J Dilla’s ‘Diary’: The Late, Great Producer’s Story in 13 Beats

Back in 2002, James Dewitt Yancey was ready to blow. The producer and artist alternately know as Jay Dee and J Dilla had been accruing underground acclaim for his meticulously crafted beats and otherworldly sampling technique, and had just signed a solo deal with MCA Records as an artist. He was ready to cross over; his solo debut with MCA was supposed to signify his move from the shadows to the spotlight, what we might now call his College Dropout.

But it wasn’t meant to be. The label shelved the record, it was widely bootlegged, and within a year, Yancey would begin to feel the effects of the blood disease that would kill him. Now, ten years after his death, Yancey’s estate has partnered with the Nas-helmed label Mass Appeal to re-release the LP, Diary, on April 15. Because he was so ahead of his time as a producer, his legend has only grown since his death, but much of his greatest work doesn’t bear his name. In honor of the release of his long-lost solo debut, here’s a look back at some of his influential works that help tell his story.

1995: The Pharcyde — “Runnin’”

One of J Dilla’s earliest breakthroughs, this classic tune was the lead single on the group’s sophomore LP Labcabincalifornia, much of which he produced. Some fans decried the tonal shift from their first record, but it’s hard to deny the graceful sampling, which weaves four different tracks into a seamless, rolling jam.

1996: De la Soul — “Stakes Is High”

If there’s a theme that emerges in J Dilla’s career, it’s that many, many artists wanted to work with him, and the work that they made afterwards sounds quite different from what they had done before. For Stakes Is High, De La Soul’s fourth LP — and first without the production of Prince Paul — the group handled much of the production themselves, but collaborated with Dilla on the album’s title track. It’s got a much harder edge than the flower children had been known for; a dose of Detroit grittiness to bring the higher consciousness down to earth.

1997: Janet Jackson — “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”

By 1997, J Dilla’s profile was high enough to find him collaborating with hip-hop and R&B’s biggest stars, from Busta Rhymes to Janet Jackson. He had formed a production crew with Tony! Toni! Toné!’s Raphael Saadiq and A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, dubbed The Ummah, and they collaborated with Jackson and her longtime production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis during the sessions for The Velvet Rope. The sample of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” on “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” has his fingerprints all over it, but much to his chagrin, he was left off the production credits when the album dropped. So he flipped an even iller remix as a middle finger to the duo that did him dirty.

1997: Slum Village — “Players”

As Dilla’s status a producer rose, so did that of his group Slum Village, formed with two friends from Detroit. The Ummah had just produced Tribe’s Beats Rhymes and Life, and Slum Village were already dodging Tribe comparisons after Q-Tip intimated that they were the new Tribe. But the comparison never felt quite right; Slum Village was always a bit more grimey than anyone in the Native Tongues collective, the paragon of “conscious” hip-hop.

1998: A Tribe Called Quest — “Find a Way”

Adhering to our theme, the final LP from A Tribe Called Quest, The Love Movement, was met with confusion about the new sound and direction. It was produced entirely by The Ummah, and its first single, “Find a Way,” was originally intended to be a Slum Village song. In hindsight, it fits naturally into the progression of the neo-soul sound that would define the Soulquarians, but at the time, all fans knew was that it sounded different.

1999: Black Star — “Little Brother” 

There may be no finer example of the sheer brilliance of Yancey’s sampling technique, something Questlove elaborated on in 2014 as part of the Red Bull Music Academy. For the Black Star track “Little Brother” (which appeared on The Hurricane soundtrack), he scoured every microsecond on Roy Ayers’ “Ain’t Got Time” for all of the bits that had no vocals, and stitched them together to make a seamless loop, and a timeless track.

1999: The Roots — “Dynamite”

We can only imagine the energy flowing through Electric Lady studios in 1999, as The Roots’ breakout Things Fall Apart, D’Angelo’s iconic Voodoo, and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun were recorded by the loose collective of musicians that would come to be known as the Soulquarians. Dilla’s fingerprints can be heard all over those three records, but “Dynamite” is one of the few instances where he has a discrete production credit. The reverberations of those recording sessions are still being felt, almost two full decades later.

2000: Common — “The Light”

“The Light” is arguably J Dilla’s commercial peak. Common’s 2000 album Like Water for Chocolate was his mainstream crossover moment, coinciding with the ascendant neo-soul movement. J Dilla produced much of the album, including the hit single “The Light.” It’s easily among his more accessible productions, but if you listen carefully for the textures that wrap the classic boom-bap percussion, you might just hear a bit of Dilla’s world; the tiny snips and movements that make all the difference.

2001: “B.B.E. (Big Booty Express)” — Welcome 2 Detroit

As much as he is credited for influencing the work of some of hip-hop’s most “conscious” MCs, it’s a label that Dilla would reject wholeheartedly. Despite his next-level crate-digging skills and eclectic tastes, when he did his own raps, he was always making music for the regular Joe, the Detroit cats he came up with. This (mostly) instrumental flip of Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” embodies this duality; mixing electronic German music with a hood mentality. Welcome 2 Detroit was his first attempt to go solo; he would soon sign a deal with major label MCA, on the strength of his success with Common, Erykah Badu, and the like. MCA’s failure to reconcile J Dilla’s voice as an MC with his reputation as a producer is likely what led to their rejection of Diary, which didn’t sound anything like “The Light.”

2002: “Fuck the Police” — Pay Jay

After Diary was shelved, there was still palpable demand from J Dilla fans for the material; ten tracks would quickly get a bootleg release as Pay Jay“Fuck the Police” got some play as an unofficial single — it’s about as “conscious” as Dilla gets. It’s not hard to see MCA getting a little spooked by it, even with the disclaimer at the beginning about not condoning violence against police. Outside of that, he pulls no punches; look for it on the official release of Diary.

2003: “The $” — Ruff Draft

Ruff Draft was the indie first release Dilla dropped after his MCA deal imploded. He is not pleased. Around the time of its release, his weight loss and overall physical condition would make it difficult to keep his illness a secret, and by 2004, he would be forced to publicly acknowledge it. His output slowed afterwards, though not quite to a halt.

2006: Ghostface Killah — “Whip You With a Strap”

When J Dilla died in 2006, his reputation as a beatsmith was as public as it had ever been throughout his storied career. His beat compilation Donuts would be his last release; he succumbed to illness just three days after the record dropped. One of its finest moments, the tender abuse-nostalgia trip “One for Ghost,” would appear on Ghostface Killah’s critically acclaimed 2006 album Fishscale, as “Whip You With a Strap.” The album is still being mined for gold, as the next song proves.

2015: Nas — “The Season (ft. AZ)”

Fast-forward to 2015, with rumblings of Diary‘s official release feeding the rumor mill, and Nas comes out of nowhere with new bars on the classic Donuts track “Gobstopper.” “The Season” also sees the return of former Firm consigliere and partner in rhyme AZ, though no details of any new Nas record. It seems mostly to serve as a tease for Diary, a reminder of what greatness can be achieved by legendary MCs spitting over Dilla beats. We’ll soon reach the end of mineable J Dilla production resources, but by then it won’t matter. His place in and influence on the pantheon of hip-hop is secure and unwavering.