Over the course of James Dewitt Yancey’s short life, the producer, better known as J Dilla, worked with some of hip-hop’s finest, from A Tribe Called Quest to De La Soul, MF Doom, Common, and the Pharcyde. In the years after J Dilla’s death from a rare blood disorder at 32, tributes to the hip-hop great have sprung up, most notably in the month of February; Dilla was born on Feb. 7, 1974 and died on Feb. 10, 2006.
But top-quality ensemble tributes have been hard to come by, and mostly uninspiring, due to the incredible degree of difficulty in translating Dilla from the sampler to the stage. The late producer’s work is densely detailed, built on a steady wobble of shuffling hi-hats, spacious drum loops, and drastically reshaped samples of tracks both obscure and obvious. Like the work of Thelonious Monk, Dilla’s beats were often built on oddly accented meters, imbuing them with a bizarre but beautiful drunken shimmy. His knack for producing was intuitive and engaging, while his style, built on intense breakbeats and obscure samples he seamlessly twisted and bent to his whims, was warm, fuzzy, and indelibly soulful.
The best tributes succeed mostly because they feature large ensembles that can capture every piece of Dilla’s broad palette. A Suite For Ma Dukes, a live musical tribute arranged and conducted by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, included orchestral renditions of Yancey’s music performed by an ensemble of singers, rappers, and a 60-piece orchestra.
However, shoehorning Dilla’s expansive music into a small ensemble is especially challenging. Jazz pianist Robert Glasper came closest with his “Dillalude” series, wherein his trio blends snippets of Dilla productions and approximates his stutter-start style.
But most attempts sadly fall flat. Stray Phrases, a jazz trio, has attempted a mostly straight cover of Donuts, Dilla’s slippery and relentlessly inventive beat tape released just after his death in 2006, but the group loses a lot in translation. Even the J Dilla Ensemble at Boston’s Berklee College of Music doesn’t quite get it right. There’s a video of the ensemble’s performance at the 2011 Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival on YouTube. The group’s enthusiastic but probably overeager, attacking too hard and too loose, and lacking the tightly wound and meticulously composed verve of Dilla’s beats.
The broader shortcomings of instrumental tributes to J Dilla have made the successes of Charleston’s Dillamental that much more notable. The eight-piece band debuted last August at Voodoo Lounge, and the ensemble quickly proved its chops, especially during a rendition of “Vivrant Thing,” the Dilla-produced first single from Q-Tip’s Amplified.
“Things got so hype that this random lady jumped on stage, grabbed the mic, and started hyping the crowd,” says Alex Rosen, Dillamental’s DJ. “She just did this solid 16 [bars] and got everything jumping, man.”
Rosen and saxophonist Wilton Elder, both lifelong hip-hop heads and dyed-in-the-wool Dilla fans, hatched the idea for Dillamental back in 2012 after Rosen scratched on “Rockit” during a Herbie Hancock tribute concert Elder organized. Elder says he’d started kicking around the idea of a Dilla tribute around that night, and the first person he approached was Rosen.
“As soon as he said something,” Rosen says. “I knew he was going to ask about a Dilla tribute.”
Elder adds, “We’re trying to do something that’s kind of new territory in terms of taking a short sample, a two-bar or four-bar phrase, and making it into nine or 10 minutes of music.”
Dillamental rolls with a relatively small crew: Rosen, Elder, guitarist Lee Barbour, keyboardist Manny Houston, trumpeter David Carter, bassist Kenny Shider, drummer A.J. Jenkins, and singer Kanika Moore, with a few guest instrumentalists as necessary. The slim ensemble necessitates careful forethought; Elder and Rosen spent months closely listening to Dilla’s extensive catalog, breaking down the beats to their essences.
“We pick apart the songs, we pick apart the samples,” Rosen says. “We figure stuff out and say, OK, this is what we need.”
“We’re students of the music,” Elder adds. “We’ve sat down and listened actively. We understand the anatomy of the songs, and since we’re such a small ensemble … we figure out what can be played by the live instruments, and what’s essential that’s being triggered by the sample and the turntable.”
While Rosen’s turntables and sampler are a critical component of the ensemble, the foundation is really the live band. Elder and Barbour are two of Charleston’s most in-demand and well-connected jazz musicians, and much of the band performs with Elder’s Super Deluxe, a popular party and wedding band with a deep repertoire of disco, funk, R&B — all prevalent building blocks in Dilla’s sound.
“If the drums don’t match the samples, especially on Donuts, it just doesn’t work,” Rosen says.
And while deconstructing Dilla’s complex beats and rebuilding them as live instrumentals was difficult, so has learning to suppress their collective instincts. “We’ve tried our best to not have a jazz formula whereby the band plays ahead and then there’s improv and you return to the theme,” Elder says. “[Barbour] and I have a tendency to think along those lines. But we want to honor the track as closely as possible. We try to rein it in as much as possible, knowing that whenever there’s a group improv or solo, things are going to go in different directions.”
While there is some natural liberty taken in those extended sessions, Elder says, the idea is to stay as true to the source material as possible. “That’s the audience’s point of reference, you know,” he says. “We want to get the signature parts as much as we can, but we know there are things we won’t be able to replicate. But if we get the right feel or right character, then we’ve done it right.”
Approximating Dilla’s tics and idiosyncrasies isn’t easy, but Dillamental tinkers with them skillfully. Its medley of tunes from Donuts isn’t straightforward: It shifts the pitch of samples and tempos of songs to accommodate the range of the band, and it alters Dilla’s thoughtful track sequencing for ease of key changes and beat-matching. But Dillamental gets the component ideas right. Jenkins accents the off-kilter timing, imbuing the tracks with a good balance of energy and ease. Elder and Carter nail the warped fidelity of the horn lines. And Barber and Rosen add perfect flourishes.
It might not be an exact rendition, but it’s damn close. More to the point, the vibe is near-perfectly right, and that’s what Dillamental is after. “Our goal is we want this show to feel like you’re at a friend’s house listening to records and vibing,” Rosen says.
Elder’s goal is a little broader. “We’re trying to help carry the torch for Dilla’s music.”