A little known but influential rap genius gets his due in this spirited biography. Music journalist Charnas (The Big Payback) profiles James Dewitt Yancey (1974–2006), aka J Dilla, a rap producer—really a composer—and drum machine virtuoso who created innovative beat tracks with off-kilter rhythms and samplings that, Charnas argues, revolutionized pop music. Set against the atmospheric panorama of Detroit’s rap scene, Charnas’s probing narrative follows Dilla’s ascent through the hip-hop ranks: from getting a whirlwind of producing gigs to presiding at strip clubs, occasionally brandishing a firearm, and dying young (of a rare blood disease) at the age of 32. Charnas’s account is no hagiography: here, Dilla is a canny and sometimes generous, but prickly figure, not a Tupac-style prophet. And there are some rather moving passages, especially in scenes of Dilla’s mother, Maureen, tending to him in his decline. The book’s heart is its rich, evocative musicological analysis, complete with rhythm diagrams, of Dilla’s beats (“The hyperactive kick drum raced ahead of the samba sample, which in turn seemed to be racing ahead of the snare drum—which gave the paradoxical illusion that the snare was somehow late, making the beat feel oddly relaxed, tumbling endlessly forward”). Charnas’s engrossing work is one of the few hip-hop sagas to take the music as seriously as its maker. (Feb.)
"Stunning portrait of the short life and fast times of James Dewitt Yancey. . . sad, funny and unfailingly humane, it’s not only one of the best books this writer has ever read about hip-hop but also sets a new gold standard for writing about music full stop."— Ben Johnson, Mojo Magazine
"[Dilla Time] do[es] what good music books should: send you back to the source material . . . Dilla Time is an important piece of music writing, affording its African-American subject the respect that the rock establishment has long accorded its white heroes." —The Economist
“It’s no ordinary book. . . equal parts biography, musical analysis and cultural history delving deep not only into Dilla’s history and music but also into the histories of rhythm and his hometown of Detroit.”—Variety
“Educational without being overbearing, emotional without turning saccharine, Dilla Time is a must-read not only for fans of Yancey, but anyone with a deep love for hip-hop or Black music, full stop.”—The Ringer
“Dilla Time is a portrait of a complex genius taken too young, as well as a glorious study of the music and culture he created.”—Spin
“An ambitious, dynamic biography of J Dilla, who may be the most influential hip-hop artist known by the least number of people. . . A wide-ranging biography that fully captures the subject’s ingenuity, originality, and musical genius.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“The book’s heart is its rich, evocative musicological analysis, complete with rhythm diagrams, of Dilla’s beats. . . Charnas’s engrossing work is one of the few hip-hop sagas to take the music as seriously as its maker.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Whenever I’ve been asked why Dilla was special, I didn’t feel like I had the right vocabulary to explain his importance—specifically the way he made work that was so perfectly imperfect that it redefined the way I thought about art. Dan Charnas to the rescue. He scaled the mountain of Dilla’s complex career and sent back instructions so that others could make the climb. This book is a must for everyone interested in illuminating the idea of unexplainable genius.” —QUESTLOVE
“J Dilla turned what one generation deemed musical error into what the next knew to be musical innovation. In this splendid book, Dan Charnas offers an uncanny mix of research and vision, documentation and interpretation, plenitude and momentum. Dilla Time is definitive. And exhilarating.” —MARGO JEFFERSON, author of Negroland
“The greatest hip-hop producer of all time is getting the love and care his legacy deserves. Dilla Time is a master class.” —DREAM HAMPTON
“With deep love and beautiful detail, this book gives credit where credit is most deserved.” —DANYEL SMITH, author of Shine Bright
“With this assiduously researched, stirringly told, and expansively elucidated accounting of J Dilla’s life as muse, mythos, and generationally transformative composer of hip-hop beats, Dan Charnas has provided readers with an alchemist’s cookbook of its titular, wizardly subject.” —GREG TATE, author of Flyboy in the Buttermilk
“In the way that J Dilla’s music was a portal for us to hear our world and feel the pulse of life anew, Charnas has made a portal through which to understand our time—historical time, musical time, and James Yancey’s own time—in a new way. Dilla Time is a book that will be read and reread with as much pleasure as we have listened and relistened to Dilla’s music. A masterpiece.” —JEFF CHANG, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop
“I look at J Dilla as a man who redefined the word ‘innovative.’ This book makes you feel like you traveled his journey every single step.” —DJ PREMIER
"How can wrong be right? How can one be both universally revered and massively under-appreciated? Filled with impeccable reportage, elegant prose, and incandescent anecdotes, Dilla Time is more than an urgently needed biography of hip hop’s most revolutionary producer. It is a testament to the never-ending struggle between creativity and mortality." —ROB KENNER, author of The Marathon Don’t Stop: The Life and Times of Nipsey Hussle
Charnas's (The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop) intricate biography chronicles the life of producer J Dilla (1974–2006), born James DeWitt Yancey. Charnas covers his subject's early life, his unparalleled genius on the drum machine, and his evolution into the solo artist J Dilla. Dilla broke into hip-hop in Detroit in the early '90s, with a disorienting style that led to a complete transformation of the sound of popular music. Drawing from more than 190 interviews, Charnas paints a vivid picture of a sometimes-disagreeable artist, obsessed with creating music, who spent his free time at strip clubs and was often the target of harassment by Detroit police. Charnas deconstructs the new path of rhythm that Dilla forged and provides visual examples of rhythm, beats, and pulse arrangements to illustrate why his style was so unique. Particularly moving is Charnas's exploration of Dilla's reliance on his mother his entire life; she was his caregiver when he died at 32 from a rare blood disease, and she has led efforts to keep his memory alive. VERDICT Examining Dilla's posthumous legacy in detail, Charnas asserts that the once best-kept secret in music is now a recognized trailblazer. A must-read for those interested in music history and in Dilla.—Lisa Henry
An ambitious, dynamic biography of J Dilla, who may be the most influential hip-hop artist known by the least number of people.
A professor at NYU/Tisch’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music best known for his chronicle of the business of hip-hop, The Big Payback, Charnas uses myriad storytelling techniques to make his case for the importance of James Dewitt Yancey (1974-2006), aka J Dilla. To explain Dilla’s groundbreaking approach to rhythm, the author uses graphics to approximate conventional rhythms and contrasts them with the hip-hop producer’s method of slowing some elements while accelerating others. He also offers playlists so readers can hear how Dilla transformed songs and how, eventually, his approach took over hip-hop in the late 1990s. To the author’s credit, he also explains why technological advances allowed other producers and DJs to mimic the sonic style Dilla pioneered—often with broader success, as producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did on Janet Jackson’s chart-topping smash “Got Til It’s Gone.” Of course, Dilla generated his own hits, with important remixes like the Brand New Heavies’ “Sometimes” and, most notably, his production of Common’s “The Light.” His 2006 album, Donuts, is considered a classic of instrumental hip-hop. As definitively as Charnas chronicles Dilla’s rise through the ranks of Detroit hip-hop and his partnership with Q-Tip, Questlove, D’Angelo, and other significant figures, his reporting on how success didn’t solve all of Dilla’s personal problems or protect him from illness sets this tale apart. The author’s discussion of Dilla’s decline and death from a rare blood disease and lupus is particularly heart-wrenching, especially against the backdrop of his blooming career. Also memorable is Charnas’ chronicle of the family in-fighting that followed his death, which even spilled over into lawsuits against fan-created fundraisers at a time when Dilla’s work was finally being celebrated around the world.
A wide-ranging biography that fully captures the subject’s ingenuity, originality, and musical genius.