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 News Archive: J Dilla

'He started collecting records at the age of 2.' ...

'He could've been a Kanye.' ...

'He was totally about the music, 100 percent. It was his great love.' ...

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Immediately, Jay developed a style that was all his own. With his comprehensive record collection, he brought new sounds into hip-hop, from jazz to soul.

"He was the new Motown," Elzhi said. "He was the jack-of-all-trades when it came to beats, 'cause he played all sorts of genres: rock, techno, R&B. He basically had those beats that were heart-filled and touched your soul."

Jay's obsessive-compulsive tendencies also led to unique tracks that were meticulously crafted, yet simple. Like his brother-in-law, comedian Bobo Lamb, put it, "Every sound mattered."

"Dilla was like the producer's producer," Dilated Peoples' Evidence said. "I can't tell you how many nights I've sat home with the instrumentals, trying to figure out, 'Did the drums come first or the bass? How did he do this?' "

 Dilated Peoples on the passing of Jay Dee

Jay also worked at a lightning pace and could make tracks in the amount of time it took an artist to use the restroom. "It might only have three parts, but it sounds finished," Rice said. "I got to watch him work so many times over the years, and I can honestly say I've never seen anybody as talented."

In the late '80s, when the group members were still teenagers, Rice agreed to manage Slum Village, which by then included fellow Pershing High School student Baatin. He shopped their demos around to labels, but no one bit.

Around that time, Amp Fiddler, who was touring with A Tribe Called Quest, passed the demo along to Q-Tip. Jay and Q hit it off and started working together, along with Tribe member Ali Shaheed Muhammad, as the Ummah, the production team behind the last two Tribe albums.

Jay's reputation spread fast, and before long he was working with Busta Rhymes, Ghostface Killah, De La Soul, the Pharcyde and others. Along with ?uestlove, James Poyser, jazz horn player Roy Hargrove and super session bassist Pino Palladino, he was a member of the musical collective known as the Soulquarians, who contributed extensively to Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun, Common's Like Water for Chocolate, D'Angelo's Voodoo and Talib Kweli's Quality, and helped create a pioneering, unique blend of R&B and hip-hop.

Yet as his star rose, Jay retreated even further behind the scenes.

In the beginning, he'd called himself John Doe, " 'Cause his music was like no name brand, just authentic," Maureen explained. When he discovered other artists with the moniker, he moved to his first two initials, only spelling out the Jay and Dee to be different. Years later, when Jermaine Dupri started going by J.D., he changed it again to J Dilla as a nod to soul singer Bill Withers, who occasionally went by Dill.

"I said, 'Why would you change it? You were there first,' " his mother recalled. "And he was like, 'No big deal.' "

Image and promotion were never a big deal to Dilla. In a realm that — to put it mildly — often trades in self-aggrandizement, he never marked his tracks with his name, never appeared in videos for the artists he produced and rarely talked to the press. And when he did, he never bought the magazines or mentioned them to his friends and family.

"Other people would call, 'Your son is in this magazine,' " Maureen said. "And then I would find out things about him through those articles [that I didn't know] because he never talked about himself. It just wasn't a big thing."

At the peak of his success — according to many of the people interviewed for this story — Jay produced Janet Jackson's "Got 'Til It's Gone" but never took credit (although he did take credit for a remix of the song). Same with 2Pac's posthumously released "Do for Love."

"It was his personality that made him behind the scenes," T3 said. "He could've been a Kanye, because he was working with all the people, but he didn't want to take all the initiative to go there."

Jay was also known for turning down high-paying production gigs, and he often worked with local rappers for a few hundred bucks.

"I've seen stars fly into Detroit to do business with him and he wouldn't open the door," Rice said. "I could name a boy band that called here and he turned it down. He wasn't into names. He'd say, 'I'm not feeling that.' "

Creatively, Jay yearned to make his own albums, but even when he was most in-demand, he remained loyal to Slum Village. "He said, 'I don't really want to be in the group, but I want to see the guys blow up. Is it a problem if I be in the group, but I move on and do my own thing eventually?' " Rice explained. "Everyone thought he quit the group [years later], but that was our understanding from day one."

"He didn't have to come back, but he surely did because he knew I was broke as hell," T3 added. "Dilla would take us to the [strip club] and buy us all kinds of dances and sh--. He wouldn't give us no money, though. He wanted us to earn it and at the end of the day, Dilla showed me how to make beats."

 Slum Village
Detroit Deli (A Taste of Detroit)

Jay stayed with Slum Village through one failed record deal after another, but eventually found some success with 2000's Fantastic, Vol. 2. A year later, he released his solo debut, Welcome 2 Detroit, introducing the other sides of Jay Dee to his fans.

"Even though he's known and respected so highly for his hip-hop production, Jay was always an extremely underrated MC, singer and instrumentalist," said Bay Area hip-hop veterean Peanut Butter Wolf, who later released Jay solo material on his Stone's Throw Records.

NEXT: 'He was totally about the music, 100 percent. It was his great love.' ...
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Photo: Stones Throw Records

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