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When James “J Dilla” Yancey—the Detroit-originated, ethereal hip-hop producer known for his jazz-informed, beat-heavy soundscapes that many credit as revolutionizing modern hip-hop—died in Feb. 2006, it sparked a large outpouring of tributes. From new Dilla-inspired recordings from fellow contemporaries, to live music events that celebrated his oeuvre, artists expressed how they were inspired by the 32-year-old Dilla, who suffered from lupus.
In the wake of his death, cultural curator Brent “Munch” Joseph, musician Jon Laine, and DJ Roddy Rod created DC Loves Dilla, a homegrown concert and fundraiser that honors Dilla’s legacy. In June 2006, Slum Village, the pioneering rap group that Dilla (also known as Jay Dee) co-founded, headlined the event, which now takes place annually. In spite of Slum Village’s participation, the first show was definitely humble, held at a small, now-defunct nightclub called Mirrors.
“We’ve been able to take it from something that was much smaller and grow it so that we could produce it in higher-profile venues,” explains Munch on a recent rainy Tuesday afternoon. Munch and his Hedrush marketing agency have been producing music-related events since his days at Howard University in the late ’90s. It was Laine, however, who approached him to create an event honoring Dilla. Munch was quickly on board with the idea, as both a fan and connoisseur of Dilla’s art. “He created some incredible music that spoke to me in unique ways,” he says.
Following a successful ninth concert last year, which drew around 600 attendees to the Howard Theatre, DC Loves Dilla 10 ups the ante with headliner Common; the Grammy- and recent Oscar-winning emcee’s catalogue, especially his near-brilliant Like Water for Chocolate, was often touched by Dilla’s production wizardry. Slum Village, now a duo featuring T3 and Young RJ, is also headlining. It will be joined by Georgia Anne Muldrow, as well as D.C.-based artists including Wes Felton, Alison Carney, Muhsinah, and Awthentik. Joseph is very purposeful about the involvement of many of D.C.’s indie soul and hip-hop artists in the annual show, as is Laine, who serves as the event’s musical director and co-producer.
“So often, D.C. artists are kind of outshined by the ‘popular artists’ that come from this region, and so people tend to forget that there are actually D.C. artists who live here and work here and still make art,” says Felton, who is currently enjoying regional buzz for his recent recording, Black Is Once Again Black. “Dilla was one of those artists who was a champion for the underground.”
Still, Munch says, getting Common is “a big deal.”
“This is the culmination of years of requesting his presence at the show,” he says. Munch considers Common one of the key figures in Dilla’s musical life, and so finally landing him is clearly a coup. In addition to Friday’s multi-artist concert, a panel about beat making and Dilla’s artistry and influence will take place at the Kennedy Center on Thursday, and will feature the likes of Amp Fiddler, DJ Spinna, and 9th Wonder.
Today, Dilla tribute events are no longer obscure; they pop up at different times and locales each year, with some supported by major artists such as Erykah Badu and Questlove. But Munch says that DC Loves Dilla has been the mainstay: “This is probably the most consistent one that there has ever been.”
Munch’s reputation for quality—he also works on the annual BET Honors show—has made it easier, year after year, to attract not only major talent for the tribute show, which also raises funds for Lupus DMV and the J Dilla Foundation, but also Dilla’s mom, Maureen Yancey. Affectionately known by most as Ma Dukes, she has been at all but one of the shows and is expected to attend this year’s as well. “Her constant attendance has been like a stamp of approval,” says Munch.
And so have the multiple appearances by Slum Village. The duo is currently preparing for its European tour and is earning critical praise for its recently released album, Yes!, which features production by Dilla himself.
“With this album, we just wanted to go back to the beginning, go back to the foundation, which was feel-good music,” explains T3. Among the highlights at DC Loves Dilla 10: a musical segment that celebrates the 15-year anniversary of Fantastic, Vol. 2, Slum Village’s now classic commercial breakthrough.
“We’re happy to see that an event like this revolving around Dilla is still taking place after 10 years,” RJ says. “That means that the legacy has taken on a life of its own.”
T3 remembers the young Dilla as an introvert, so much so that he didn’t even know they attended the same high school together. When they met at a mutual friend’s home though, he thought Dilla’s work was exceptional.
And so did musical iconoclast Amp Fiddler. Fiddler first met Dilla in their shared Detroit neighborhood, Conant Gardens. “I have a studio in the basement, and kids in the neighborhood would stop and listen,” he says while laughing. “It was loud most of the time.” Dilla impressed Amp with his natural affinity and skill for producing, despite not having the equipment. That’s where Amp stepped in. “That’s how we built our relationship, from me having an MPC 60 the year that it was released.”
“It was interesting and magical to watch a youngster grow and learn a drum machine so fast… and not only learn it, but to be amazing at it,” Fiddler notes.
The singer-songwriter would later pass a cassette tape with Dilla’s music on it to rapper Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. Amp explains that it still took a couple of years for Q-Tip to call Dilla, but once he did, Dilla’s career took off, especially as a producer. And that was in addition to his recording output as a rapper.
“We had a lot of the same admirations for music and records, we talked often about samples… We always played the guessing game when it came down to what records were being used for samples,” shares DJ Spinna a few minutes later. The NYC-based producer will DJ the afterparty along with 9th Wonder, and participate in the Beat Sessions panel.
“He had his own swing, his own metronome, his own bounce… and he did it at a time when everybody was kind of straightforward,” explains Spinna, who considered Dilla a friend.
“The way he heard stuff was unlike any other person in the world, ever.”
DC Loves Dilla 10 featuring Common, Slum Village, and Georgia Anne Muldrow takes place July 10. Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW. $35. (202) 803-2899. thehowardtheatre.com.
Photo of Brent Joseph by Jati Lindsay