J. Dilla’s last interview. Originally published in the May/June 2006 issue of Scratch magazine. RIP James “J. Dilla” Yancey.
J. Dilla: Still Lives Through (Scratch Magazine May/June 2006)
Scratch: You’re living out West now. What made you choose to live in L.A. over Miami or NYC?
J. Dilla: I thought about New York, but in New York the studio would get crowded with a lot of people. In L.A., you look outside it’s like palm trees, suneshine, and you know, a totally different feel working.
Scratch: Do you still keep a crib in Detroit?
J. Dilla: Yeah, I still got the crib and actually all my equipment is out there. I’m looking for a crib now so I can ship my equipment out here.
Scratch: I’m assuming you got some equipment out in L.A. right?
J. Dilla: I got the basics. An MPC, a couple of turntables, and that’s really it.
Scratch: What equipment did you start with?
J. Dilla: I started with the SP-12 then moved to the SP-1200. Then shortly after thatt the MPC 60, then MPC60 mkII, then the MPC3000, and I’ve been on the MPC3000 ever since then. I’ve tried other samplers but the 3000 is the best for me for what I like do.
Scratch: What about it specifically?
J. Dilla: It’s just easier for me to program and I like the node offs and mono pads. I can just do more with it I guess ’cause I know it better.
Scratch: As far as your records, are you a big digger?
J. Dilla: Yeah, man. I’m a record shopping fanatic. I already got a nice stash here and I got a warehouse full of records in Detroit – it’s ridiculous. I lost a lot of records, too. Having them in that storage locker, [my] records was getting damp, and to go back periodically and check on them is kind of hard.
Scratch: So how old were you when you started making beats?
J. Dilla: I started making beats when “Big Mouth” came out, whatever year that was. [Ed. Note: 1985]
Scratch: The Whodini joint?
J. Dilla: Yeah, ’cause I was DJing before that but… umm, that song actually made me want to get into the production side and I started messing around. Then people would go to studios, Metroplex Studios, that was in Detroit. We were, like, the first Hip Hop cats to come in there. It was a little different for them.
Scratch: When you say “we” do you mean Slum Village?
J. Dilla: Nah, this was actually me and a partner of mine that went to school with me named Chuck. He was actually the MC and I provided the beats.
Scratch: How far were you into DJing? Were you in the crib or rocking parties?
J. Dilla: I was doing parties and then typical, making beats on the pause and record thing like a lot of cats were doing.
Scratch: Besides the DJing, did you know what kind of equipment you needed to start producing?
J. Dilla: Nah, I ain’t know nothing man. Fortunately I ran into this cat just walking in the street, literally. This guy named Amp Fiddler. He actually came out in the street and seen me, YG, and a couple of other cats, we were just walking. Yeah, this guy named Larry and a couple of other cats that just went to high school with us. He just called us out and from that first day he actually showed all of us how a studio works and things like that.
Scratch: He lived in your neighborhood?
J. Dilla: Yeah, a few blocks away from me literally.
Scratch: I know him as an R&B dude. Was he into Hip Hop back then?
J. Dilla: Right, right. Nah, he actually sound like Domino. Remember the cat Domino that was singing and rapping a little bit? He was doing that before I even heard Domino. Before a lot of cats. he was signed to Elektra Records and he would show me the records that never came out. He was kind of, like, teaching us about how the industry is a little bit. You gotta kinda watch what you do and look at all the paperwork when you signing. We actually got caught up in a lot of crazy deals.
Scratch: Did you have somebody holding your hand like, “This is how you freak the MP…?”
J. Dilla: Actually, what Amp did, he’d play some stuff out the MP but he was like, “I’m not going to show you how to work it. You gotta learn on your own.” He was like, “Don’t use a book.” Ever since this day I never read the books to samplers and all of that, I just try to learn them. Except this last drum machine, this Korg drum machine I bought. It was, like, too complicated. I had to read that shit. A lot of people say, “Oh, Amp taught you how to work the MP.” No, not really.
Scratch: You’ve always been ill at chopping samples. Was it because of the equipment you were using?
J. Dilla: You know what? It had a lot to do with the time I had in the sampler. You could only sample this much and that’s how it started. I used to listen to records and actually, I wouldn’t say look for mistakes, but when I heard mistakes in records it was exciting for me. Like, “Damn, the drummer missed the beat in that shit. The guitar went off key for a second.” I try to do that in my music a little bit, try to have that live feel a little bit to it.
Scratch: Oh, you mean when’ your listening to…
J. Dilla: An old, like, Jack McDuff record.
Scratch: Something that’s done live?
J. Dilla: Mmmhmm.
Scratch: How does a Jay Dee track come together?
J. Dilla: I can say lately, I usually don’t say this, but lately it starts with samples because I’ve been really getting into records. I been buying a lot of 45s and try to get a groove off of [them] ’cause it’s like they only press singles. Trying to get a break off that, you gotta really be hunting for that shit. What I’ll do is I’ll look for a groove or something to start it off with, but then I try to build around it. I try to make something out of it.
Scratch: I’m at a disadvantage because I haven’t heard Donuts yet, but how long had that been in the works?
J. Dilla: Actually, I’d say in the last maybe year to the last couple of months. It’s just a compilation of the stuff I thought was a little too much for the MCs. That’s basically what it is, ya know? Me flipping records that people really don’t know how to rap on but they want to rap on. There’s a bunch of that.
Scratch: Since you mentioned that, let’s discuss Like Water for Chocolate. Your stamp was all over that and it was well received. Then you have Electric Circus. The beats were different, but the media, and Common himself, said it was too different. Did that ever both you?
J. Dilla: Ya know, it doesn’t bother me because what people don’t understand is, like, when I.. my myself, when I go in the studio, I just try to give the artist what they want. With Like Water for Chocolate, we were both looking toward the direction of where he started or what would have been rugged Hip Hop at that time. Then with Electric Circus, he wanted to do something totally different. I would bring him a batch of beats, and he’d just be sitting there, then as soon as I make something crazy as hell, up-tempo, he’d be like, “yeah, let’s use that one.” I don’t want people to think this is all I’m giving him. I gotta give him what he want. It’s kind of heard to read those reviews knowing that they don’t understand that shit.
Scratch: That was Common. Did you use that same approach with a Erykah Badu or D’Angelo?
J. Dilla: I try to give them… it’s a little different in that case. Like, Badu, she’s a very, like, very demanding type of, ya’ know, R&B diva. She actually wanted to come in, help pick the sample, feel a brother out. “Maybe you should freak this, freak this.” It’s a little different with her than a D’Angelo or a Busta Rhymes would would take it as is. They just take it right off the beat tape. It’s a big difference.
Scratch: Is that tougher in the case of someone like Badu?
J Dilla: Yeah, it just kind of puts you on the spot like, “Damn, I’m really working right now. It shouldn’t be this hard.” We sitting in the studio for a day and half and can’t come up with one solid joint. Where as a Busta or D’Angelo, they already got their joints picked.
Scratch: What do your parents think about your music?
J. Dilla: At first it was straight devil music [laughs]. Pops wanted to throw my equipment out in the streets. I went through that whole thing a lot of cats either go through or went through. They eased up over the years, but once it started to pay off, not just financially but how I felt about things, they really eased up. There’s cussing and things like that I know I don’t want them to hear, but they appreciate it.
Interview by Alvin Blanco