Jan 17, 2023 - News

Detroit legend J Dilla's biography honored

The "Dilla is Forever" mural at Oakland Avenue and Holbrook Avenue.

The "Dilla is Forever" mural at Oakland Avenue and Holbrook Avenue. Photo: Joe Guillen/Axios

As a music executive in the late 1990s, Dan Charnas' first visit to J Dilla's basement in Conant Gardens showed him much more than just where the Detroit legend made music.

  • It sparked Charnas' immersion into Dilla's techniques and global impact that eventually led to a biography on the Detroit legend.
  • "Even though I loved Jay Dee, I didn't realize that there was a whole new kind of history taking place in that basement," Charnas tells Axios.

Why it matters: The Library of Michigan recently named Charnas' book, "Dilla Time," among 2023's notable books.

  • The paperback comes out Jan. 31.
  • "He didn't just influence hip-hop," Charnas says of his subject. "That's the tiny bit — literally changed the way musicians all over the world think about musical time and play their instruments. He changed all genres."

Catch up quick: A solo artist, producer and member of the group Slum Village, J Dilla (real name James Dewitt Yancey, aka Jay Dee) was born and raised in Detroit.

  • Although he barely broke through to mainstream audiences during his life, Dilla's innovative use of drum machines have not just endured, but have elevated him to genius status.
  • Dilla died at 32 in 2006 from a rare blood disease.
  • His synthesizer resides at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Between the lines: Charnas spent more than four years on the project and interviewed more than 190 people, including Dilla's family members, close associates and artists such as D'Angelo, Questlove and Q-Tip.

Worthy of your time: The author created J Dilla playlists on Spotify and Tidal.

We interviewed Charnas from his Harlem, New York, apartment about the book and Dilla's legacy. The transcript was edited for clarity:

Axios: Was there a light-bulb moment that convinced you this book needed to be written?

Charnas: I felt like he deserved something on the level of what a Louis Armstrong would get, or a James Brown would get. We've certainly had some musical studies of hip-hop in general, but never a musical biography of a hip-hop musical genius and there are others who need them. He transcended hip-hop because his ideas transcended the genre.

Axios: Is there any revelation or anecdote in the book that you're most proud of?

Charnas: Being able to report on James' relationships felt like an achievement for me, even though it was very fraught. To be able to talk to his first girlfriend was really meaningful for me. To be able to talk to the mothers of his children was incredibly meaningful and crucial for me because those are people who had never told their stories, and you know that's where the history is. Another thing that felt like an achievement for me was to really get into James' health struggles. The fact that I was able to connect with Dj Fingers — a Detroit legend in what they call either Ghettotech or Booty Tech, sort of subgenre — he was the person who took James to some of his first dialysis appointments. Nobody had quite gotten that story.

Axios: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get into his music?

Charnas: An album? Really it's just important that people listen to "Fantastic, Vol. 2." I think that is the core of his innovation. Yes there are songs in particular that were really important – "The Light" by Common, "Runnin'" by the Pharcyde and also "Donuts" is by far the most popular one. "Donuts" is late work, it's not the thing that elevated him. "Fantastic, Vol. 2" for me — especially for Detroiters. My god, you should know Slum Village.

Axios: What are ways you see his influence in today's music?

Charnas: The whole world of playing electronically with rhythmic conflict arose post-Jay Dee — whether you call it glitch or low-fi or whatever label people apply to it. If you ask most of those producers where they get their inspiration from, I would say that a lot of them would trace their inspiration back to Jay Dee. Even if they don't know that they're being inspired by him, it still traces back, because the idea of using the machine and the abilities and the limitations of the machine to deliberately cultivate rhythmic conflict.

Axios: How would you assess how Detroit's relationship with him has evolved over time from when he started making music to where it is now?

Charnas: His aesthetic was misaligned with what the overall Detroit aesthetic and vibe was in the 1990s. Detroit now? This is just an outsider speaking. I don't really feel like Detroit is a very sentimental city. I know that Detroit is very aware of its past, and proud of its past. But I don't see the current hip-hop scene in Detroit lingering in its past. There's only one direction for Detroit and that's forward into time. Maybe that's why James was not interested in looking back at all. He didn't linger on anything. He was always trying to reinvent himself.


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