J Dilla

Jay Stay Paid / Dillanthology Vol. 1 / Vol. 2

(Nature Sounds / Rapster; 2009)

By Colin McGowan | 12 June 2009

Jay Stay Paid was, in theory, the point where I was to cease referring to the handling of Dilla’s posthumous corpus as “tasteful.” The Shining (2006) was excusably okay because warmed-over/half-completed anything tends to satisfy like a handful of almonds in the midst of a famine. And it was an insatiable hunger Dilla left us with, his most urgent document coincidentally his last, showcasing—even with a back catalogue so quietly, consistently great, like a yawn exposing platinum dentistry—that he had a wealth of potential still untapped. Innocent if feverish curiosity seemed a logical progression after the shock wore off; poking about in hopes of uncovering a couple scorcherous tapes marked “To Redman” he might have misplaced in a sock drawer is a good idea.

The tributes, if a bit overdone at times, seemed genuine. Dilla is/was, after all, revered by Stones Throw devotees and Okayplayers, half of them amateur producers themselves who can impressively explain why Dilla’s drum-chopping was so wildly creative and touchingly recount their unabashed joy upon tracking down the break Dilla used on track six of some vinyl-only beat tape 72 other people own. If respect from one’s peers is of greater value than the adoration of random message-boarders, a slew of beatmakers who are great in their own right would be happy to give you a pamphlet regarding the Church of Dilla. Prodding Flying Lotus in ways probably intrusive and inappropriate at the time (shortly after his death), I asked a few questions about Dilla before he relented with, “He was just the best. He was the best at what he did,” lacking for words to explain his enormous admiration for an idol. I won’t claim that sort of devotion to or knowledge of the late James Yancey—Dilla’s drums, no matter how technically impressive, never sounded that amazing to my heathen ears—but I sympathize with it; a lot of people lost a member of their family in February of 2006.

Following that outsider mentality, I bit my tongue while various compilations trickled out and various MCs engorged themselves on assorted donuts, assuming most of these projects were going towards paying off the Yancey family’s massive debt, and that all involved were attempting to contribute to Dilla’s legacy in a positive way. But, excepting some releases from his cohorts (DOOM, Madlib, Busta Rhymes), these releases ranged from feeling exploitative (the much-bootlegged Jay Love Japan) to flimsily inessential. Breaking out Fox News vocabulary terms to describe harmless retreads feels like overkill, but the excessive number of releases all accomplishing the same thing has served to cheapen the legacy of a great, if not souring, then inspiring indifference in a marketplace that acquiesced to Dilla’s stature awhile ago.

The first installment of the Dillanthology series is a paradigm of a serviceable greatest hits collection, compiling eleven tracks of Dilla-aided brilliance. It’s inarguably great, but adds to the discussion of Dilla’s canon like the most uninteresting guy at the party, just tepidly agreeing that, yes, “Fall in Love” is coy and beautiful; Dilla flipped that “Let The Dollar Circulate” sample a bit more nimbly than Don Cannon. These are conversations that have already run their course. Waterslides are fun, moving on. Vol. 2 is a bit more adventuresome, plunging into Dilla’s remix work. There’s nothing obscure about these reinterpretations, but the remixes cohere nicely, prominently exhibiting Dilla’s knack for minimal thump. Both volumes might serve perfectly for an initiate, but to anyone reasonably well-acquainted with Yancey’s work, it won’t offer any revelations, just an hour and a half reminder of Dilla’s unassailable enjoyability.

This context serves to explain why Jay Stay Paid is not the last straw, but rather a reinvigoration, turning agreement over Dilla’s prowess from an almost weary “yeah…” to something considerably more robust. Donuts‘ (2006) sibling has been delivered by the caring hands of Pete Rock. Comparing a record that’s had a few years to gestate and grow into one of my favorites of the decade and a gleefully sloppy near-mixtape I’ve spent a week with is foolish, but Stay Paid, in a tactile sense, feels like Donuts‘ spiritual successor, pieced together from the same hospital bed sessions that bore Dilla’s paramount work.

It’s also the most proper commemoration of Yancey we’ve yet heard. Much of this credit goes to Rock, who obviously slaved over these beats extensively, splicing in interview clips and crafting fractured, 90-second experiments into a well-paced mass of opulence. So much so that parsing the hour of music is futile, as it organically weaves into something of a narrative: samples and synths crop up and disintegrate, friends drop in for the chance to spit a sixteen, coming off as gracious guests at a particularly celebratory funeral rather than overeager vultures. If Donuts was a half-hour journey into the mind of a musical master, ideas popping suddenly before blending into the ether of the next infectious groove, this is an impromptu afternoon mix, assembled with the aid of a few Coronas and a healthy sense of whimsy.

This might be the last material we hear from Dilla that echoes the endlessly fascinating turn his music was taking before his passing, and it couldn’t be constructed more appealingly, its jittery creativity augmented by one of Dilla’s esteemed contemporaries, himself a fan and close friend. And yet I salivate. If there are more sock-drawer tapes lying around the Yancey household, tell Q-Tip or ?uesto to make haste. While anthologies and reworkings reminds us what we’ve lost, Jay Stay Paid makes us hopeful for what we haven’t heard yet.

:: myspace.com/jdilla