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Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Legacy of J Dilla’ on FX/Hulu, Exploring The Life, Beats, And Career Of The Late Hip-Hop Hero

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The Legacy of J Dilla

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The Legacy of J Dilla (FX/Hulu) is the latest entry in the New York Times Presents documentary series, which has most recently covered a COVID-19 misinformation maestro and Tesla’s little problem with its self-driving cars often crashing. Here, director-producers Esther Dere and Christopher Frierson draw on array of archival interviews, footage, and photographs to tell Dilla’s story, as well as contemporary commentary from the visionary hip-hop producer’s mother and siblings, his friend and collaborator Frank Nitt, and appearances by DJ Jazzy Jeff, Amp Fiddler, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Common, Black Milk, Raphael Saddiq, and Robert Glasper.   


The Gist: James Dewitt Yancey was a quiet, thoughtful, even bashful kid when he was growing up in the middle class black neighborhood of Conant Gardens, Detroit. Music was everywhere in the house – his father, who worked for Ford, was also a singer – and as childhood pal and eventual collaborator Frank Nitt remembers, he and James had hip-hop on the brain as kids, whether it was Whodini, Salt-N-Pepa, or Big Daddy Kane. Whenever his dad would bring James to the record store, it was like opening up a candy box. And when he got a set of turntables for Christmas as a thirteen-year-old, hip-hop became a personal journey. “Maybe I can make my own little patterns with these records,” J Dilla tells Swedish journalist Mats Nileskar in an archival interview that Legacy periodically revisits. “And, you know, I started doing beats like that.”  

Once James Yancey had become J Dilla and began recording with Detroit hip-hop group Slum Village in the early 1990s, word of his innovative approach to beatmaking began to spread. And the craziest thing, Amp Fiddler says, is that JD was still making tracks by repeatedly dubbing cassettes. Press pause and record. Once Fiddler indoctrinated the young producer into the world of the Akai MPC – a “band in a box” machine with high-quality sampling and sequencing abilities – the world really started to open up. Collaborations with A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, and Common, and Busta Rhymes followed, the industry took notice, and JD signed an extensive record deal with MCA.

Still, Dilla wasn’t a fame guy. He believed in being recognized for his work, but despite his higher profile and establishment as an in-demand hip-hop producer, JD increasingly felt most comfortable doing his thing in the Detroit basement where it all began. It’s where he had his nest. And if anybody wanted to work with him, the collabs had to come to Conant Gardens. Maureen Yancey, Dillla’s mom, remembers lines snaking around the block. 

JD’s style, that natural bashfulness that had been with him all his life, was also a factor in how word spread that he was sick. “Part of his personality was that he never wanted anybody to know how much it hurt,” JD’s sister Martha Yancey says in Legacy. Profoundly weak and losing weight, Dilla was diagnosed with the blood disorder TTP before his condition was determined to be lupus. It was 2006, and a wheelchair-bound J Dilla was still working, putting the finishing touches on Donuts, his solo opus. But he passed away in his mother’s arms three days after the album came out. And a protracted and confusing legal battle ensued between the executors of his estate.   

Photo: FX

What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who worked with and was inspired by J Dilla, has announced that he will executive produce an upcoming documentary based on Dilla Time, the bestselling book by Dan Charnas. And Chuck D narrates The Untold Story of Detroit Hip-Hop, which is available on Prime Video. 

Performance Worth Watching: “My purpose is make sure that James’s life, his life’s work, is not in vain,” Maureen Yancey says of her fight to protect her son’s achievements. “I’m a Detroiter. A proud Detroiter. So yes, I will stand and I will fight, and I won’t let anybody put my son down, what I do for him down, or anything else, because I’m here to lift up his music, and his legacy.”

Memorable Dialogue: Rapper Frank Nitt, his childhood pal, remembers J Dilla’s determined, resourceful nature. “When we was 13, 14, he took apart his cassette deck, to be able to do his beats on his dual cassette. But he wanted to be able to slow down the samples that he was recording from, or speed up the samples. So he tore down the cassette and found the screw that actually controlled that.”  

“I remember comin’ in, walking through the door, and sayin’ ‘What happened to the tape deck?’ ‘Cause the cover was off and I could see all the guts. And he’s like ‘Oh naw, it’s straight, I just needed to – so I could do this. The screw right here, turn that, now I can slow it down.’ Yo, like, what’s wrong with you bro? But that was him. Like, ‘Once I lock into a situation, I’m going to figure it out.’” 

Sex and Skin: None. 

Our Take: It’s one thing to listen to, read about, or hear someone tell you how innovative J Dilla’s beatmaking was. But in Legacy, it’s something wonderfully different when DJ Jazzy Jeff provides an audio and visual example by triggering percussion sounds on an MPC and illustrating the savvy of just where Dilla put them. (Onscreen animation adds the tutorial.) The revolutionary sampling and sequencing machine literally has a button you press to make things perfect, to streamline and crisp up a constructed rhythm. But as Jazzy Jeff describes it, Dilla took that machine and added a human element to its tech. He built imprecision into perfection – what we hear is how he meant it – and people have been trying to emulate his ability to do that forever. But there’s never going to be a “Dilla button” on the MPC.

“Dilla was a rare breed of producer that gave you a human feel in a technical world,” Jazzy Jeff says in Legacy. But he is also remembered here as a somewhat rare bird in the world of hip-hop, a guy who was proud of his work but eschewed the spotlight. In other words, he wasn’t ever going to be the producer hanging around in the background of a music video. In still photos, JD is seen methodically working amid piles of records to each side and turntables and his MPC stacked on a table – the rest of the room is spartan. And in bits of old VHS footage, we enter his basement that became legend, with its stray musical instruments, a tidy workstation, and a wall of vinyl thousands of titles deep. “I call it ‘the weirdness,’” he says in Legacy. When he pulls down a random record, he’ll start to explore it, and the beats just come out. After his passing, and all of the posthumous legal wrangling, what The Legacy of J Dilla truly illuminates is the producer’s quiet, unflinching dedication to his craft.

Our Call: STREAM IT. The Legacy of J Dilla provides personal perspectives and technical insights into the singular sound for which the late hip-hop producer will always be remembered. But it also explores how an artist’s untimely death can complicate everything that’s left behind.

Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges