Stay Black and Live: J Dilla as Anarchivist

8 Feb

Yesterday would have been the fortieth birthday of James Yancey, aka J Dilla, who joined the ancestors in 2006. I offer a few words of praise and provocation.

Dilla is one of those producers whose work you probably know, though you may not know his name. He worked with everyone from A Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde to Janet Jackson. As a member of the sorely missed Soulquarians (along with Questlove and James Poyser), he worked with D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Bilal,  and Common. If you liked Like Water for Chocolate, Dilla’s fingerprints are all over that.

As far as I’m concerned, Dilla is one of the last great innovators in rap music (so far). In a previous post, I celebrated Kanye West’s ear for black sounds, and wanted to see that as one mode of the kind of criticism I would rather practice: drawing out the beauty that has been. Sampling, most critics agree, is a temporal-sonic art. The producer/DJ is a sonic archivist, insubordinately rearranging the archive of previous sounds into new arrangements that may be either more or less respectful of the past. But often enough, the distance of the past performance to the present one is the point: the past is the past, and the present is the present. As Paul Gilroy put it in an early essay

these dense implosive combinations of diverse and dissimilar sounds amount to more than the technique they employ in their joyously artificial reconstruction of the instability of lived, profane racial identity. An aesthetic stress is laid upon the sheer social and cultural distance that formerly separated the diverse elements now dislocated into novel meanings by their provocative aural juxtaposition.

Understood as archivist, the producer/DJ makes the past speak in the present as the past. Its sonic disruptions are often jarring because of the raucous juxtapositions (e.g., The Bomb Squad), but the accent is on the modernity of the new configuration. The source material is marks as source or “raw material.” Take “Slaw Jamz.” The pleasure of Kanye West sampling Luther Vandross’ version of “A House is Not a Home,” instantly recognizable to people who grew up listening to urban black radio, is the recognition of a cherished moment from a familiar song, and the transformation of Luther’s ad lib “well well” into the adverb “I do it well well.” The point of this as archival practice is that one recognize the sample as familiar, and maintain the affective and other lines between the “baby making songs” of the past and the babies, now grown, who listen to them.

Dilla was an anarchivist, a category that would also include RZA and Madlib. He wasn’t above taking a familiar sample, say from The Beastie Boys, and putting it into such a lush, unfamiliar context that it becomes part of his signature sound. Most basically, I want to suggest he took an anarchist-inflected approach to sampling that at its most transgressive makes us pay attention to familiar voices (such as Teddy Pendergrass’ on “Airworks“) in new ways that make us think of TP as our contemporary. The anarchivist reminds us that we share a horizon of time with the archival object, and stresses that shared time rather than the generational or sonic distances between now and then. His decision to sample Afrobeat legend Tony Allen on Common’s “Heat” suggests another way of thinking the relationship between Africa and the diaspora as one of circulation and simultaneity rather than consigning Africa to a atemporal pastness.

To listen to his tracks often seems like the experience of hearing someone else listen to music. His knowledge of music was extensive, what what has always struck me is the way he shaped samples into his own sonic imaginary, picking up on quirks and oddities in a song or performance style and building new sonic texts around them. Black texts. The sample on “Little Brother,” of which Questlove tells the story, is a good example and illustrates his work ethic. The cultural, social and temporal distance Gilroy discusses condenses into something new, at least in my hearing, in part because of his anaformative, anarchivist impulse to approach the archive as a set of texts in and for the present, stripped of some of the hierarchies and strictures that otherwise govern black sounds. (Perhaps even in the relatively short length of his samples there is even a practice of evading the police and copyright attorneys.)

People have compared Dilla to John Coltrane. In terms of generational impact, that’s not as farfetched as it may seem. Both had legendary work ethics, and it’s hard to imagine their respective musical domains without them. But where Trane became a prophet figure because of his superhuman technique, religious seeking, and willful extension of the boundaries of musical form to figure a sound of black aspiration, Dilla’s sound is more often the mundane sound of quotidian life. Many of his peers and fans comment on the “precision” of his drums, especially his snare, which is almost always a hair behind the beat, creating the rhythmic suspense that makes many of us respond by nodding our heads to try to stay in the groove. You have to listen to him, and he keeps calling you back to the present.

His songs are usually not about black life in crisis. And that’s his brilliance. He didn’t usually draw on cultural nationalist tropes of blackness, and largely avoided the sun-soaked party-and-bullshit vibe of bikini-clad misogynist “fun,” boring confession, and trap rap visions of life as endless, soul-destroying grind and freedom to exploit your neighbor. Instead, Dilla offered the mid-tempo grooves of the ordinary present for the black urban majority–sometimes ugly, sometimes joyous, sometimes resistant to category. It’s as though he set out to make music that responded to that taunt “I ain’t got to do nothing but stay black and die” with “No, I want to stay black and live.”

Update: In a track called “The Main Inspiration (Coltrane of the Beats)” on Madlib’s tribute Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6: A Tribute To…, a digitized voice declares that “this is not only a tribute for all of our friends, it is also a tribute to the music that has kept us alive.” That’s the sense of ordinary time I was trying to draw out. The time of nothing in particular happening, the time of thinking, of keeping alive. the time of extended sociality or recovery, the time of self-care and maintenance. Given the proximity of black life to sudden, violent death, the ordinary time of black life is the unthinkable itself.

I want to rethink the comparison to Coltrane. In terms of generational impact, Dilla has had an influence comparable to Trane, but I think Bird, Clifford Brown, or Eric Dolphy may be better comparisons given his young death and relatively short time working and innovating. His distance from those other musicians, though, probably tells us more about generational differences than anything. Trane’s sound is the sound of something to live for; Dilla’s is more something to live with. I’ll leave it here.


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