Each generation can lay claim to only a handful of artists truly deserving the “genius” label. While some are fixtures in the mainstream, others are never fully recognized for their contributions.
Such is the case for Jay Dee (aka J Dilla), the late hip-hop producer whose stunning catalogue continues to be celebrated by legions of diehard fans. A master of manipulating, chopping, and looping everything from James Brown to Stereolab, Dilla’s work has influenced countless hip-hop producers and laid the blueprint for much of neo-soul and modern R&B. His subtle style of sampling and inventive drum programming is the foundation behind classics from a wide spectrum of artists including A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu. As a founding member of seminal rap group Slum Village, Dilla established himself as a more-than-capable emcee and went on to become one half of the critically acclaimed Jaylib with West coast producer Madlib, as well as the creator of three solo albums. This March, a little over a year since his passing, one of Dilla’s more obscure releases, the Ruff Draft EP, is being reissued by Stones Throw.
Ruff Draft, released in 2003, finds Jay improving on his solo debut – 2001’s Welcome to Detroit. His spirited boasts of money, cars and jewelry are delivered in an increasingly nimble and calculated fashion. Dilla enthusiasts will recognize this shift as a preview of the sharpened lyrical approach that was to be displayed on the Jaylib album released later in 2003. Echoing the style of Pete Rock, Erick Sermon and other “producers on the mic,” Dilla emphasizes flow over content, and is careful to never overshadow his own production. On the album’s opener “Let’s Take it Back,” Dilla displays his refined mic skills: “I’m extra – So next to blow / So fly get pest control / No joke, when it comes to the flow / It’s nasty couldn’t touch it with a hundred foot pole.”
Throughout the record, Dilla showcases his own style of raucous, neck-snapping production. If the album’s title isn’t clear enough, Dilla explains his intention on the intro: “It’s the Ruff Draft EP. For my real niggas only. Dj’s that play that real live shit, you wanna bounce in your whip with that real live shit. Sound like its straight from the muthafuckin’ cassette.” The bling anthem “Make’Em NV” best captures this raw aesthetic. The crackle of old vinyl is clearly audible on the track’s thunderous drum loop and the frantic yells of M.O.P.’s “Ante Up” are sampled for the chorus. But Dilla asserts his idiosyncratic vision of hardcore with the addition of a meandering vibraphone loop off-setting the high energy of the track. The end result is a harmonious blend of seemingly disparate elements.
It’s Dilla’s effortless musical creativity and confident lyrical presence that turns the tired subject matter of tracks like “The $” and “Crushin’ (Yeeeeaah!)” into two-minute bursts of originality. In addition to his usual mix of chopped samples and synth layering, Ruff Draft also hints at Dilla’s wildly diverse musical palette. Where Welcome to Detroit found Jay showing his Brazilian influences with “Rico Suave Bossa Nova,” Ruff Draft features the sublime electronic funk of “Nothing Like This.” Dilla’s singing is stylistically similar to his rapping – straight forward without much fanfare – but the layering and distortion of his vocals over the strings of “Nothing Like This” makes for an addictive pleasure.
Ruff Draft embodies everything that’s great about the EP format. Clocking in under 20 minutes, listeners are given a glimpse of Dilla’s newly developed style – and left wanting more. Re-released as a double cd with instrumental versions and a few unreleased tracks, the Ruff Draft reissue is a worthy introduction to the genius that is Jay Dee, and for long time fans, another chance to celebrate his remarkable body of work.
Ruff Draft EP (Reissue)
Rating:4 out of 5 stars