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Review of DILLA TIME
How this Detroit producer changed hip-hop
I’m a big fan of hip-hop and rap – it’s my most listened to genre of music. But admittedly, I’ve only recently began learning about the history of hip-hop. When I started listening to hip-hop as a kid in the late 90s, the industry was already well established having gone mainstream the decade before.
But the 90s still saw a fundamental change in how beats were made. And that change came from one man who changed the game forever: James Dewitt Yancey. In Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm, Dan Charnas shares not only the story of J Dilla, but the history of music and his place within in.
James Yancey – first known as Jay Dee, then J Dilla – was a Detroit native with an exceptional ability to find samples, break down beats, warp time, and create unique beats that no one else in the industry thought to even try and do. And he did it with ease, speed, and accuracy. He grew up loving music, made it into a career in a city in decline, and had a lasting legacy on hip-hop.
Unfortunately for J Dilla, his life was cut short in 2006 at the age of 32 due to a rare blood disease that, at the time, no one knew how to effectively treat. It’s likely that if he were diagnosed today with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, he would have lived a relatively longer life. But his legacy lives on. And, after his passing, he managed to achieve a level of fame he never got while alive, with his home city of Detroit finally embracing him for the creative genius he was.
The book takes a unique approach for a biography, in part because the author is a professor of music. Ten of the chapters follow J DIlla’s life in the form of a traditional biography, covering his time from when he was a kid through his death and his afterlife fame. But the other 6 chapters interspersed throughout his bolograph tell the history of music so you can situate J Dilla’s innovations within the context of music evolution.
These music chapters cover the basics of music time – the thing that J Dilla manipulated – starting with straight and swing time, moving to machine time in the 1980’s when techno emerged in Detroit, then to innovations in machines to allow for sampling records more efficiently, through what is now known as Dilla Time – James Yancey’s primary legacy – through technological innovations allowing Dilla to warp time. J Dilla’s main innovation was breaking away from the repeatable consistency that had underpinned music forever. He created his own time, breaking down music into hyper-small components and putting the drums and samples in spaces that felt “rushed” or “off.” It created a whole new sound in hip-hop. By 2002 his ideas were everywhere. Dilla time had become so mainstream that everyone was doing it.
Dilla Time is an excellent book. I learned a ton about music theory and the evolution of sound over the 20th century, but also about the role of James Yancey in Detroit music history and the hip-hop industry more broadly. It’s a fascinating book that music lovers of all types will love.
Published: February 2022
If you think this sounds interesting, bookmark these other great reads:
Maverick: A Biography of Thomas Sowell by Jason Riley (2021)
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson (2011
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