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"The obscure J Dilla beat tape that changed music forever (swipe)"


The Obscure J Dilla Beat Tape That Changed Music Forever

Long before Donuts, a passed-around cassette made the Detroit producer a key influence on the sound of hip-hop and soul. The author of the celebrated Dilla Time takes us inside the making of this legendary tape.

By Dan Charnas

February 9, 2023
When fans and critics attempt to induct the uninitiated into the wonders of J Dilla, the beat producer who died 17 years ago this week, the commonly recommended collection is 2006’s Donuts. It is, by far, his most famous album, in part because it’s his epitaph, finished while he languished in a Los Angeles hospital bed and released three days before his death. The 31 clipped instrumentals carry no vocals save for the ones Dilla extracted and manipulated from his copious sample sources; this lent a posthumous air of prophecy to the project and led listeners to extract messages from the sonic mayhem. Donuts was influential in its jagged approach to sampling, bringing fracture to the fore of hip-hop and spurring the careers of beatmakers like Flying Lotus and Knxwledge.

But as great as Donuts is, there is a more obscure piece of collected work that best illuminates the ongoing influence of James Dewitt Yancey: a humble beat tape created eight years prior, when he was still going by the name Jay Dee. Unlike Donuts, which also began as a beat CD, this collection was never officially released—and likely never will be. A number of the tracks were sold as beats for other artists’ songs years ago, and most contain samples that have not been cleared. You can find parts of it here and there on streaming services, but your best bet is this 32-track version on YouTube. The cassette was circulated by Jay himself in different iterations in the late ’90s, with different sequences and some different beats, and subsequently passed around the music industry via second- and third-generation dubs. It did not even have a name. Dilla-heads assigned it a title after the fact, taken from the spoken introduction: “Another batch from the one they call Jay Dee.”

“Batches” were what Jay called his musical dispatches—the primary way he communicated musically from his Detroit basement to the outside world. Another Batch is the crucial turning point, not only in Dilla’s evolution but in that of popular music itself, because Another Batch marks the true birth of “Dilla Time,” the rhythmic time-feel that became his ultimate signature and his most enduring legacy.

I got my copy from Raphael Saadiq’s manager Ruth Carson sometime in 1999, while I was executive producing an album for the rap artist Chino XL. Carson was shopping beats on behalf of Jay Dee, whom many of us in the hip-hop business had come to revere for his tracks with De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, and Busta Rhymes, and I was amped to preview his latest material. But I had a bizarre physiological reaction to Another Batch—one especially surprising for hip-hop. I fell into a kind of woozy, meditative state. Beyond the hiss and flutter of the tape, there was something innately ethereal about the tracks themselves, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on yet.

At the time he began circulating Another Batch, Jay was already three years into a successful career. From the very beginning of that run, he had been messing around with timing in his beats, mostly by programming them into an E-mu SP-1200 drum machine freehand, without quantization, the function that snaps errant notes onto a rigid timing grid. He made many of his first songs in this way, on this machine, like the Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” and “Stakes Is High” by De La Soul.

But sometime in 1997—and this is really important—James switched machines. The Akai MPC, designed by the maestro of sampling and sequencing, Roger Linn, had a number of advanced rhythmic features. “Shift Timing” allowed users to nudge individual notes forward or backward in time, revolutionary for its time. It also had Linn’s groundbreaking “swing” function, one that the SP and other machines had copied, which could make the spaces in between notes uneven. But the MPC gave users more control: every sonic element could be swung at a different rate, rather than all the sounds at the same rate. Not even Linn realized the implications of his decision to allow this freedom. Perhaps that’s why no beatmaker in the 10 years between the MPC’s debut in 1988 and the release of Another Batch had employed these functions to displace sounds with severity, causing deliberate, ongoing micro-rhythmic conflict, until Jay Dee began using (or rather, misusing) them. The effect was the rhythmic equivalent of “The Princess and The Pea”—tiny shifts that had profound effects, continually tricking the inner ear. No wonder I was dizzy upon first listen.

After hearing Another Batch, I flew to Detroit with Chino XL to meet Jay. We descended into his subterranean studio to find Common there, crafting the album that would become Like Water for Chocolate. Jay was quiet, and Chino and I tried to entertain him over dinner with stories of our years working with Rick Rubin, and how we got ourselves thrown out of Canada the previous night. It was a brief sojourn, and Chino ultimately walked away with two beats selected from the 60 tracks on our version of the tape, which became the songs “Don’t Say A Word” and “How It Goes” on his 2001 album, I Told You So.

Diehard Dilla fans might recognize two of the other tracks on Another Batch as the beginnings of “Microphone Master” and “Don’t Nobody Care About Us” by Detroit MC Phat Kat. There’s one that became an interstitial at the end of the album version of Common’s 2000 hit “The Light,” as well as an early version of the song “E=MC2” that Common rocked on Dilla’s posthumous album, The Shining. There’s also a track that made it onto an advance of Voodoo that D’Angelo never quite finished in time for his album’s release in 2000.

Much of the best stuff on Another Batch never saw the light of day. Take one track that fans online have labeled “The Wind,” and his friends sometimes call “Where is Jay?” owing to the wispy, inscrutable vocal sample that blows in and out of earshot. For the music bed, Dilla sampled several seconds of quiet piano from “Frevo” by the Brazilian jazz composer Egberto Gismonti. Then he slowed the sample down. As it became slower, it became murkier. Dilla added synth strings, which hold a high, hopeful note, contrasting the otherwise somber mood. And the rhythm track: Kick drum knocking, snare drum cracking, and a resonant, dancing bass line that essentially reharmonized the piano—taking a couple of chords buried within an existing composition and turning them into a new progression. Years later, jazz musicians like Robert Glasper would herald this skill of Dilla’s as an enviable kind of composition and improvisation. Most importantly, the drums on this track bore a new rhythmic subterfuge, courtesy of the MPC: Dilla had shifted the snare drum, in his parlance, a “baby hair” earlier than where one would expect it to fall. As a result, the whole track—as would so many others on *Another Batch—*acquired this disorienting, limping quality.

Another Batch marks the consummation of the composer’s three timing techniques: decelerating samples to reveal human error, playing freehand to add randomness, and the crowning tactic, displacing sounds using the timing functions of the machine. And yet Dilla uses his formulas in ways that feel unformulaic: “The Wind,” its melancholy tempered by an optimistic harmonic lift at the end of each phrase. The buoyant “La La La,” based around a synth keyboard crescendo, with a bit of vocal accompaniment from the producer himself. A spirit-raising, eardrum-splitting beat sometimes called “Real Fine” or “Friend of Mine,” in which Dilla performs surgery on the 1980 record “Speak Your Mind” by Kevin Moore (aka Keb’ Mo’ before he was Keb’ Mo’). In Another Batch, beatitude lives inside tough, rhythmic exoskeletons; or maybe it’s the opposite, each beat a firmament inside a cloud.

Dilla’s sound sources are plentiful and counterintuitive: Cal Tjader, Tangerine Dream, Phillip Glass, Joe Pass, Daryl Hall & John Oates. Given Dilla’s well-noted habits as a deep, patient listener, it’s conceivable that he listened to every moment of every song on Hall & Oates’ Rock 'n Soul Part 1, right up until the end of the very last one, a recording of their song “Wait for Me” performed live at the Montreal Forum in 1983. After four minutes, the song is basically over, and it’s just Darryl Hall ad-libbing chords on his electric piano, singing the words “It’s fair” over and over. But it is this moment that rivets Dilla’s attention. At precisely four minutes and 44 seconds, Hall plays a four-chord figure—moving from gloom into light, one-two-three-FOUR!—and lets that last chord ring out over the screams and cheers from the audience. In his sample, Dilla slices the end off of Hall’s incantation; it isn’t fair, after all. This becomes the harmonic and textural bed for a stuttering beat, made all the more robotic and angular by the hard reflections of the concert hall and the digital clipping of Hall’s vocal.

The Roots called the untitled track “Hall & Oates” when they attempted to recreate its lopsided gait and inscrutable sonics on their 2010 mixtape, Dilla Joints. And Dilla Joints inspired a singer-songwriter named Jon Bellion to attempt his own live recreation of the beat on national television when he and his band appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show in 2016. “Rest in peace, J Dilla,” Bellion said as he performed a Dilla beat with no name, from a collection with no name.

J Dilla’s influence rings through the decades after his death. But the reason it does is largely because of this little beat tape. It’s this tape that makes its way to Electric Lady Studios, which—along with tracks Jay made concurrently for his group Slum Village—moves D’Angelo to renegotiate musical time with musicians like Questlove, Pino Palladino, Charlie Hunter, and Raphael Saadiq in making Voodoo. It’s this tape that spills over into Common’s Like Water for Chocolate. It’s this tape that makes its way to a studio in Philadelphia where acts like Jill Scott and Floetry and Musiq Soulchild were creating and extending neo-soul, Dilla’s rushed snare becoming their own rhythmic totem.

The sounds, signatures, and techniques that actually made Dilla influential all coalesced on Another Batch: the deployment of soft, round timbres from Fender Rhodes keyboards and vibraphones; the use of common-tone to provide a sunny lifeline in all the melancholy; the samples of indecipherable, tense vocal harmonies; the extraction of obscure, perfect guitar and piano riffs from larger compositions; the bass lines reframing the chords; the swung high hats. And those cracking, microscopically misaligned snares, which would soon surface everywhere in popular music, where they remain even today, throwing us off balance.


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Feb 24th 2023
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Feb 24th 2023

Member since Nov 19th 2009
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Fri Feb-24-23 05:06 AM

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1. "man~"
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I could read this stuff all day.


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Member since Oct 30th 2003
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Fri Feb-24-23 04:21 PM

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Fri Feb-24-23 04:35 PM by jaymack



So any beats pre 97, were SP1200. Cool to know. Confirms that 94 Batch is definitely SP beats.


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