Behind the Beats: J Dilla & Madlib

Behind the Beats: J Dilla & Madlib

It’s well known that hip-hop producers J Dilla and Madlib were friends and collaborators, but it’s as important to remember that they were devout admirers of one another’s work. Madlib’s early debt to Dilla is clear — you can hear it in all those jerky rhythms and left-field jazz loops on early Lootpack albums — while Dilla went as far as to tell Questlove that Madlib was speaking to him by making music that only he could understand. They may have consummated this long-standing courtship on 2003’s superb collaborative album Champion Sound, recorded under the moniker Jaylib, but, in some ways, it felt that they were intertwined for much of their careers. They shared an approach, an aesthetic, and a common set of influences, and, in many ways, Dilla was right; there was a dialogue taking place between the two, a give-and-take that resulted in not only their best music, but some of the most innovative hip-hop of the past 20 years.

They reimagined not only how the genre sounded, but how it felt. They changed the rhythm, and, by embracing compositional pastiche and kitschy psychedelic, they crafted music that was deeply cerebral and personal. And while they both heavily sampled jazz and soul — the dominant source for the boom bap era producers who served as their shared stylistic avatars — their palette was more expansive and worldly, privileging obscurity over nostalgia, grainy textures over raw masculine presence.

You can hear echoes of their work in some of today’s most critically lauded and commercially successful music, from the space jazz symphonies of Flying Lotus to the pan-African milieu of Kendrick Lamar, the refactored soul of Frank Ocean or the jittery, jump-cut flow of Kanye’s Life of Pablo.

Using data provided to us by WhoSampled — the largest repository of crowdsourced sample data on the web — we’ll look at how what they sampled, and how they sampled it, reflected their similarities and differences, and also formed the backbone of one of music’s most interesting and robust conversations. As a note, for the charts below, we’ve excluded when the two producers have sampled hip-hop tracks, which tends to skew the data.


One glance at the above graph shows that there are more similarities than differences in the genres that Madlib and Dilla sampled — they both loved jazz and soul, from the ‘70s, in particular — but there were also clear points of divergence, most notably in the world, reggae, and spoken word genres. As where 19% of all Madlib samples came from those three genres, Dilla dipped into those genres more sparingly — they only accounted for about 3% of his sample source material. This makes sense for Madlib. He came from a scene of vinyl collectors who privileged obscurity. This obsession bled into Madlib’s work, and the listener occasionally gets the sense that the Oxnard, California, producer is working on a dare, self-consciously mashing together the most geographically and sonically disparate sounds to see what sticks.

Take the title track from the aforementioned Champion Sound album. The base for the track is the wired Bollywood psychedelia of Kalyanji Anandji’s “Dharmatma Theme Music (Sad),” and, on top of this, Madlib ingeniously weaves Fancy Black’s late-’80s dancehall obscurity “Stand Up and Fight.” Like Madlib’s best music during this period, the track was a car crash of ideas and ambition, and the resulting track is a rough diamond — singular in its beauty and incongruity. Dilla raps on the track, as he does on all the Madlib-produced tracks on that album, and, as where other rappers might be cowed by the track’s strangeness, he interjects the song’s stuttering rhythm, grainy textures and windy vocal samples with a shot of adrenaline, calling out “jeep niggas” to “keep it knocking” as he “busts” on strippers amidst a “hydro cloud.” It’s a telling interpretation of Madlib’s lo-fi global psychedelia.

On his own productions, Dilla generally stuck to soul, rock, and jazz; the three genres that have served as the backbone for hip-hop samples for almost three decades. Nearly 82% of Dilla’s samples came from these three genres, with over half of those coming from the soul genre alone. Especially in the beginning of his career, it wasn’t so much about what Dilla sampled, but how he interpreted the tracks. Much has been made of Dilla’s use of non-quantized drums, and rightfully so. It was seemingly a counter-intuitive move — quantizing drums matches the drum patterns from a sample with the drums that the producer overlays, and eliminates the possibility of the beat sounding like a train wreck.

It’s something that nearly all sample-based hip-hop producers before Dilla used, but, by forgoing this process, Dilla injected a looseness and humanity in his music. You can hear this in the beat for “Bye” from his 2005 masterpiece, Donuts (though the beat, in various forms, shows up in several tracks during the mid-’00s). The base sample is the Isley Brother’s “Don’t Say Goodnight,” from their 1980 album Don’t Go All the Way. It’s a typical mid-period Isley track, a baroque slab of quiet storm that oscillates between the melodramatic and the sublime. Dilla manages to tease out the latter quality by slicing the sample so that there’s a slight stutter in the rhythm and the vocals are chopped and refracted to give the track a dreamy, melancholic tone.

It’s also valuable to compare what the two were doing with hip-hop at large. Of the two producers, Dilla was the more traditional. Since 1990, soul, rock, and jazz have accounted for 80% of all samples in hip-hop, a number that virtually matches Dilla’s breakdown. But Dilla and Madlib were both much less likely to sample soul music. While it accounted for the 54% of all hip-hop samples over the past 25 years, it accounted for only 44% and 40% of Madlib and Dilla’s music, respectively.

Soul’s preferential status among hip-hop producers was particularly pronounced in the mid-‘90s, when both Dilla and Madlb got their start. Using the year filters on the right hand side of the graph, you can see how the samples have changed over the years. Throughout the 90s, soul music accounted for 67% of all hip-hop samples, a staggering figure that is nearly 7X larger than the next most popular genre, jazz. We explore some of the reasons for soul’s popularity in our previous piece on Kanye West and Tribe Called Quest, but jazz is an interesting genre to look at when considering the careers of Dilla and Madlib.

The persona of the jazzman, as much as the music itself, was central to both artists’ identities. When I interviewed Madlib in 2007, and asked him what it was like to work with Dilla, he compared it to the improvisational and democratic jam sessions between old jazz musicians. It wasn’t a surprising thing for the producer to say. Jazz represented 16% of his total samples, a large but not staggering number (over the course of his career, jazz accounted for 20% of Dilla’s samples), though that number is distorted as Madlib was in a jazz band, Yesterday’s New Quintet, and frequently played the jazz bits.

The number was particularly high in the first half of Madlib’s career. In 1999 and 2000, when he produced two seminal, early period albums — Lootpacks’ Da Anecdote and Quasimoto’s The Unseen – jazz accounted for 36% of his overall samples. At this time, Madlib drew overwhelmingly from one period of jazz. In total, 79% of all Madlib jazz samples in the years 1999 and 2000 came from the ‘70s. It was a period when most people felt that the genre was past its prime, but Madlib was drawn to that period’s pan-genre fusion and psychedelic flourishes, sampling Mandrill (“Green Power”), Ian Carr’s Nucleus (“Astro Travelling”) and Sun Ra (“Astro Black”).

It’s important to remember that Dilla preceded and in many ways influenced Madlib. As mentioned above, sampling jazz was hardly a unique phenomenon, but in Dilla’s first three years (’95 – ’97), over 61% of his samples came from that genre, and, similar to Madlib, most of his jazz samples (72%) from that period came from the ‘70s as well.

By the time the two began trading beat tapes in the early ’00s, their sound had begun to evolve. For Madlib, albums such as Madvillains’ Madvilliany from 2005 and the Quasimoto’s 2006’s album The Further Adventures of Lord Quas took the spirit of hip-hop and subjected it to the surrealistic logic of collage. It was a turn away from the warped boom bap of his early work and into something intensely interior and defiantly abstract.

For this period, the prominence of jazz samples significantly diminished. In 2004, it accounted for only 18% of his samples (compared to 34% in 2003 and 38% in 2002), while it barely clocked in at 14% in 2005. Part of this is due to the fact that Madlib had formed a jazz band — consisting of various alternate-egos for himself — and increasingly played his own bits on records. But the music had also moved past the sax licks and piano lines that nominally signified “jazz.” It was fuller and more idiosyncratic, full of spoken word (15% in 2004 and 2005) and soundtrack (10% in 2004 and 2005) samples.

The soundtrack samples added a textural element, and Madlib plucked everything from Street Fighter sound effects to R.D. Burman’s Hindu Hoon Main Na Musalman Hoon. The snippets of spoken word transformed the songs into Russian nesting dolls, with universes folded into codas or choruses; the kids of Disneyland’s “Acting Out the ABCs” crashing the smoke session of Madvillian’s “America’s Most Blunted,” or Iceberg Slim’s “The Fall” caustically inserting itself into Quasimoto’s “Life Is.” The music was cathartic in its mysteriousness — 5% of Madlib’s samples in 2005 were so outré that Whosampled simply classifies them as “other” — and endlessly addictive.

Dilla was also in a transitional stage, though for him this begun in 2003, the year that he had moved to Los Angeles and released his collaborative album with Madlib. The axis of jazz, rock, and soul still accounted for 75% of his samples, but rock became more prominent (comprising 33% of his samples, more than either soul or hip-hop), and, judging by the types of rock he sampled (the experimental prog of Soft Machine, Star Castle and Gentle Giant), Madlib’s penchant for the esoteric was rubbing off on him.

This influence extended beyond what Dilla sampled, and began to bleed into not only how he sampled the music, but his aesthetic goals for his work. As you can see from the above graph, Dilla focused almost entirely on soul in 2006 (it compromised 70% of all his samples that year), and this was almost entirely due to the release of Donuts. On first pass, many of hip-hop’s intelligentsia unfairly dismissed this as an officially released beat tape. It took Dilla’s death from lupus in February of that year, and an intense reevaluation of his later work, for the album to reveal itself as both a love letter to the music of his childhood and a farewell message to his fans.

Dilla died a little over a week after Donuts was released, but the conversation between the two continued. Madlb’s 2009 instrumental album, Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6: A Tribute to…, was a tribute to his friend. The tone is elegiac and tracks such as “The Main Inspiration” and “Dillalada Ride” sample from classic soul artists, and frequent Dilla sample sources, Shuggie Otis and Curtis Mayfield. For many, it marked the end of peak Madlib. Though there were later-period albums that ranged from very good (Strong Arm Steady’s Stoney Jackson) to almost great (his 2014 collaboration with Freddie Gibbs, Pinata), those works were largely stylistic retreads, and they lacked the startling innovation of his previous productions.

Still, Madlib remains one of hip-hop’s most idiosyncratic and prolific artists, and his catalog is among the most robust in the genre. In some horrible alternate universe where Dilla was never born, Madlib would’ve been a lesser artist, or at least a very different one, and hip-hop would be without two of its heroes.

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