Dilla Time

Dilla Time is a great book for music history enthusiasts. If you’re at all interested in hip-hop, music production, or sample culture, it’s a must-read. The references to lesser-known hip-hop are worth the time investment alone.

I saw a critique of the book saying it is a 200-page book hiding in 400 pages1. I think Dilla Time justifies its page count in a pleasingly clever way. The book overlays the biography of James Yancey with the innovations of J Dilla in much the same way. Chapters on Yancey and Dilla alternate, taking turns. A little bit about Yancey’s musical life, a little bit about his nonmusical life. Once I realized Dilla’s music was about overlaying ideas at odds and the book was about overlaying the man and the music, I was a little giddy and a lot jealous that I hadn’t thought of something like that.

The book is basically two story lines: a biography of James Yancey and the story of his musical innovations and influences as J Dilla. The latter is, in a nutshell, a great explanation of how Dilla programmed electronics (drum machines, samplers, etc.) to overlay musical patterns that had not gone together previously.

Let’s assume it’s safe to say that Stravinsky was the master of (riotously) dissonant harmonies. He put notes that should not go together right on top of each other! In the same way, we’d have to say that J Dilla was the master of wielding time in a way that was not previously accepted in musical rhythm. Stravinsky overlaid perfect fifths (good) and tritones (bad!). Dilla overlaid straight (classical) and swung rhythms (jazz) and even moved notes around the beat, to similar effect.

The tricky thing about listening to J Dilla, as a modern listener, is that it doesn’t sound as drastic as it did fifteen years ago. Similarly, Stravinsky doesn’t sound revolutionary to our ears, one hundred years on. They both “just” sound like how music is made these days. Dilla Time does an outstanding job putting his innovations in context and particularly visualizing how his musical constructs stood apart from what came before him.

Obviously, I enjoyed this book a lot. Check it out.

  1. To be fair, most books could stand to lose a third or more of their page count. ↩︎

Adam Keys @therealadam