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He is the utmost respected producer of all time . His esteemed colleagues and friends marvel him and, Andre Rommelle Young, Steroidal God King Of The Californian Realm, is the greatest hip hop producer of all time (forever and always) and it’s not even that close.
Consider this: No man, woman or child has done more for popular American music since the 1980s than Dr. Dre. There are few artists who have as deep as discography as Dre and a few who can claim they innovated a new style or technique, but Dr. Dre on no less than three occasions radically changed the course of hip hop forever. It is an accomplishment unmatched by anyone.
We know the stories. We know he’s the chief sonic architect behind the rage of N.W.A, hip hop’s most important group. We know a few years later, he transformed hip hop into a dominant, commercial juggernaut with the release of The Chronic and the formation of Death Row Records, music’s most successful independent rap label of all-time. We know that he formed Aftermath Records a few years after that and the momentum of his second release, 2001, shifted the sound and technique that is still being followed on commercial radio to this day.
But what ultimately makes Dre the greatest is the legion of his musical children that he unleashed on the world. Dre gave birth to Ice Cube, Eazy E, The D.O.C., Above The Law, Snoop Doggy Dogg, The Dogg Pound, Warren G, Nate Dogg, Lady Of Rage, RBX, Eminem, 50 Cent and The Game. When you factor in his musical grandchildren, everybody from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to Tony Yayo, you are left with a staggering career that dwarfs everybody. It’s a towering empire built on George Clinton.
There are producers with more hits than the RZA. There are those with more longevity and superior versatility. Still others have had a more direct and enduring influence. But none was greater. The Abbot is the only man in history to transmute hip hop into a different substance. Wu Tang. A worldview and sound with its own phonetics, semiotics, slang. Rappers had written crime narratives, but Robert Diggs turned them into obscene cinema. Art films for the bloody and blunted.
Suddenly, rap was interwoven with myth—samples sounded beautiful but scarred. Al Green, William Bell, the Stax and Motown catalogues. The RZA built his style amidst the slums of Shaolin, stuffing 20-something years of static into an SP-1200, amidst a constantly flooding basement studio. Hence, the sound of shaky foundations and un-insulated winters. Movie clips hissing about decapitating shoguns. John Woo and Cash Rules. RZA, the street scholar, mixing the medicine off the shelf, distilling both past and future. Wu Tang. The spawn of the stresses of 90s New York, extreme hunger, dust and trees.
There is no one “best” producer. Anyone in the top 20 could be justifiably argued for #1. Rza was the grandmaster with the third eye vision, surrounded by ivory pillars. He supplied the vernacular and the soundtrack. Kanye West, Madlib, Just Blaze, Alchemist. All pay homage. He arranged voices like instruments in an orchestra, often slathered in static and husk. He evolved from menacing minimalism to epic grandeur. As big as Wu-Tang got, they somehow stayed underground. That might never happen again. RZA invented his own system. We learned it. That’s why we didn’t need to go to summer school.
“He was a human being. And by putting this kind of heroic, saintly quality to him, you’re taking away the struggle of being a human being.” – Mary Tillman
On February 10, 2006, three days after his 32nd birthday and the release of his masterpiece, Donuts, J Dilla passed away at his home in Los Angeles.
Those who appreciated him in life honored his memory with T-shirts, freestyles, tribute concerts and beat compilations. Others felt compelled to interpret his music with a 40-piece orchestra, or offer his ghost an executive producer credit following a séance. People grieve in different ways.
Still for many, the story of J Dilla and their relationship with his music began the day he died. Though respected and admired in life, in the years since his death, accounts from those who knew him best describe a gracious and thoughtful friend who conducted himself with dignity and grace: a curious artist driven by fearless imagination, operating at the highest level of integrity where creative expression was its own end and needed no further validation.
But hyperbole is unseemly and mythologizing undignified. And unnecessary. We do a disservice to deify the dead, to confuse and conflate the message with the messenger and allow their death to influence our experience of their music. Even in death, all that really matters is the music. The music is more than enough.
And the music. Whether it was his early work with Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and The Pharcyde, his organic neo-soul or his frenzied 21st century sample-collages, each of his instrumentals revealed a preternatural sense of groove that pushed the boundaries of what hip-hop could be. Rare was the rapper who could enhance a Dilla beat. What if you didn’t even need one? Anything could be sampled into anything else. Stereolab could be Busta Rhymes. A snare could be sped up into a high-hat. The possibilities were endless and even in death they still are. His music was alive.
At its best, Dilla’s music can confirm everything you believe about the goodness of hip-hop, but he’s one of the greatest producers of all time because of the music he made, not because he was the one who made it. He wasn’t a God. He was one of us. That makes it all the more meaningful.