The 7th of February is an important day for hip-hop. In 1974 J Dilla was born in Detroit, United States, whilst on the same day and the same year Nujabes was born in Tokyo, Japan. Who could have known on that day what a great gift was being handed to music lovers across the globe, with hip-hop still in it’s infancy, two of it’s greatest children had just been born. Not only would their talents remain bound through a shared love for progressive hip-hop, but even their deaths became symbolically linked as they both passed in the month of February. Nujabes left us in 2010, just four years after Dilla. So now this month has become a time to honour and celebrate for all true hip-hop fans. With this in mind, I dedicate this Food For Thought to the legacy and music of J Dilla and Nujabes.
Little is known of Nujabes’s private life or indeed his family. His secrecy was so much that only a very small amount of pictures of him exist in the public eye. We do know that his real name was Jun Seba or in it’s Japanese form “Seba Jun” and Nujabes is a backwards spelling of that. Perhaps the name change was a means to separate his artistry from his true self. A lot of what we take from his life comes from his music. His story starts when “Sweet Sticky Thing” was released on a low independent scale back in 1998. “Sweet Sticky Thing” was just a compilation of records Nujabes was feeling, expertly mixed and put together. Without any avertisement it was heavily slept on, yet much of his soul is contained in those selections. It differs from his later work and in many ways is the closest sounding release to a J Dilla album. Starting with the sample “You know I think I’ll tell you the story of my life” his music was very much his means of communication to the wider World.
Dilla although coming from a very musical family and having access to some big name artists was a virtual unknown for the majority of his career. He was however making classics from the beginning like The Pharcyde’s “Drop” and “Runnin’” from 1995. He was the man emcees sought after yet the public hadn’t heard of. He began work for Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest yet often went uncredited, preferring to produce behind the scenes. He made music with De La Soul and Keith Murray and then in 1997 began to cut demos with his group Slum Village. Slum Village was a trio made up of Baatin, T3 and Dilla and although their work was not officially released at the time, word of mouth quickly spread about the songs they were making. Had Dilla or Nujabes met at this point in their career they could have drawn from each other on a massive collection of Soul, Jazz and Hip-Hop records which were providing the inspiration for a new wave of production and rewriting the rules of sampling.
Both artists were creating a movement, Dilla was a focal point of Neo-Soul and the Soulquarians collective (which profoundly influenced the music on Rawkus). Whilst Nujabes was still plotting his sound but used similar advancements to create a classical and Jazz orientated style of hip-hop which would take root in the 2000’s. It’s as if the seeds sewn with the Native Tongues Posse in the early 90’s had grown into something even more beautiful. So much so that even Janet Jackson looked to Dilla for beats, with the hip-hop tinged “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”. The year 2000 saw J Dilla make huge strides forward in putting his own name out and he released an album with Slum Village “Fantastic Volume 2” which was a hit in underground circles.
He began to put out singles like “Fuck The Police” rapping on the record as well as producing. Common showed his appreciation by bringing him on board for “Electric Circus”. The battle for recognition was clearly on his mind, often going by the name “Jay Dee” he dropped it for “Dilla” because he believed many people taught he was Jermaine Dupri or would at least get some production credits mixed up. 2000 was also the year Nujabes would begin to gain momentum with his career. Working with the rapper Substantial on “To This Union A Sun Was Born”, which came out in ’01, they began to turn heads within the hip-hop community. Nujabes’s artists were more obscure than Dilla’s but equally dope and progressive. He collaborated with Funky DL, Pase Rock, L Universe, Shingo02 and Five Deez very much creating his own inner circle of artists the way Dilla had done with the Soulquarians.
By 2003 the internet was providing a means for artists like Dilla and Nujabes to gain more widespread recognition. Nujabes’s “Metaphorical Music” was his first solo album and with it’s far out sounds, it turned hip-hop music on it’s head. He had succeeded in creating his own unique vision and concepts, using classical based instrumentation with hip-hop drum loops. Those looking for the next generation of beats began to gravitate towards his music. Although “Metaphorical Music” was largely instrumental he featured emcees like Cise Starr and a personal selection of artists with whom he recorded much of his work.
Dilla too was enjoying something of a creative burst in ’03, working with the producer many consider to be an equal – Madlib. The energy between all three producers at this time was something to behold. They set the bar of quality so high that you had to be a damn hermit to create a library as extensive as theirs. They used an encyclopedia of music to sample which would shame any record collector and a clear understanding of all music was needed to even get your head around a lot of their output. The debate on ‘if sampling was art’ had surely been put to bed.
Dilla then began working on Common’s “Be” whilst putting out projects with Stones Throw. On the other side of the World, Nujabes released his second solo album in 2005. Called “Modal Soul” it expanded on the advancements of the first album. With similar techniques used for production and a continuation of work with his much loved artists. Critics all agreed we were witnessing something special happen. He also hit the independent circuit with some mixtapes and production credits on obscure projects. Part of the joy for Nujabes fans is trying to unearth some of these songs in the hope of finding something nobody else has.
Rumours began to circulate about Dilla’s health and it soon reached the fans that he was suffering from lupus (an autoimmune disease). In order to address the issues, Dilla did an interview with XXL about his health condition, yet he seemed upbeat about his future. He made some live appearances confined to a wheel chair. Even so, he sped up his work around this time knowing it could be his last gift to the World. According to his mothers reports he worked on beats right up until his last days.
One project he was working on highlights Dilla’s love for Asian culture. It was called “Jay Love Japan” an E.P. which i’m sure would have made Nujabes proud. A lot of the photos used in promos for “new” Dilla albums date back to those sessions.
On the 7th of February 2006, the shared birthday between Nujabes and Dilla, he released Donuts. An album which many fans credit as changing the boundaries of “producer” albums. Instead of releasing fully packaged studio songs, Dilla put out a whole album of beat snippets, each insanely dope in their own right, flipping soul and Jazz samples expertly to the awe of his fans. Sadly 3 days later, he would pass away at the age of 32. As musicians deaths often increase their profile, his name sky rocketed within hip-hop circles and suddenly everybody was going back and checking those old Dilla records. High profile artists were dropping tribute mixtapes and shout outs.
The posthumous album “The Shining” further enhanced his legacy. So many beats began finding their way into the public eye it was like Dilla had never left. Albums came like “Jay Stay Paid” which featured the likes of Blu and Black Thought. Not to mention my favourite posthumous release “Yancey Boys”, with his brother Illa J providing the vocals. Tracks with Dilla on the beat emerged for Mos Def, The Roots and even Immortal Technique with seemingly endless amounts of quality. And J Dilla is not yet done with plans to release one more solo album, perhaps even this year.
In 2008 Nujabes released a compilation album of some his favourite tracks, a strange throw back to “Sweet Sticky Thing” ten years before. Contained within the selections are the songs which inspired his work. And yet as we taught the story was just starting for Nujabes, a late night traffic accident tragically took his life in February 2010. For his family, and underground hip-hop fans around the World, it was a bitter blow. In 2011 the posthumous album “Spiritual State” was released containing many unused songs from his personal vault. Both artists may now be gone, but they will never be forgotten.