There's few names in hip-hop as widely adored and respected as James Dewitt Yancey - or as we all know him, J Dilla. Born in Detroit on February 7 1974, Dilla first started crafting beats out of drum loops and samples as a teenager in his basement, evolving his craft as he grew to become one of the most influential hip-hop producers of his generation. Through his association with the Soulquarians (a rap/neo-soul collective comprised of D'Angelo, Mos Def, Bilal, Erykah Badu, Questlove, Common and Q-Tip), as well his work with Pharcyde, Slum Village and countless others, Dilla totally changed the way that people perceived beatmaking, defying the rules of sampling and quantization to create some of the most compelling beats ever made. Although Dilla tragically passed away at the age of 32 following a battle with a rare blood disease, his legacy lives on through the work of countless contemporary producers and rappers, as well as his own family and a legion of loyal fans. To celebrate what would have been his 46th birthday, as well as the 14 year anniversary of Donuts, we're celebrating James Yancey's life and legacy by taking a look at the arsenal of samplers and synthesisers used to create some of the most compelling beats the world has ever heard - long live J Dilla.
Like many producers of the era, a teenage Dilla cut his teeth as a producer by learning to chop up on the E-Mu SP-1200; a classic machine first manufactured in 1987. Renowned for its crunchy sound and quirky interface, the SP-1200 boasts a sound unlike any other, and there's countless VST emulations and sample packs that try to capture its gloriously archaic sound and reproduce it for the modern age.
Pharcyde member Slim Kid Tre claims that Dilla used a SP-1200 to produce the classic tracks 'Drop' and 'Running'; however to my ears, the kicks on those tracks sound a bit too wonky and off-the-grid for an SP-1200. Nevertheless, a J Dilla boxset edition of The King Of Beats came in a package styled in the fashion of an E-mu SP-1200, but given the scarcity of information from his formative years and the ambiguous nature of his production style, it's hard to pinpoint any one machine other than the MPC3000.
Although samplers - and hip-hop, for that matter - certainly existed before the MPC, it's arguable that Akai's famous music production controller revolutionised the way that producers approached beatmaking. Introduced in 1988 and designed by none other than Roger Linn (you know, the dude who made the Linn Drum), the Akai MPC60 was adopted early on by electronic artists and hip-hop producers, who favoured the machine for its powerful sequencing capabilities and distinctive 12 bit sound.
Dilla was first introduced to the MPC60 in the early '90s by fellow Detroit artist Amp Fiddler, who was once associated with Parliament-Funkadelic. In a 2006 interview with Scratch Magazine, he said that after learning to sample and create beats on the E-mu SP12 and 1200, he graduated to the MPC60 and its successor, the MPC60 II (which added a headphone jack and featured a slighty different casing) to hone his craft further.
The way that J Dilla used his MPC3000 is essentially the hip-hop equivalent of Jimi Hendrix's relationship with his Fender Stratocaster: as soon as Dilla hooked up a turntable to his MPC3000 and began chopping up samples, the boundaries between man and machine were completely obliterated. Released in 1994 and renowned for its gritty low-pass filter, Dilla used the MPC3000 on a vast majority of his beats, with key examples being heard on his production for the likes of Slum Village, The Roots, Common, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson, to name a mere few.
What made Dilla's use of the MPC so masterful was the manner in which he defied the traditional rhythmic 16th note grid when programming drums, completely abandoning quantization in favour of sloppy, bouncing grooves - his close friend and collaborator Questlove would later refer to this style as being 'like a toddler drumming'. While sounding incredibly intimidating at first, these staggered grooves proved to be incredibly influential after Dilla's work entered the mainstream, with everyone from Kanye West and Pharrell Williams to Kaytranada and Flying Lotus citing his programming prowess as a major influence to their style.
Nowadays, J Dilla's MPC3000 lives in the world-famous Smithsonian Institute, where it's displayed as an artifact in the National Museum of African American History and Culture alongside his Moog. There's no denying that his contributions to hip-hop make it worthy of museum status, although I'm sure we'd all prefer to see Dilla still chopping up with it today.
While the bulky nature of the MPC primarily makes it a tool for the studio, the portability and performance capabilities of Roland's SP sampler series made it a surefire solution for sampling on the go. Although the SP-404 is much more commonly seen on the live circuit, it's the earlier Boss SP-303 that's considered the holy grail of the family, with its simple eight pad interface, gooey sound quality and intuitive inbuilt effects making it a favourite for J Dilla and fellow beatmakers such as Madlib, Four Tet, The Alchemist and MF Doom.
As Dilla's illness got worse and left him unable to leave bed, he continued to tinker away on his beats, using an SP-303, a Numark PT-01 portable record player and a crate of 45rpm records to craft what would become his swan song: the masterful Donuts, which was released on his birthday in 2006. Tragically, Dilla passed away at the age of 32 a mere three days after its release, and never lived to see the rich legacy it left upon the world. Even to this day, Donuts remains the golden standard of what all beatmakers strive to live up to, and is a go-to for several up-and-coming rappers looking to freestyle over witty, forward-thinking beats.
MOOG MINIMOOG VOYAGER
J Dilla's Voyager wasn't just any old synthesiser; this Minimoog was custom made and sent to Dilla in 2002 by none other than Bob Moog himself, and featured his signature etched into the faceplate of the instrument. As such, it immediately became one of Dilla's prized possessions, and the producer implemented it on countless classic beats.
However, you can't go past his use of the Minimoog on 'E=MC2', a track from the posthumously released LP The Shining featuring close friend and collaborator Common. On 'E=MC2', Dilla pairs the Minimoog's inimitable bass tone with swung hi-hats whip-cracking snares on top of a Giorgio Moroder sample to create a beat unlike anything else - it's instant stank face material.
Like his MPC, Dilla's Moog now resides in the Smithsonian Institute, reflecting the cultural capital and impact he had during his time on earth.
Dilla also favoured the MicroKorg - the most popular synth of all time from its sales figures - and implemented it on several of his later tracks for pads, leads and bass sounds. Keep your eyes peeled for it in the rare video of his home studio above.
J Dilla forever.