At his death anniversary in early February, and at regular intervals throughout the year, parties are thrown, concerts are booked, and panels are organized in tribute to J Dilla, the iconic hip-hop producer who died in 2006. Not only did Dilla change lives, as a popular t-shirt confirms, he changed hip-hop with his unquantised beats and artfully employed samples.
But how, in a genre fronted by MCs, did a behind-the-scenes beat-peddler come to leave behind such a great legacy?
Dilla’s particular brilliance aside, hip-hop producers have long been, pardon the pun, as instrumental, if not more so, as the rappers who perform over their beats. Historically, the producer (often interchangeable with the DJ) was the genius who could take crates of old vinyl and, armed with little more than a sampler and a drum machine, transform them into classics like ‘Sucker MCs’ and ‘Looking For The Perfect Beat’. The sheer inventiveness of the producers of the ‘80s, many of whom could not afford traditional instruments, fuelled hip-hop’s punk-like ethos.
But as technology became more sophisticated, so did the ingenuity of the hip-hop producer. Early masterminds like Rick Rubin, Scott La Rock, and Prince Paul pioneered sampling as the dominant method of hip-hop beatmaking. But others continued to guide the genre’s evolution and the emergence of far-reaching subgenres. The RZA, Pete Rock, and DJ Premier, for instance, made jazz and soul samples the aesthetic focal point of New York hip-hop. Diddy (then Puff Daddy) made R&B hooks a hip-hop staple, Dr. Dre’s funk-sampling trademark defined the West Coast’s sound, and so, too, did Mannie Fresh’s use of club music for the South.
Practically every sonic era in hip-hop can be traced back to a single producer—like the Neptunes’ futuristic instrumentation in the early Noughties, Kanye West’s sped-up soul samples (a technique borrowed from the RZA) in the mid-2000s, and, more recently, Lex Luger’s ubiquitous, speaker-rattling orchestration.
Whereas pop/rock producers tend to be accountable to a band or singer’s vision, the hip-hop producer is practically an autonomous unit, working on his or her own with little input from rappers until a beat is completed. The pervading notion that certain producers, like Timbaland in the late ‘90s and Pharrell Williams in the 2000s, could guarantee hit songs helped to further solidify their standing, their celebrity, and their paycheques.
In defining, and remaining faithful to, his or her unique sound, the hip-hop producer precedes the rapper in the creative process and is therefore on equal, if not greater, footing. And that’s how J Dilla, and Pete Rock and the RZA and Timbaland and countless others, came to change lives.