, enigmatic reputation building, or putting out their own massively triumphant, if histrionic, material (Yeezy, I’m talking to you…in the .001% chance that you’re reading this).

Detroit-born James Yancey never really hit those heights, and it is unclear whether or not he actual wanted to. On the one hand, he cut his production teeth early with remixes and acclaimed singles for folks like The Pharcyde and Janet Jackson. On the other, his group Slum Village never really managed to launch on a massive scale, even with major label support at the late-90s/early-00s peak of music industry power.  In any case, you might wonder why a hallowed local indie band like Pattern is Movement might use a coveted First Friday at the Barnes slot to pay tribute to this specific hip-hop producer.

Those not in the know about Yancey, better known as J Dilla, and his massive imprint on music in the 21st century need only look to another illustrious local musical institution.  Philly’s own transcendently skillful beatsmith and pop-culture-historian-in-temporary-residence, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, has repeatedly cited Dilla as a massive influence on his own production and drumming styles. Dilla’s unique ear for sonics and ever-so-off-kilter jagged beats compelled ?uest to cast off his rigid internal metronome on era-defining albums like D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, and Common’s Like Water For Chocolate. ?uest might have helmed the infamous multi-year sessions from those albums spawned, but Dilla’s musical and technical ideologies made him a sort of spiritual guide for those albums’ unique directions.

Although Dilla could do bombastic and searing as well as anybody else, that really was never his greatest strength. The best producers of any genre create moments and textures that insidiously create a gut feeling about repeated listens. They take the best of all musical worlds to create moments that demand revisit after revisit. Dilla’s death from a rare blood disorder in 2006 handicapped any chance of him seeing Kanye-esque heights with his own post-Slum Village solo material. But if continual homage from artists as innovative and varied as Madlib, Robert Glasper, and Pattern Is Movement is any indication, then you needn’t worry about what could’ve been – you’re probably feeling his mark on music all the time.

Pattern is Movement performs a set of J Dilla interpretations tonight at The Barnes Foundation’s First Friday Event. Tickets to the event are $25 to the public, free for members. More information at The Barnes Foundation website.