A very active host of Detroit MCs and producers won't forget what they owe to J Dilla — if the recently departed hometown luminary isn't in their album credits, their productions bear his influence and his revered work ethic. In his contributions to hip-hop, Dilla perfected a soulful, hard-snare sound by laboring over the elements of a sampled source that most producers would have had considerable trouble polishing and eventually calling their own. A little more than a month after what would have been Dilla's 33rd birthday, his Ruff Draft will see formal release, and so will a couple more sonically rich Detroit-born works, among them an album by confident MC/producer Black Milk. J Dilla's influence on Black Milk's Popular Demand is part of an easily detectable tribute to Black's producer predecessors.
"Even though I'm a young cat," explains Black Milk, "I try to capture what people felt when they heard those albums. Whatever summer Beats, Rhymes and Life came out, whenever Soul Survivor came out, what people felt when they heard that music, I try to capture those feelings. I'm not trying to recreate what they did, but the feel of the music, with soul to it."
Like Dilla and Pete Rock, Black employs silky, stitched-up soul samples on Popular Demand, his debut for New York's Fat Beats label. A lazily driven recounting of summertime sex romps on Popular Demand's "Three + Sum" finds Black pushing a string loop prominently forward in the mix, while he keeps on top of frequent start/stop glitches in the beat; its dynamics, like a lot of the best elements of Black's album, resonate like DJ Premier's on Gang Starr's Daily Operation.
"I was blessed with an ear," says Black of the sample-hunting acumen that's found him inundated with production work. "It's a blessing, and people like what I do for a career."
Popular Demand's "Sound the Alarm" delivers a distinctive beating in snare snaps that clang against a droning bass melody, which lumbers upward beneath scratches and Black Milk's shout-along chorus. After Black bends syllables into his own bastardization on "Sound the Alarm's" first verse, Guilty Simpson drops in, spitting the same type of scorching, self-affirming jabs that he delivered last year on Dilla's posthumously released The Shining and on Dabrye's brilliant beat for "Special." Following a history of answering Detroit's guest-spot calls with considerable flair, Guilty's anticipated solo full-length will finally materialize later this year for West Coast powerhouse Stones Throw Records.
"When people start supporting those records like they should, then the integrity of the rap game will officially be back in effect," says Guilty of "Sound the Alarm." "I think the creative people should be the ones eating off rap music. The playing field is leveled, because the cookie-cutter rap ain't even necessarily guaranteed platinum now, so I think it's time for the real shit to resurface. I think it's well on its way, and Black is a big part of that."
Having also paid production dues as part of B.R. Gunna and on his Sound of the City LP, Black Milk will have a producer spot in Guilty's handpicked crop for his album, as will siblings Madlib and Oh No, and Mr. Porter (D12's Kon Artis). Guilty scooped up some beats from his friend Dilla for his record, too, and "Take Notice," a slinky, organ-rimmed creeper from Dilla's Ruff Draft on which Guilty guests, will also appear on his album. "Take Notice" is one of the bonuses that made it onto the now 2-CD Ruff Draft set (find the instrumentals on Disc 2); its prime mash of sinister keys and Guilty's stylish boasting land it miles from the watercolor blur of "Nothing Like This," Dilla's valiant, synth-looped venture into dreamy pop.
Back in 2003, Ruff Draft was an extraordinarily hard-to-find, German-distributed vinyl-only release. On what Dilla intended to be a car stereo—friendly cassette tape, his shouts to friends ("Shouts") and generally funked-out bangers ("Reckless Driving") pack searing synths and hard beats. At the time of inception, he was also applying this little-heard knocking breaks/chanted-chorus formula to the Jaylib album Champion Sound. That ripped-raw pairing of Dilla with Madlib houses a deliriously thuggish and psychedelic aura similar to that of Phat Kat's Carte Blanche, which features five of Dilla's beats.
Phat Kat's Carte Blanche matches the MC's dependably furious verses with crisp, bitter-cold backdrops courtesy of Dilla, Black Milk, Nick Speed and Young RJ. Aside from an occasional homophobic one-off, Phat Kat's vicious screed is aimed at faint-hearted contemporaries and the record industry that scorned him. On "Cold Steel" — an entry not as focused as the ax-edged rhymes and dry drum breaks of "My Old Label," but angry just the same — Dilla's rippling key drones suit some of the most malevolent rhymes he ever backed with beats. All of the Dilla/Phat Kat matchups on Carte Blanche make for just as truculent hip-hop, and with the producer's beats and atypical work ethic, it sounds as if an unsuccessful J Dilla collaboration would have been impossible.
"The funny thing is that whenever me and Dilla recorded, it was just the chemistry we had," says Phat Kat. "I didn't even have to hear the beat; he would call me and be like, ‘Yo, this is some Phat Kat shit right here.' He knew what kind of beats to make to complement my rhymes. We used to always say, ‘Every song's gotta be better than the last, or why do it?'"
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.