The work of late hip-hop musician J Dilla is particularly suited to the record industry’s strategy of releasing anything a dead icon has created, no matter how modest or inessential. When he was alive, he would hand out CDs full of beats and short instrumental loops to his friends and collaborators. After he passed away in 2006, those same discs became fodder for bootlegs like J Dilla Anthology and Instrumental Joints Volume 1.
However, the recent deluge of Dilla’s posthumously released material has tested the wallets of even his most fanatic disciples. There are remastered projects that didn’t get a full airing during his lifetime, like last year’s The Diary—a proper version of his shelved and oft-bootlegged 2002 album Pay Jay—and his extended Detroit crew has repurposed his beats with fresh vocals that are “produced by J Dilla” for Rebirth of Detroit, Yancey Boys’ Sunset Blvd. (a group comprised of Dilla’s brother Illa J and Frank Nitt), and Slum Village’s Villa Manifesto. Most of all, Yancey Media Group, a label established by his mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, has issued official collections of his beats: Dillatronic, The King of Beats, Lost Tapes, Reels + More, Dillatroit, and much more. Perhaps overwhelmed by the thousands of beats Dilla made in his life, the label has developed an annoying, even if unintentional, tendency to reuse material on different projects—for example, track 31 on Dillatronic is the same as track 663 on Jay Dee’s Ma Dukes Collection.
This playlist attempts to sift through the wellspring of Dilla’s recordings to pick out some gems. There isn’t much background information on when these tracks were made, but a knowledgeable Dilla fan can pick out some clues: The King of Beats collection seems typical of his mid-’90s jazzy hip-hop period when he worked with The Pharcyde and A Tribe Called Quest; Dillatronic reflects his early-’00s, pre-Donuts years and his techno-inflected trunk music. A handful of vocal selections from The Diary and Yancey Boys round out this primer that will prepare you for a deep dive into the world of Dilla.