It’s been 10 years since James “J-Dilla” Yancey died on February 10, 2006 at the age of 32. I have written about him many, many times since. However, my initial reaction to his death remains my most honest and personal Dilla piece. So in honor of his impact on my life, I’ve decided to re-post my piece on what would have been his 42nd birthday.
I originally wrote my memoriam for freerap.blogspot.com, which I maintained from 2005-2006. The blog no longer exists on the web, but you can view a December 2, 2005 snapshot on the Internet Archive. When I launched a second and more ambitious website, plugonemag.com, I re-posted that item along with a fresh introduction on February 6, 2007.
Now that my focus is Critical Minded, my first tribute to J-Dilla deserves placement here.
For the cover art of Sean Price’s 2012 album Mic Tyson, Raphael Tangal depicted the rapper as a hulking figure with impossibly large muscles, a microphone in one hand, and standing amidst a field of dead and bloodied apes – a metaphor for murdered MCs. It’s an image that Price embodied through his bellicose raps, and claims that he’d give you “wings on your back.”
But Price was also a married husband and practicing Muslim with three children. When the 43-year-old musician died in his sleep on August 8, we were once again reminded of the stark difference between the aura of invincibility that so many rappers promote to us, and the real life men and women behind that image who are just as frail and human as we are.
For rap fans of a certain vintage, Price was a familiar voice. Based out of the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, his career dated back to 1995, when he and Jahmal “Rock” Bush appeared as Heltah Skeltah on Smif-N-Wessun’s Dah Shinin’ and, most impressively, the Fab 5’s “Leflah.” Collectively, the Boot Camp Clik was emblematic of New York rap in the mid-90s. They were street soldiers who described a life of everyday violence, and used weed as a “third eye” opener as well as to blunt life’s pain. For them, hip-hop was a ritual and proving ground, and their sharp-elbowed raps, which eschewed lyrical complexity in favor of punch lines that just went for the throat, anticipated later thug rap crews like G-Unit and D-Block.
Heltah Skeltah released a critically acclaimed debut in 1996, Nocturnal. But Sean Price wouldn’t emerge as a real force, someone who people knew by name instead of his BCC affiliation, until a decade later. By the time Monkey Barz appeared on Duck Down in 2005, the label had floundered for years as it tried to promote BCC amidst a mainstream-obsessed New York scene. The album arrived at just the right time, satisfying listeners who wanted an alternative to the slick thug rap made by Jay Z and 50 Cent, but didn’t care for the experimental underground sounds of El-P’s Definitive Jux camp. Led by Price (as well as Buckshot and other resurgent BCC fam), Duck Down charted a middle path that felt innovative given the overly commercialized era, yet proudly conservative as well.
Over three solo albums as well as side projects like 2012’s Random Axe, Price embodied a bullying kind of rap orthodoxy. But he wasn’t afraid to parody that image, whether in songs like “Straight Music” from Mic Tyson, where the chorus repeats his nickname “P!” with a wink, or in YouTube videos like his hilarious “Rap Clinic” series. No matter how much he mean-mugged on the mic, he let his audience know that it was all in good fun. It’s his mischievous quality that made Sean Price so memorable.
Photo from Duckdown.com.
Here’s a crazy story: When the Beastie Boys dropped “The New Style” and seemingly took over my local radio station, which played their songs every hour and sometimes more, I thought they ruined hip-hop. How could the genre continue to exist, I naively thought back then, if three white frat-boys were allowed to skeet all over it?
Here’s another crazy story: Last night, I told this story to my friends, and they laughed at how stupid I was. The Beastie Boys weren’t just a white thing – they resonated with an entire generation of bratty kids. Rappers continue to sample their rowdy anthems to this day. You can hear echoes of the Beasties everywhere, from MGK and Eminem to Waka Flocka Flame and 50 Cent (who depicted himself as a young boy rocking out to the group in the movie Get Rich or Die Tryin’).
Yeah, I was a dummy when I was young, though I can’t help but sigh that I debated my initial dismay at the Beastie Boys the night before Adam “MCA” Yauch passed away on May 4 after a years-long battle with cancer. The Beastie Boys were shocking, not just because they rapped like drunken punks, but because they embodied a rock and roll spirit within the strictures of hardcore rap. Run-DMC may have come first, but the Beastie Boys arguably did the rap-rock thing better, and though many have followed in their wake, none (with the possible exception of Rage Against the Machine) has ever come close to matching them.
Keith “Guru” Elam passed away April 19 at the age of 43 from cancer-related illnesses, and following a coma scare in February.
Gil Scott-Heron never had a top 40 hit, and certainly never had a platinum album. Yet when his death at age 62 was announced on late afternoon May 27, it became a trending topic across the Internet. His impact resonated beyond sales metrics and radio spins.