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10 Essential J Dilla Records

Story by: Aaron Marquez

Things move fast in hip-hop. A specific style or technique might be hot today, but it could be completely declassé in a month. The hypest producers of yesteryear, or even yesterweek, are often passed by. The names might be spoken, but it amounts to little more than lip service. Not J Dilla, though. More than a decade after he died from a rare blood disease, DJs, producers, rappers, and fans alike still marvel at his — as The New York Times called it — “meticulous but casual style.” You don’t even have to listen very closely to hear the manner in which his work continues shaping music to this day.

Many admirers talk about how quietly influential the Detroit native was, preferring a low-key approach that eschewed media attention. While Dilla might not have crafted a smash hit or appeared on magazine covers during his career, he had a list of credits that included heavyweights like De La SoulCommonA Tribe Called QuestThe Roots, and Talib Kweli. That’s not to mention his uncredited work with acts like Janet JacksonBusta Rhymes, and D’Angelo!

Yet Dilla, born James Yancey, eventually became most well known for his own off-kilter work like Welcome 2 Detroit and Donuts, which place virtuosity and idiosyncrasy on equal footing. The lush, sample-heavy grooves feature the ubiquitous up against the esoteric, creating an unmistakable sound that countless rubes and wannabes have tried — and failed — to replicate over the years.

With such a massive output between what he produced for himself and others, it can hard to sift through it all. We’ve done the legwork for you, compiling a list of 10 records featuring Jay Dee that you need to own. We could call them the 10 best J Dilla records, but that statement might start a war or two. So instead, we’ll dial it down a notch and say these are the 10 most essential J Dilla records for your collection.

Essential Records Featuring J Dilla

Labcabincalifornia - Pharcyde Album Cover

The Pharcyde ‎– Labcabincalifornia

With production and instrumentation credits on six of the 17 tracks, The Pharcyde’s sophomore album represents the first major release featuring Jay Dee. While maybe not as beloved as The Pharcyde’s debut, Bizarre Ride II The Pharcyde, this is still an essential for both Dilla and Pharcyde fans. Two of his most classic productions are included on the album’s lead single, Runnin’ (b/w Drop). Dilla’s involvement with Labcabin came at the suggestion of Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, who would play a major role in introducing Dilla to the world, as well as the development of his career.

Stakes Is High - De La Soul Album Cover

De La Soul ‎– Stakes Is High

This is the lead single and titular track from De La Soul’s fourth full-length. The chopped and filtered, three-bar loop taken from Ahmad Jamal‘s Swahililand from Jamal Plays Jamal is considered one of Dilla’s all-time great productions. In an interview on the popular Juan Epstein Hip-Hop podcast, De La reveal that they essentially had to trick Q-Tip into allowing them to secure the beat for themselves. If you’re not a fan of collecting singles, the full-length album is a must for fans of classic hip-hop, despite this being the only track contributed by Dilla.

Beats Rhymes And Life - A Tribe Called Quest Album Cover

A Tribe Called Quest ‎– Beats, Rhymes And Life

Hot on the heels of Stakes Is High came A Tribe Called Quest’s fourth album. Like Labcabincalifornia, Dilla played a major role on this release, receiving credits on a third of the tracks. While the album’s production was officially credited to The Ummah, if you read the fine print (written by credits), you can figure out exactly which tracks Dilla contributed to, including both of the album’s singles, 1nce Again and Stressed Out. On a related note, ATCQ’s The Love Movement deserves honorable mention status, with Jay Dee credited on about half the album, including the classic lead single Find A Way.

Like Water For Chocolate - Common Album Cover

Common ‎– Like Water For Chocolate

In the years between Beats, Rhymes And Life and Like Water For Chocolate, Jay would continue to provide production and remixes for other artists including Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson, both singularly credited and as part of The Ummah. The first officially released singles from his group Slum Village began popping up during this time period as well. With Common’s fourth album, largely produced as a collaborative effort by The Soulquarians, Jay is credited on almost three quarters of the album, including the classic lead single, The Light.

Fantastic Volume 2 - Slum Village Album Cover

Slum Village ‎– Fantastic, Vol. 2

Dropping a few months after Like Water For Chocolate, this is the polished version of SV’s Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1, which made its way around tape-trading circles in the late ’90s. With work from fellow group members T3 and the late BaatinVol. 2 includes updated versions of tracks from Vol. 1, as well as previously-unreleased tracks. Vol. 2 represents the first widely-released title featuring Jay Dee on the entirety of an album as the complete artist that he was: producer, rapper, and vocalist. Featuring Dilla classics like PlayersRaise It Up, and Fall In Love, this should be in every Dilla head’s collection — no excuses.

Welcome 2 Detroit - J Dilla Album Cover

Jay Dee aka J Dilla ‎– Welcome 2 Detroit

Dilla’s first solo album, the beginning of the transition from the name Jay Dee to J Dilla, and the first release in BBE’s The Beat Generation series. Entirely producing this one, as well as playing various instruments and rhyming on several of the tracks, Dilla really spread his wings here. In addition to the banging, yet soulful hip-hop he’d become known for, Welcome 2 Detroit includes a spectacular cover of Donald Byrd’s Think Twice, as well as excursions into techno, Latin, and African rhythms. It also features early appearances from many Detroit artists that went on to make names for themselves in hip-hop and soul, including DweleKarriem RigginsElzhi, and Frank-N-Dank.

Fuck The Police - Jay Dee Album Cover

Jay Dee ‎– Fuck The Police

A one-off 12-inch for Up Above Records, neither of the tracks on this release appeared on an album. With lyrics like “…they know you got drugs they know you got guns / And they know they be mad when they can’t find none” and “In the streets with the 5-O it’s a game of survival, Duke / Now tell me who protects me from you?,” Fuck The Police is the most politically-charged song in Dilla’s catalog, inspired by true-life personal run-ins with the law. If you don’t normally collect singles, you need to make an exception for this one.

Ruff Draft - Jay Dee Album Cover

Jay Dee ‎– Ruff Draft EP

This was originally self-released as a vinyl-only EP and distributed by Germany’s Groove Attack, with whom Slum Village had previously released a side project under the name J-88. Dilla explains the vibe on the album’s intro, “It’s the Ruff Draft EP, for my real _____s only, DJ’s that play that real live ____, you wanna bounce in your whip with that real live ____, sounds like it’s straight from the muthaf_____ cassette.” A year after Dilla’s passing, Stones Throw Records would release an expanded version including instrumentals. The original Mummy Records’ version is curiously edited for curse words at some points, while Stones Throw’s version presents most of the lyrics without the edits. With the combination of hearing the EP as originally released by Dilla and the bonus content provided on Stones Throw’s release, both versions of this recording are Dilla essentials, although the original will set you back some dough if you’re looking for a clean copy.

Champion Sound - Jaylib Album Cover

Jaylib ‎– Champion Sound

The announcement of a full-length collaboration album between Dilla and kindred producer/rapper/musician Madlib was an incredibly exciting prospect for fans of both. After hearing unsolicited Madlib remixes of some of his works, a connection was made and the dream team formed. Trading back and forth, rapping over each other’s beats, this project lived up to expectations and helped raise the profile of both. This album may have single-handedly birthed a trend of already established solo hip-hop artists collaborating on full-lengths. Aside from one of Madlib’s other albums (Madvillainy), not many of the subsequent collabs come close. Re-released and expanded on CD in 2007 and reissued on vinyl in 2009, it’s also worth seeking out an earlier pressing, if simply for the original version of The Red, which sadly now appears with an alternate beat, due to a sample clearance issue.

Donuts - J Dilla Album Cover

J Dilla ‎– Donuts

This is Dilla’s magnum opus, the widely-accepted gateway into his catalog, and unsurprisingly the most collected Dilla release on Discogs. Due to his failing health, Dilla’s output between Jaylib and Donuts had considerably lessened. This is the last project released in his lifetime, recorded and produced in his final days and released on his birthday (Feb. 7, 2006). He would pass just three days later. Completely instrumental with tracks seemingly not intended for rappers or singers, the myriad vocal samples employed help the album tell its own story if listened to closely enough. Donuts also inspired a whole generation of hip-hop and electronic producers to release instrumental “beat tape” projects, not to mention how it has informed the styles of hundreds — if not thousands — of professional and amateur beatmakers. Whether you’ve been along for the whole ride or are just now getting hip, whether you’re a devoted Dilla head or just a casual passerby, Donuts is an absolute must in your collection.

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