Originally published in Scratch magazine, February 2006
“I went through that whole thing a lot cats either go through or went to,” J-Dilla, November 2005
Much like Dilla’s life, this interview was ended way too soon. Three years later I read this and think “damn, he really was saying some real spit.” You can hear just a little bit of the frustration that J-Dilla felt as a producer despite the accolades he’s been showered with since his death. He read the reviews of his work just like you all do, and while some might not want to admit it now, those reviews weren’t always positive. Even though he’d racked up an impressive discography, he still had to cater to the artists he made beats for. And while Momma Yancey is clearly his biggest supporter, even she had some misgivings about his career choice in the beginning.
So when you read this don’t just think of J-Dilla the gifted musician, remember James Dewitt Yancey the man.
Interview by Alvin “Aqua Boogie” Blanco
Aqua: What made you choose L.A. over Miami or NYC?
J-Dilla: I thought about New York but in New York the studio would get crowded with a lot of people. In LA, you look outside it’s like palm trees, sunshine and you know a totally different feel working.
You mentioned not having a bunch of people in the studio, do you like to keep it just you and the artist in the studio?
Yeah, I like to keep it to a minimum.
What part of L.A. is it?
Do you still keep a crib in Detroit?
Yeah, I still got the crib and then actually all my equipment is out there. I’m looking for a crib now so I can ship my equipment out here.
I’m assuming you got some equipment out in L.A. right?
I got just the basics. AN MPC a couple of turntables and that’s really it.
What equipment did you start with?
I started with the SP-12 then moved to the SP-1200 and then shortly after that the MPC-60, then the MPC-62, then the MPC3000 and I’ve been on the MPC 3000 ever since then. I’ve tried other samplers but the 3000 is best for me for what I like to do.
What about it specifically?
It’s just easier for me to program and I like the node offs and mono pads. I can just do more with it. I guess cause I know it better.
As far as your records are you a big digger?
Yeah man. I’m a record shopping fanatic. I already got a nice stash here and I got a warehouse full of records in Detroit, it’s ridiculous. I lost a lot of records too. Having them in that storage paper, records was getting damp and to go back periodically and check on them is kind of hard.
What would you estimate as far as how many you have?
I’d have to ask somebody, I don’t even know.
How old were you when you started making beats?
I started making beats when “Big Mouth” came out, whatever year that was.
The Whodini joint?
Yeah, cause I was DJ’ing before that but umm, that song actually made me want to get into production side and started messing around. Then people would go to studios, Metroplex Studios, that was in Detroit. We were like the first hip-hop cats to come in there. It was a little different for them.
When you say we do you mean Slum Village?
Nah, this was actually me and a partner of mine that went to school with me named Chuck. He was actually the MC and I provided the beats.
How far were you into the DJing, were you in the crib or rocking parties?
I was doing parties and the typical, making beats on the pause and record thing like a lot of cats were doing.
Besides the DJing, did you know what kind of equipment you had to get to start producing?
Nah, I ain’t know nothing man. Fortunately I ran into this cat just walking in the street, literally. This guy named Amp Fiddler. He actually came out in the street and seen me, YG and couple of other cats, we were just walking. Yeah, this guy name Larry and a couple of other cats that just went to high school with us. He just called us out and from that first day he actually showed all of us how a studio works and things like that. He had a little pre-production studio in his crib. He was like whenever you want to, come by the crib. We had cassettes so we could play him some stuff-he was just like “Whenever you want to come by and I got you, if you want to record something or work on the drum machine.” I started going over there messing with beats.
He lived in your neighborhood?
Yeah, a few blocks away from me literally.
I know him as an R&B dude. Was he into hip-hop back then?
Right, right. Nah, he actually sounded like Domino, remember that cat Domino that was singing and rapping a little bit? He was doing that before I even heard Domino. Before a lot of cats. He was signed to Elektra Records and he would show me the records that never came out. He was kind of like teaching us about how the industry is a little bit. You gotta kinda watch what you do and look at all the paperwork when you signing. We actually got caught up in a lot of crazy deals. Slum…
Did you have somebody holding your hand like, “This is how you freak the SP…”?
Actually, what Amp did, he played some stuff out the MP but he was like, “I’m not going to show you to work it. You gotta learn on your own.” He was like “don’t use a book.” Ever since this day I never read the books to samplers and all of that, I just try to learn them. Except this last drum machine, this Korg drum machine I brought. It was like too complicated. I had to read that shit. A lot of people say Oh, Amp taught you how to work the MP, no not really.
You’ve always been ill at chopping samples, was it because of the equipment you were using?
You know what? It had a lot to do with the time I had in the sampler. You could only sample this much and that’s how it started. I used to listen to records and actually, I wouldn’t say look for mistakes but when I hear mistakes in records it was exciting for me. Like, “Damn, the drummer missed the beat in that shit. The guitar went off key for a second.” I try to do that in my music a little bit, try to have that live feel a little bit to it.
Oh, you mean when your listening to…
An old like Jack McDuff record.
Something that’s done live?
How does a Jay Dee track come together?
I can say lately, I usually don’t say this, but lately it starts with samples because I’ve been really getting into records. I been buying a lot of 45s. Try to get a groove off of 45’s cause it’s like they only press singles. Trying to get a break off that you gotta really be hunting for that shit. What I’ll do is I’ll look for a groove or something to start if off with but then I try to build around it. Try to make something out of it.
I’m at a disadvantage because I haven’t heard Donuts yet but how long had that been in the works?
Actually, I’d say in the last maybe year to the last couple of months. It’s just a compilation of the stuff I thought was a little too much for the MCs. That’s basically what it is, ya know me flipping records that people really don’t know how to rap on but they want to rap on. There’s bunch of that.
Since you mentioned that, let’s say Like Water for Chocolate, your stamp was all over that and it was well received. Then you have Electric Circus, the beats were different but the media, and Common himself, said it was too different. Did that ever bother you?
Ya know it doesn’t bother me because what people don’t understand is like when I…me myself, when I go in the studio, I just try to give the artist what they want. Like Water for Chocolate, we were both looking toward the direction of where he started or what would have been rugged hip-hop at that time. The Electric Circus, he wanted to do something totally different. I would bring him a batch of beats, and he’d just be sitting there, then as soon as I make something crazy as hell, fast uptempo, he’d like, ‘Yeah, let’s use that one.’ I don’t want people to think this is all I’m giving him, I gotta give him what he want. It’s kind of hard to read those reviews knowing that, “Damn, they don’t understand that shit.”
That was Common, did you use the same approach with a Badu or D’Angelo?
I try to give them…it’s a little different in that case. Like Badu, she’s very like very demanding type of ya know R&B diva type shit. She actually wanted to come in, help pick the sample, feel a brother out. “Maybe you should freak this, freak this.” It’s a little different with her than a D’Angelo or a Busta Rhymes who would take it as is. They just take it right off the beat tape. It’s a big difference.
Is that tougher in the case of Badu?
Yeah, it just kind of puts you on the spot like, “Damn, I’m really working right now.” It shouldn’t be this hard. We sitting in the studio for a day and half and can’t come up with one solid joint. Where as a Busta or D’Angelo they already got their joints picked.
What do your parents think about your music?
At first it was straight devil music (laughing). Pops wanted to throw my equipment out in the streets. I went through that whole thing a lot cats either go through or went through. They eased up over the years but once it started to pay off, not just financially but how I felt about things, they really eased up. There’s cussing and things like that I don’t real don’t want me to hear but they appreciate it.