I’ve had the idea for this post bouncing around in my head for a couple weeks now, and I last night I had a real good conversation with my good friend Arsenios about our mutual awe of Jaylib, so I figured now would be a good time to get this one out there since it features one of my favorite songs of theirs.
The idea first came to me when I first heard this MJG (of 8Ball & MJG fame) solo track that features one of the most lyrical bass drum parts I’ve ever heard, and the best part is that MJG raps right in time with it every time it gets to that signature pattern in the third bar of the phrase.
MJG – Good Damn Man
When I listen to that song, it completely captures my full attention because every time a new phrase starts, I’m just giddy with anticipation for when it gets to that third bar to see what words he’s going to fit into that rhythmic pattern this time! First it’s
Sent. three. tricks-up; to backwoods river.
Kick. the. shit-out; yo’ ass quite nicely.
And he just goes on and on, perfectly sculpting every turn of phrase to fit into that beautifully unusual but captivating kick drum. The only song I can think of that possibly surpasses that level of rhythmic matching is in this track during J Dilla’s verses.
Jaylib – McNasty Filth (feat. Frank-N-Dank)
In this song, Dilla is rapping in rhythmic unison with a much longer and more complex pattern: the extremely syncopated high hat part that Madlib no doubt tapped out by hand on the pads of his sampler when he composed this beat. Frank and Dank both rap in that in-your-face Detroit style they always do, which is no complaint, but Dilla really takes it to the next level when it’s his turn, making it probably the most technically impressive feat of rapping of his entire career. I find myself waiting with the same anticipation I had for every third bar of “Good Damn Man” for the next time Dilla’s verse comes around.
Frank Dank Dilla, chasin’ paper, blazin up in this bitch to raise up the stakes a little
bit and shut. shit. down.
And so forth. It’s a shame that the musicality of these examples is probably completely ignored by most of the people that would appreciate it just because of the content of the lyrics. I won’t go into another tirade about policing “explicit” language in our music or the stereotypes put on black musicians in our culture, but I do feel like there are a lot of people who would sit in awe of a guitar solo or orchestra performance that wouldn’t give a moment’s time to hearing these MJG or Jaylib songs with any kind of respect or appreciation.
This song brings up another point with respect to J Dilla and how he is perceived today that I’d like to touch on for just a moment. A lot of what I love about this song is what I love about J Dilla in general, and I think it’s something about him that gets glossed over a lot. Dilla’s legacy, like so many hip hop artists of his time, rarely exists outside the shadow cast by his untimely death. In our culture, when people die, especially when people die young, there’s this feeling that is pumped through us that persuades us to imagine this lost person in a kind of slow motion montage with clouds floating by and rays of light shining around them with wind sounds and distant harps strumming in the background. It’s an understandable feeling, we feel the loss of a valuable person, the fear of our own mortality, and possibly the feeling that maybe we didn’t value these people enough when they were around, and as a result this reverence culture forms around their legacy and those bright, sunshiny moments of their life and career become amplified while the less innocent traits they have are downplayed. I’m not trying to say anyone is dumb for feeling this way and doing this, and in many ways I do the same thing with people like Dilla, and he has a lot of sweet, heartfelt, honest music that really tugs on your heart, especially when you know he made it in his hospital bed while dying of Lupus.
But to only remember these moments of his career would be doing him a disservice because one of the greatest things about him was his ability to balance the light and the dark sides of the world in his music. He wasn’t a new age artist, he was a rap artist, and in the midst of all the “J Dilla Changed My Life” (and he did) prostrating we forget that he rapped about jewelry, money, drugs, cars, promiscuity, violence, and everything else that the textbook J Dilla fan would say is “wrong with hip-hop today”. I’m glad people appreciate Dilla’s legacy and are making his music more well known, but I wish we had a more balanced view of it. We shouldn’t forget those times when he shot videos in strip clubs, or spit lines like “It’s plain to see you can’t change me cuz I’mma be this nigga wit ice”. He wasn’t an angel, and just because he’s dead now doesn’t mean we have to see him as one now. He wasn’t amazing because he abstained from talking about anything negative or taboo, he was amazing because he could talk about those things with the kind of honesty and virtuosity that makes any speaker of words compelling.