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Unsung Bass Heroes: J Dilla

This is a guest post from Young Pandas bass player, Kyle Nagel.

For those who don’t know James Dewitt Yancey, better known as Jay Dee or J Dilla, he was a hip hop and R&B producer and rapper who had a tremendous impact on hip hop beat making and sampling culture from 1995 until his death in 2006. Yancey’s music has continued to influence and inspire long after his passing. In fact, the depth of his influence is just becoming fully realized as more and more artists find their way to his unique take on rhythm and time. There is so much that can be said about the impression he left on the music scene, but for this segment I’ll be talking about how his music has altered the way many bassists look at time and how I have been influenced and forever changed by his approach.

My first hip hop/R&B band started in 2004 in Minneapolis and was inspired by The Roots and many other artists that were colored by the J Dilla approach (Questlove is a huge Dilla fan). My first experience of playing bass in what I like to call the “Dilla method” was in this band when we did a version of D’Angelo’s cover of ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’. The keyboardist and drummer were from Washington D.C. and they kept telling me to lay the 8th note feel back further. To me, it sounded wrong. I felt like I was playing a 32nd note off from what the drums were doing. They were hipper than me and told me it sounded great and that was how it was supposed to sound. Once we all started playing, I suddenly understood. I was creating a swing; almost a shuffle. It wasn’t quite a swing or a shuffle though. It was something totally new. Fresh and hip.

Pino Palladino warrants a mention here as he was the bassist on that record (D’Angelo’s Voodoo) and was my introduction to playing that way. I also started using his approach to right hand technique, which involves a more open hand focusing on the thumb. Using the thumb primarily gives a more meaty sound and opens up palm muting which is a big trick for the Dilla sound. Typically when palm muting, you’re either palming or you’re not for a song or a section. In the Pino method, to capture the Dilla effect you would palm certain notes to shorten them as though you were chopping the sample. This can also be done with and complemented by left hand muting. Either hand can stop the note or change the duration. The point is that it happens on a note by note basis rather than section by section.

The classic “Dilla rhythmic method” is to swing certain elements and have others be mechanically straight. He would also typically have the bass sitting just behind the beat or alternating between on and off. “Feel Like Makin’ Love” is a great example of this as well. The hi-hat is totally straight but the kick and snare are swung and the kick has an inconsistent occasionally stuttered pattern that is also classically Dilla and played by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. The bass sits beautifully just behind the beat in a way that makes it feel like it’s getting sucked into the beat. This is also a prime example of note duration and how important that is to the sound. Pino starts the note just before the beat and stops it right on the beat. This creates the feel of being pulled into the note. Its also worth mentioning that Dilla wasn’t officially credited with any production in the liner notes of Voodoo. However I have it on good authority that he was heavily involved in post production. Regardless, clearly he was a significant influence. 

Dilla worked with so many notable artists that it’s hard to include them all. So I’ll discuss the bass lines in particular that have most affected my playing style. The entire Slum Village Vol. 2 by Slum Village is my foundation for all things Dilla. This was his group from Detroit and in my assessment what feels like pure, uncut Dilla to me. “What’s It All About” and “Once Upon a Time” are my essentials for bass lines.

“What’s It All About” features Busta Rhymes who I feel like is the rapper who embodies Dilla’s approach to rhythm. He sounds so natural on this track and bounces around the bass line perfectly. This is also an example of a more ‘active’ bass line for a Dilla song as he often prefers more synthy, soft sounds. I personally like playing this one with a pick. Getting the rhythm just right is a style study on its own. It’s a great example of on the beat and off the beat depending on which part of the phrase you’re on. It’s a bit of a head trip.

“Once Upon a Time” has more of what I think of as the ‘black hole’ effect I alluded to before. It feels like the beat is pulling the bass into it and the bass line is getting sucked into the beat. This is another line where note duration is everything. Long and short notes totally change the feel. Its as if the notes are different distances from the ‘black hole’.

Next, I want to talk about two other Dilla productions. One is “Against The World” by A Tribe Called Quest. This is what I think of as the “Dilla bounce”. The bass line in “Against the World” stutters and I feel like that is an often copped Dilla bass trick (I did it here: Outasight “On My Way”).

The other unique thing about this song is that it’s a looped 5 bar phrase. Pretty much unheard of in hip hop. Then there’s this remix: “Without You” by Lucy Pearl. Everything about this remix is just quintessential Dilla. The drum sounds are rough and raw, the bass plays in a low pulsing range emphasising upbeats (well, the sort of upbeats), the dirty Rhodes in which the notes never seem to play at quite the same time. The entire remix album this came from, “A.K.A. J. Yancey”, is a wonderful reference for his style.

Lastly, and it pains me to write that as I could go on forever about Dilla, I want to focus on his solo music from the last years of his life. 2006’s Donuts is full of humor and has many stand out beats.

One beat I always loved was “Stop”. This is another classic Dilla bass chop and where he chooses to place the bass around the beat is magical. Where the bass sample ends sounds abrupt but fitting. I try and emulate this in my playing.

Finally “So Far To Go” which was released on the posthumous release “The Shining” is perfection. D’Angelo, Common, Dilla. It doesn’t get any better. The song almost swings. It’s almost jazz but it’s distinctly hip hop in it’s own unique way. The bass has a repeating figure through most of the song but the way it interacts with the drums and the piano and other samples is again perfect. This is one of those songs that just feels good to listen to. Everything fits right where it should but in a way that you’d never think to do before Dilla.

J Dilla’s influence, legacy and creative body of work is only matched by few. His work with a who’s-who of R&B and hip hop artists including Erykah Badu, Bilal, Common, Kanye, The Roots, Robert Glasper, Chris Dave, and Maxwell among so many others is among is proof of this. I want to talk about his impact on the jazz world and music as a whole. I want to write more to say just how much he’s changed my perspective on music and how I hope to always sound at least a little like Dilla in every context I play in. However I have to wrap this article up and urge you to look into his music and to dig deep. All I can say is Dilla changed my life.

Further Listening:

  • Common “Like Water for Chocolate”,
  • Erykah Badu “Mama’s Gun”,
  • The Pharcyde “Labcabincalifornia”,
  • The Roots “Dilla Joints”,
  • Raphael Saadiq “Instant Vintage”,
  • Robert Glasper “Everything’s Beautiful”