A little more than three years ago, I visited the West Ashley home of Alex Rosen, owner of Rosen Litigation Technology Consulting. Alex's Broad Street-based company provides a litany of graphic and technology services for lawyers from all over the country. But there's more to Rosen than business, like his love of hip-hop.
That night, Rosen was still in "work mode" as he prepared to give me a full presentation. And while we talked about the legal biz, that wasn't why I visited Chez Rosen. I wasn't there to talk about litigation support but rather to feed my appetite for a different kind of knowledge: hip-hop. It was our shared passion for the music that brought us together.
At the time, Alex's side-gig involved being one-half of the dynamic DJ duo, the Space Invaders, and I would try to catch them spin whenever I could. We quickly became friends and one night, Alex invited me to his home so we could listen to vinyl records and drink oatmeal breakfast stout. It was then that I was formally introduced to the music of Detroit's own James Dewitt Yancey, better known in the hip-hop community by his stage name J. Dilla, a.k.a. Jay Dee Day.
Rosen tried to pass on to me his passion for the deceased produce, but for whatever reason, I just wasn't catching the wave. I didn't hate the music, and it wasn't like I couldn't understand why he would be a fan — it's just that for the life of me, I couldn't understand where the deep fandom came from. I mean there's liking someone and then there's liking someone.
In a more recent conversation with Rosen, he admitted that it was my visit — and the subsequent visit of others — that made him pursue the creation of his tribute show, Dillamental, a live instrumental celebration of the life and music of J. Dilla. He wanted to show folks rather than explain to them why J. Dilla is worthy of praise.
"I thought about that a lot, how we were both fans of hip-hop and the culture but because of our age, we just missed that connection," Rosen says. "You're what, five, six years younger than me? And because hip-hop is so young — like 35, 40 years old — that's enough time for someone to completely miss out on a segment of the music. Six years is almost a quarter of hip-hop's life span."
So after my visit came others — different people with different upbringings, jobs, experiences, styles, and tastes — and the only thing uniting us all was our love for hip-hop. According to Rosen, those visits created within him a desire to do something more than just have people swing by the crib and reminisce over old records. The only problem was he didn't know exactly what or how that desire would manifest itself. Enter Wilton Elder, an accomplished saxophonist, percussionist, and a huge J. Dilla fan himself.
"I had always had the idea to do a musical tribute to Jay Dee," says Elder. "I have a band that I manage called Super Deluxe, and we were doing a tribute to Herbie Hancock. I asked Rosen if he'd come through and do the scratches for the song 'Rock It,' and he said, 'Sure.'"
Elder says that after that show, Rosen approached him with the idea of doing something similar for J. Dilla. "It was serendipitous. I knew what he was going to ask before he asked," Elder laughs.
So why was Dilla a good subject for a full-on tribute? Elder says, "I was taken with the fact that J. Dilla listened to so much weird music. The diversity of his music really showed." Elder also believed that a live band would do Dilla justice, so in 2013, Elder and Rosen joined forces for the first Dillamental/J. Dilla tribute night.
J. Dilla has had a direct influence on the progression of hip-hop because he, like Elder and Rosen, was a fan of all music. His creativity wasn't bound by what was popular at the time, and this allowed him to push the limits of what hip-hop sounded like, thus changing the game forever. Dilla didn't just sample songs, he transmuted them. Elder says, "He wouldn't just grab the hook from a song and throw it on another beat like some producers do. He always made something new."
More alchemist than music producer, Dilla's golden touch can be traced all over the soul of hip-hop music. Before his untimely death (he died at 32 from the blood disease thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura.), J. Dilla worked with Questlove, drummer and producer of the Grammy Award-winning band The Roots. The two were founding members of the musical collective Soulquarians, along with famed R&B recluse D'Angelo, Oscar-winning rapper Common, and soulful neo-soul singer Erykah Badu, to name a few. His branches stretch over years of work and bear the fruit of many different songs and artists. I suggest, if you really want to learn about the magic that is James D. Yancy, let Dillamental give you a lesson in hip-hop you won't soon forget.