It’s common knowledge amongst music lovers that J Dilla was a groundbreaking hip-hop producer. It’s less common knowledge, however, that even he was listening to all kinds of Indiana music.
Born James Dewitt Yancey, the Detroit producer and rapper worked with a slew of notable artists over the course of his career, from A Tribe Called Quest to Erykah Badu, before unfortunately passing away just days after the release of his iconic Donuts album in 2006. An avid music listener, Dilla was known for his masterful sampling, often finding the obscure pieces of audio to use in the context of a track.
Of all the avid music listeners in Indianapolis, Kyle Long seemed someone who would specifically be able to weigh in on Dilla’s sampling of Indiana records. Long told me his favorite example appears in a very obscure track from J Dilla’s discography called “U and Ur Smile.” Here, the producer samples a song titled “Invitation” by The Four Freshmen, a harmony group that formed at Butler University in the late 1940s and later influenced one Brian Wilson.
“[The Four Freshmen] are kind of forgotten now, and considered kind of corny or cheesy,” says Long, who has collected several of The Four Freshmen’s records over the years. “So, as a DJ and hip-hop fan, I would never have thought, ‘Oh, this is sample material.’ But, I think this speaks to him having an appreciation for music completely outside the genres of hip-hop and soul.”
Like a lot of other producers, Dilla certainly sampled from some of Indiana’s bigger names, Long admits, citing The Jackson 5 as a primary example. On the flip side, however, he was also exploring sounds from the state that only a true music lover would know about. Another example of this comes in a track he produced called “Somethin’ That Means Somethin’,” which appears on the Pharcyde’s second album, Labcabincalifornia. In this track, Dilla samples an obscure live version of legendary Indy jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s song “Red Clay.”
“You wouldn’t pick this record up for beats,” Long says. “It’s a record that Freddie Hubbard fans would listen to just because they love his playing and his music. So again, that just points to him listening to everything and having this completely open approach to hearing and evaluating music.”
While Indiana musicians made their mark on J Dilla, it also goes without saying that Dilla’s music made a mark on Indiana musicians as well. With this in mind, local promotion company Old Soul Entertainment will present another J Dilla tribute, moving from last year's Jazz Kitchen location to the Hi-Fi. Friday's show will feature appearances from several local emcees, including Ace One, Tony Styxx, Rehema McNeil, New Wave Collective, Maxie and more. All of these artists will be rapping over J Dilla tracks, which will be played by a live band of local jazz wizards. DJ Metrognome will man the decks.
Since Dilla’s death in 2006, Old Soul Entertainment has made a point of honoring the legendary producer, according to company co-founder Doug Morris. In fact, they’ve even had artists who were close to Dilla come and perform at their shows over the years, including Black Milk, Frank Nitt (of Frank-N-Dank), and Dilla’s brother Illa J. Over the years, Morris has enjoyed seeing more and more new faces come to his events, in turn knowing that more and more ears are being exposed to Dilla’s music.
“It continues to move his legacy forward,” says Morris, who began paying attention to Dilla after hearing Common’s One Day It’ll All Make Sense. “What tends to happen is once you start naming the artists, like Erykah Badu, Common and The Roots, they’re like, ‘What? He produced that stuff? I love that stuff.”
This year, Sean Stuart of Bringing Down The Band and Jay Brookinz of the Jay Brookinz Battle League will coordinate a sample flip contest as part of the event. For the competition, local producers were asked to make their own original track sampling a song that Dilla also sampled. Stuart says, “It’s not really a battle. It’s more just kind of like a showcase, and then we’re going to put a compilation together.”Brookinz says Dilla’s work has impacted him greatly over the years and he's excited to have a hand in this event honoring his hero.
“He’s a father for a lot of us,” Brookinz says. “The guy fathered a lot of people’s styles and grew the culture in his own way. I can’t say enough awesome things about the guy.”