February 17, 2020
Released On February 27, 2001
Released By BBE Records
When I was informed that my next OYR entry would be in the middle of February, like any high-brow hip hop aficionado, my mind immediately went to “Dilla Day.” You see, this is a monumental time of year for those of us that worshiped James Dewitt Yancey — his birthday (February 7th) and death date (February 10th) fall within mere days of each other, and depending on where the weekend lands, we invariably end up acknowledging/celebrating both. Why would anyone ever celebrate a death date, you ask? Well, for one, it’s a very hip hop custom (see March 9th). More importantly, it gives us a legit excuse to rock nothing but Dilla catalog for four days straight. And let’s face it, Fantastic, Volume 1 & 2 get plenty of love, and Donuts seems to be the magnum opus. So I feel like the greatest J Dilla creation that gets the least amount of love is his solo debut, Welcome 2 Detroit.
By the turn of the century (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase in one of my pieces), most hip hop fans had become accustomed to a certain sound from Jay Dee — his off kilter, punchy drums were the bed for his dusty jazz chops and a freewheeling bass that would leave your speakers bewildered. Well, on this journey, helped by an obscure British indie label looking to make a splash into the hip hop lane, Welcome 2 Detroit would be the inaugural entry in to the label’s legendary “Beat Generation” series, which would later see releases from icons like Pete Rock, Marley Marl, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Madlib, among others. What’s so special about this record is that it’s Dilla’s calling card. At a time where hip hop production was heavy on the Korg Triton and light on the Fender Rhodes, Dilla took it back to the dirtiest essence of the culture in order to show us all the full breadth of his repertoire, track by track, genre by genre. I think it’s key to point out that this record sounds like you would think Detroit sounds and feels like — it’s dark, dank, funky and soulful. It’s the audio equivalent of a smokey room in a basement club. And as the cover suggests, that club just might be a gentleman’s club.
I love this record so much because Dilla did what every artist should do: cater to their core fans by sprinkling in a bit of the familiar, while also partitioning a large chunk of the album to push the envelope. And boy, did he ever push himself to a new place with this one. Right out of the gate, the title track plays with an unfamiliar time signature, yet Jay finds a way to fit his bars into the mix as if it’s a standard 4/4. Next, almost as an explicit warning to all those listening, “Y’all Ain’t Ready,” with it’s distinct “four on the floor” drum pattern, is a subtle tip of the cap to the deep techno roots of Detroit. And if that track was a subtle tip of the cap, “B.B.E. (Big Booty Express)” is an all-out tribute to Detroit’s techno-centric heart. But then Dilla takes it to another level: to educate us. What hip hop producer do you know that would have a straight instrumental boss nova track (“Rico Suave Bossa Nova“) on his solo debut? Or take it even further into left field with an “African Rhythms” interlude? Jay Dee was teaching us about world music, about record digging culture, and about culture in general.
And then, just when he’s about to lose you to the cosmos, Dilla has the perfect instinct and timing to reel you back in to the wheelhouse with traditional rap bangers like “The Clapper,” “Pause,” “Beej-N-Dem Pt. 2” and “Shake It Down.” But that’s the only purpose of these tracks. What’s so noble here is that Dilla used these tracks not only to his own benefit, but to introduce the world to some of Detroit’s upcoming talent. At the time, guys like Phat Kat and Elzhi (see Issue #155) were only known throughout the Detroit underground, but now they’re forever etched in history by their features on this hip hop classic.
Don’t let me forget about the covers. Oh, dear God, the covers! This is where Mr. Yancey truly flexes his muscles as a producer. I’d like to think that he made this entire project as a vehicle to show us he had the ability, as a person with no music training, mind you, to re-create Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Brazilian Groove” and Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice.” As much as I could expound upon Dilla’s prowess here, I think it would be more fitting to “sample” from Questlove’s tribute to him in XXL Magazine to speak to the spirit of DIlla’s unorthodox genius:
“The day after he recorded ‘Think Twice,’ for Welcome 2 Detroit, I look at the drum set, and I was like, ‘Wait, you recorded that on this?’ And it was the most dingiest, dirtiest, not even second-hand. [It] looked like the Fat Albert junkyard gang drum set. Screws were missing; some of the heads were broken. Matter of fact, he didn’t even use real drumsticks on ‘Think Twice.’ He used a vibraphone mallet, and he had a broken drumstick that he got some toilet paper from the bathroom, and some rubber bands. I was like, ‘You would rather go through this MacGuyver shit than buy new drumsticks?’ He’s like, ‘I didn’t know where to get ’em this late at night; I had to make due.’ I was like, ‘Well, why did you hit the drums with the mallet?’ He was like, ‘I didn’t want the dynamic to be too aggressive. I wanted to sound muted, so I decided to play the drums with the soft cotton mallet.’ It looked like putting a marshmallow at the end of a toothpick [Laughs]. Next thing I know, I’m now flying to Philadelphia — I think the next week, [to work on] The Roots’ Phrenology record [and] I tracked both “Quills” and “Pussy Galore” the same way. I went and got some orchestra mallets, and then I too started, just ’cause I seen how he got that sound.”
Producer extraordinaire who pushes past influential monikers with a nearly mythical appeal.
Q-Tip’s Amplified was probably my first taste of J Dilla’s work, but I didn’t know it at the time. Compared to the relatively unified feel of Amplified, Welcome 2 Detroit seems like a schizophrenic work. I kinda have to assume that Q-Tip exerted some level of control over how far outside the lines he and Dilla were going to color for Amplified. (According to this piece in Exclaim!, that’s some truth to that assumption.) Now, I bring that up because when I listen to W2D, there’s a sense that Dilla used “first idea, best idea” as a theme or motif. The production is all over the place: there’s Vangelis-style paranoia, psychedelic guitar, lo-fi, G-funk, electro, and just plain silliness. I’m sure I’m missing a few. There’s “Think Twice” which sounds like two disparate ideas stitched together in a surprisingly logical manner. There’s a tacked-on phone message skit at the end of “Featuring Phat Kat” set to the Halloween theme. It doesn’t stop at the production, either. Lines like “Tryin’ to pump gas and got pumped in the ass” and “Get my brains blown out like John Kennedy” and “And shut your whole shit down like Giuliani” read (and sound) like first drafts of punchlines. And it gets even muddier when Phat Kat shows up late in the record and says, “Puttin’ flows to tracks in less than 10 minutes flat.” So you have to wonder: Did J Dilla make this whole album in, like, a five-day marathon session using whatever came to him first and then moving on? Or did he spend weeks and/or months perfecting the sound of being jumbled and confused and rushed? After several listens, I still have no idea.
I read an interview about J Dilla (aka Jay Dee, aka James Dewitt Yancey) years ago that deposited an image in my head that I think about even when I’m not listening to him. Apparently, he was a very slight child (maybe like Miles Davis of whom it was said if he turned sideways, he would be marked absent from school) so he could slip his hands through the center holes of 45’s and carry them on his wrists. That seems to me more than just a confluence of convenience and opportunity. It’s as if, even as a boy, he somehow craved a deeper connection to music than the average person, or perhaps it became like an armor protecting him from the harsh surroundings of Detroit. In the description, he was walking through an empty lot or a devastated public park, wearing the bracelets of black wax, maybe hoping to not get jumped on the way to school. Or that could all just be a part of the legend that arose around Dilla after his all-to-untimely death in 2006 at the age of 32. By then, he had not only made his mark with countless productions for others (Common, A Tribe Called Quest, Bilal, Janet Jackson, etc., etc.), but he had also blown minds with Champion Sound, his collaboration with Madlib, and Donuts, one of the greatest albums of this young century, which came out three days before he died. In light of those achievements (not to mention posthumous releases like Ruff Draft), Welcome 2 Detroit can sound almost slight, and the tension between the master musician Dilla was becoming and the more narrow ambitions of just making some good, tough hip hop, is all too clear. But we’re still living in the world created by Dilla’s ripple effect, a world where the leveling force of what makes music great is if you love it, where hybrid is the new normal, and anything can be combined to make something new. If you don’t know, now you know, thanks to J. Clyde and Off Your Radar! P.S. For more, check my Salute to J Dilla playlist. P.P.S. If you want to weep for all we lost when Dilla died, dive into the Suite For Ma Dukes, an orchestral reimagining of music from across his career.
Certain types of music put me at ease immediately. Bluegrass does it; there’s something about the combination of banjo, acoustic guitar, and mandolin that immediately levels out my blood pressure. It’s chemical — a reaction to the timbre of the instruments, and the rootsy warmth (however idealized) they represent. I get that same feeling when I press play on an album or song J Dilla had a hand in making. It’s like finding the corner at a crowded party where the people you know have gathered, content to ignore everyone else, analyze the playlist, and swap recommendations about recent listening. Dilla’s was music about music. Whether he was drawing inspiration from bossa nova (like in the exceedingly groovy “Rico Suave Bossa Nova“), Afrobeat (love that “African Rhythms” is derived from a tune by Richmond’s own Oneness of Juju), or Kraftwerk (listen to “B.B.E.” via earbuds while driving and tell me you don’t feel like the dude from Baby Driver), it’s all one glorious intertextual conversation. You hear it in Dilla’s lyrics as well — in his reference to Prince’s battles with Time Warner in “Give It Up,” which also references Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sheriff.” And his reverence for hip hop’s legacy is made evident by mentions of Biz Markie and Big Daddy Kane in “Shake It Down.” Musical discovery is a never-ending process. You could live a dozen lifetimes with earbuds in all day, every day, and you still wouldn’t run out of new songs and styles. That’s what makes Dilla’s early death so tragic: He had more to give, because he had more to hear. We all do, until we don’t.
Throughout its relaxed, arm-chair ambience, a sense of exploration drives this record, as Dilla searches and find the right sounds and the perfect grooves.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the hip hop I was gravitating toward was a sound that sounded a lot like J Dilla, whether that was the sound of Detroit, specifically, or just looped thumps and claps steeped in vintage funk, weird, urgent tones and old blues riffs. It wasn’t really until years later when I heard other artists posthumously dropping his name that I understood quite what an influence he’d had the art-form at all. No one really seemed to talk about his rapping in particular. It was always about his genius as a producer and beat-maker working with some of the most important artists of the era (of all time, if we’re being honest).
On this, the first record under his own name, J Dilla demonstrates not just the ability to keep pace with the best acts of his day, he also shows a hint of what would come later. He steps back frequently on this record and lets the vibe do the talking. “Think Twice” is primarily an instrumental track which could be mistaken for a funk band session simply playing along, fully instrumented. Unlike many modern rap producers and even producers outside his sphere in the early days, J Dilla took care to give his samples and timings an element of deliberate sloppiness. In this way, they sound somehow more human. More organic.
Early in my career as a video game developer, I recall a member of our team programming a bunch of characters walking up the screen at a specific speed. It looked janky, unprofessional and, frankly, a little amateur. I suggested that we offset each character with an almost imperceptible variance in start time, and run speed. Some would occasionally speed up, some would occasionally slow down, and they would vary as they made their way from one end of a field to the other. The result was exactly as we hoped, just adding this small element of sloppiness, made the whole crowd look far more real and relatable — humanized. I think the same applies even more-so with music. While it’s ok for techno and hard drum n bass to sound clinical or even industrial in its precision, hip hop needs to be loose. It needs to swing and groove and swagger. It’s this effect that I think J Dilla mastered.
When you listen to “Feat. Phat Kat,” you realize the simplistic nature of the sound which provides the perfect blank slate for Phat Kat to rhyme to. The weirdly gentle and positive melodic chords which don’t seem to make any sense at all in the track provide a sort of stark contrast to the otherwise aggressive verbal smack-down. Somehow this all happens without any element of comedy. It’s hard to recall if it ever did. There are no punchlines here — just serious rap music.
J Dilla left us too soon. I am sure some of the other writers will mention this as well so I won’t dwell on it. But suffice it to say that much has been made since of crates full of beats he left posthumously and indeed his legacy lives on in influence carried on by artists such as Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, and everyone they influenced in turn. It’s been great to wander down memory lane and revisit the strength of this early LP. It’s easy to tell why he’d go on to be a highly sought-after collaborator and it’s a shame he never lived to further his career to the heights he’d undoubtedly have been capable of.
We’ll always have Welcome 2 Detroit.
Taken from us far too soon, Dilla’s legacy thrives over a decade later with a new crop of musicians all studying and splicing his work.
The fact that a musician as critically acclaimed as J Dilla can still be celebrated as an underrated creator is a testament to the artist’s talents as a producer and beat maker. The influence of Dilla stretches far and wide, but probably became most prominent during the late ’90s, early 2000’s neo-soul era when artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Common took his stuttered beat-making approach and threw it into the ring of live musicianship, changing the world of soul music forever. At this point, the drunk Dilla beat is seen more as a cliché than a radical innovation, but regardless, it’s an essential tool for any drummer in the R&B/hip-hop scene. As a long time soul music fan and a more recent dabbler into hip-hop, it bums me out that I haven’t listened to more Dilla. His work with Slum Village is often treated as his most crucial, though solo albums like Donuts and The Shining make their rounds. The extent to which Dilla is influential is pretty universally acknowledged among musicians, but to the general public, he is a behind-the-scenes hero, while artists who wear his influence shape today’s culture. It’s difficult to write about such a creative force without diminishing the impact or quality of his work, because hip-hop could almost certainly be divided by “before” and “after” J Dilla. It’s also difficult to write about J Dilla because, by all accounts, he was a reserved presence who, even on his solo releases, Welcome 2 Detroit included, he takes a back seat vocally. In conclusion, I guess that all I can really say is that maybe my 2020 resolution from here on out should be to learn more about J Dilla, his work, and his influence so that I might better understand the work of a creative genius.
Sublime melodies. Vibrant rhythms. Relaxed ambience. Pulsating samples and loops that span funk, soul, bossa nova, and techno. Welcome 2 Detroit is a musical wonderland, one that extends far past its “hip hop” label, speaking to the extensive knowledge and skill of a truly singular talent. Critics use that word a lot — “singular” — to describe artists and records they connect to. I heard the legend Bob Boilen drop it on NPR recently when he described what the producers of Tiny Desk were looking for in their annual open call for submissions. But singularity is much like beauty: in the eye of the beholder, or ear in this case. What’s singular to Boilen and the rest of the crew putting together Tiny Desk could, in theory, sound plain or even hackneyed to others. You’ve heard the saying a thousand times, mostly in a crass way: everyone has an opinion. But at a certain point, singularity reaches a consensus, just like classic status. Personal taste and inclinations go by the wayside to just appreciate something that clearly made an impact, whether in an overt way in the manner of artists like Prince and David Bowie, or a more subtle, shrouded way like J Dilla. Of course, to hip hop heads, there’s nothing shrouded about J Dilla’s brilliance, something that was prominently displayed for the better part of ten years starting with his early workings with The Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest and skyrocketing to his in-demand producer status for artists like Busta Rhymes, Common, and Ghostface Killah. Even Drake felt the pull of Dilla’s dusky, supple sound, sampling one of his tracks for his second mixtape in 2007. It’s that intrinsic appeal that keeps Dilla relevant far after his tragic, way-to-soon death. It’s what makes his posthumous releases something to keep tabs on, as opposed to something that mostly overlook like the back-half Hendrix’s “discography.” Dilla didn’t innovate this grainy sound pulled together from an assorted collection of tools and methods, but he certainly grew it at a time when popular rap was looking elsewhere, helping make the “classic” sound seem brighter and fuller in a modern sense compared to other records and producers. Sure, you might not listen to his work and think “singular talent,” but when you take a step back, survey the landscape of hip-hop that followed his work, tracing ripples that run through several scenes of hip-hop from loose collectives like Soulquarians and Hieroglyphics to powerhouse groups like The Roots and Wu-Tang, you’ll see it’s undeniable. Really though, as much as everyone can have an opinion, it’s an odd thought to think someone could put on “Think Twice” or “Rico Suave Bossa Nova” and not be musically inspired and artistically satisfied. Different strokes, I guess, but those people have no idea what they’re missing out when it comes to the vibrant cruise of Welcome 2 Detroit. Make sure you don’t miss it, or the rest of J Dilla’s extensive, brilliant catalog.
You Come And Go Like A Pop Song by The Bicycle Thief
Chosen By Doug Nunnally