J Dilla – The Diary – Listening party @ The ACE Hotel, London & album reflections

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On a personal level, J Dilla has been one of my biggest musical influences. Ask the Wordplay family and they’ll confirm that I regularly harp on about dilla-esque topics! So to be invited to a listening party for Dilla’s long lost vocal album The Diary was an incredible buzz and honour.

Some background
Having been wrapped up in legal battles for over a decade, The Diary was originally due to be released by MCA, however, when Jay Dee’s A&R, who had championed the fledgling producer and MC, left the label, MCA promptly dropped him after finding out that the album, which was meant to showcase Dilla’s production clout, actually was becoming Dilla’s dream vocal album. Jay invested heavily in the “spaceship” studio in his Basement in Detroit. He bought the best equipment he could with the label advance, and approached his favourite producers to pay for instrumentals from him. From Pete Rock to Kanye, the project, which also featured production from Dilla was created between 2001 – 2002.

After Egon and the Dilla’s family battled for years with lawyers to regain control of Dilla’s projects, Egon, the Creative Director of Dilla’s estate, finally had access to the files. Luckily, Jay Dee’s files were in order and in tact, and the process began to complete the album that was written into his will to release.

This album proved to be a turning point in Dilla’s career in many ways. Once dropped from MCA, and the studio was flooded, Jay left Detroit to move to LA, and begin work with his Stones Throw family, particularly Madlib, resulting the groundbreaking Jaylib collaborators effort Champion Sound.

The Listening Party
The era of fancy listening parties, with artsts filling the room alongside press and promo people, offering free bars and handing out bags of free copies of vinyls and merchandise is long gone, but it now means, like with the new found appreciation and collectibility of vinyl, that listening parties are now special, creative and subtle affairs. It’s a skew of emotions sitting down, silently appreciating an album, which offers head nods and bangers a plenty. With some muted whoops and claps, the House Shoes and Dilla produced The Introduction began to play.

The album has now been released, fittingly on Record Store Day, with a limited 7” bonus vinyl, so this isn’t so much a review, as an attempt to try and explain, capture and detail a moment that had a tangible feeling of excitement, mixed with sadness.

After each track, from the tongue in cheek Dilla banger The Anthem f. Frank N Dank, offering an R-Kelly-esque hook, which in 2002 would have had a huge impact.

It’s interesting seeing original ideas and sounds that informed later tracks, for example The Shining Part 1 and 2 with the super smooth Nottz produced Diamonds featuring Kenny Wray and raw throwback vibe of the Madlib driven Ice, the title of course which was repeated with a very different sound and feel for the first of Jay’s posthumous releases.

A track that surprised some slightly less obsessed Dilla-heads was 2001’s Fuck The Police. The true Dilla anthem, which sadly ended up being the only known release for over a decade, until the Yancey estate managed to once again own The Diary and began to release the newly completed 12’ vinyl series, which were due to be swiftly followed by the album, but as with most music, that plan changed dramatically!

Trucks was one of the first singles to drop from The Diary, and with the well known sample flip, it was a definite crowd pleaser.

The interesting thing with The Diary is that although there’s some truly amazing producers on this project including Hi-Tek, Waajeed, Pete Rock, Nottz, Madlib and Supa Dave West (+more), the tracks that Dilla seems to be his most relaxed, creative and offer some of his best rhymes on are his own beats. With only 5 Dilla beats (one of which is co-produced by House Shoes), they are somewhat rare treats, but they add the backbone to the very solid album.

Q&A Session with Egon
Wordplay later in the year will be releasing a full, exclusive interview with Egon, the driving force behind Dilla’s releases over the last decade, and a massively influential character within the Stones Throw family, alongside Madlib and the team.

Having been a close friend and key member of Dilla’s team, Egon had some sombre, at times chilling and incredible stories and anecdotes about the man in question. My favourite, throw away statement was:

“…and i was with Bob Power, Common and Dilla when they were working on The Light…”!!!

It was interesting hearing the process of how The Diary came to be. Jay’s files were organised in his own workflow, with various versions of the same track and using software that was no longer available. Some tracks were yet to have vocal features, but Dilla had tagged the files, or already recorded shouts, including the Hi-Tek produced Gangsta Boogie featuring Snoop Dogg and Kokane.

Nas had always been a fan of Dilla’s work, and with his powerful position with Mass Appeal, he felt it was his opportunity and duty to be the torch bearer for the project, including premiering The Introduction on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1, and more importantly helping to get the album over the finish line. An added bonus to the project is The Sickness, a vocal appearance from Nas with a pounding Madlib beat. The track had a verse and hook, but no reference as to who Dilla intended to feature. I’m sure Dee would be pleased with the outcome!

Final Thoughts
There are some amazing features on The Diary, from the beautifully subtle and soulful The Ex with Bilal, to his beloved collaborators and friends Frnk N Dank with their raw Detroit style, The Diary is an amazing insight into another creative path that Dilla was exploring. As an incredibly diverse producer, trained Chamber musician, and talented MC, J Dilla has the golden touch for many hip-hop lovers, and this long lost album slots into the lost part of Jay’s timeline which for 14 years was the subject of so many rumours and sadly unneeded profiteering with people producing knock off Dilla beat tape and protects. But rest assured, there is a truly incredible team, controlling the true Dilla related outputs, including the J Dilla vinyl figure, limited vinyls, tees and prints.

Dilla’s formalised last wishes have now been loving completed by Egon and the Yancey Estate, and with Pay Jay Records now back up and running, who knows what’s next for the musicians ever evolving legacy.

Words by Vice beats
@beatsbyvice

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