J Dilla, Ruff Draft (March 20, 2007)
Ruff Draft is the first of what will undoubtedly be several reissues, retrospectives and compendiums of posthumous material by the illustrious late producer James “J Dilla” Yancey. The EP quietly dropped on J Dilla’s Mummy Records in 2003, with worldwide distribution by Groove Attack, and arrived at a time when many heads considered him past his prime. A Stones Throw Records press release asserts, “In retrospect, Ruff Draft proved to mark a turning point in Dilla’s career.” This is true: shortly afterwards, J Dilla would team with Madlib for the Jaylib album, a project unfortunately marred by Internet bootlegging. (In response, the two recorded new tracks that didn’t compare to the leaked ones.) Nevertheless, J Dilla would continue to reinvent his sound, and triumphantly produced the Donuts and The Shining discs shortly before his death. But first, there is Ruff Draft. Key tracks such as “Let’s Take It Back” and “Reckless Driving” feature rapturous synthesizer playing, a direct nod to Dilla’s Detroit as the ancestral home of techno and electro music. The distorted, otherworldly guitars on “Nothing Like This,” in fact, wouldn’t sound out of place on a Drexciya record. Alternately, “Wild,” one of four new tracks that weren’t on the original EP, find him speeding up a sample from Neil Innes & Son’s “Cum On Feel The Noize” into a chirpy Sesame Street-like voice. The second CD, a collection of instrumentals, is strictly for Serato jocks.
J Dilla, The Shining (August 22, 2006)
The Shining is James “J-Dilla” Yancey’s first posthumous release following his tragic death from lupus complications last February. Prior to his tragic demise, the noted hip-hop producer groomed the disc as an exclamation point marking his return to big-league productions for Common, Busta Rhymes and Ghostface Killah. But the most astonishing thing about The Shining is its modesty. Much of J-Dilla’s prior work, particularly his 2001 solo debut Welcome 2 Detroit, was fierce and brass-hard, marked by brittle hi-hat drums and pulverizing, guttural bass. On The Shining he emphasizes rapturous and futuristic soul. (For those who miss his hardcore stylings, there’s “Jungle Love,” a throwdown with MED and Guilty Simpson.) On “So Far to Go,” he works quietly behind the scenes as Common drops a characteristic rhyme about making love (with D’Angelo lending support on the chorus). He opens by chopping up and blending samples of several lush musical notes, then drops a light, jazzy piano solo over the beats and inserts a little studio chatter. The net effect is blissful. Dilla’s infamously swaggering and staccato raps are rarely heard, leaving room for guest vocals by Pharoahe Monch, Black Thought, Madlib and others. The final track, “Won’t Do,” is the only one to feature a complete lyric from J-Dilla. “I need space for all of my womens/And these days, the arguing’s limited/I replace the broad if she trippin’/It’s big game and all in the pimpin’,” he raps. Always the unrepentant player, J-Dilla’s voice is welcome after nearly an album of silence. Unlike 2Pac’s interminable string of post-mortem products, The Shining doesn’t make a spectacle of J-Dilla’s passing. After “Won’t Do,” it just ends; only its liner notes reveal that the album is much a tribute as an coda. The Shining was unfinished when Dilla passed in February 2006; executive producer Karriem Riggins oversaw its completion. An alternate version of “So Far to Go” later appeared on Common’s 2007 album Finding Forever. Though many post-mortem Dilla projects have hit the market since, The Shining is easily the best of the lot. BBE Music.
Jaylib, Champion Sound (October 7, 2003)
Jaylib promises to be a dream collaboration between two of the hottest producers in hip-hop, Jay Dee (formerly of Slum Village) and Madlib (Lootpack, Quasimoto). But the resulting Champion Sound is slightly more earthbound, as each tries to outdo the other with numbskull raps about players and hoes. It gets so bad that Jay Dee raps on the otherwise great track “The Mission,” “Now let me speak on these journalists/Only the ones who need to learn to listen/Before they criticize verses that burn kitchens.” Champion Sound’s appeal, then, lies in the music itself, minus the disposable rhymes. On paper, at least, the two producers each produce nearly half of the album’s 17 tracks and co-produce the intro, “L.A. to Detroit.” But the beats are surprisingly consistent, and every song utilizes Jay Dee’s infamously hard drums and snares to bolster Madlib’s notoriously psychedelic samples. The combination leads to strong tracks like the dance floor bound “Raw Shit” with Talib Kweli; “The Exclusive,” a pairing with legendary rapper Percee P, who brings some much-needed lyrical aggression; and “No Games,” a bouncy panoply of Seventies era synth riffs. Champion Sound is a fun party album that’s difficult to take seriously. Stones Throw.