J Dilla's top five tracks

As the eighth anniversary of the hip hop genius' death approaches, we pick five essential cuts from his discography



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For the last few years, London’s hip hop fans have gathered to pay their respects to producer J Dilla at J Dilla Saved My Life, a special club night commemorating the anniversary of his death. A hugely influential musician who cruelly died aged just 32, his futuristic approach to sampling resulted in beats that took jazz into the cosmos, made hip hop truly soulful and provided a template that artists as diverse as Kanye West, Erykah Badu and Hudson Mohawke would later build on. Oliver Keens picks five essential tracks from Dilla’s back catalogue as a solo artist and hip hop producer, and traces their influence on electronic music.

‘Runnin'’ by The Pharcyde

Clean, precise and radically different from most hip hop at the time, James 'J Dilla' Yancey was already a rising beatmaker in Detroit before his work with Californian rappers The Pharcyde in 1995 made him a hero within hip hop circles.

Influenced: 'Señorita' by Justin Timberlake

‘The Light’ by Common

A highlight from the Philly rapper's album 'Like Water For Chocolate', Dilla expertly worked in a sampled chorus from smooth '70s crooner Bobby Cauldwell into this Grammy-nominated hit from Obama's favourite rapper, Common.

Influenced: 'All Falls Down' by Kanye West

‘African Rhythms’ by Jay Dee

While Dilla’s known for his otherworldly flair for sampling records and reinventing them, this cut from his debut solo album (made under his ‘Jay Dee’ alias) was recorded with live drums and bass. Magically though, it still possesses his trademark slanted rhythms and off-key swing.

Influenced: 'Tenere Taqqim Tossam' by Tinariwen (Four Tet remix)

‘Two Can Win’ by J Dilla

Dilla tragically contracted an incurable blood disease in 2002. His mother brought his sampler into the hospital so he could work and the result was ‘Donuts’ – a staggering album of instrumental hip hop released just three days before he died. Songs like ‘Two Can Win’ don’t reflect his misfortune at all, but instead brim with unabashed soulful joy.

Influenced: 'After Laughter Comes Tears' by Nicolas Jaar

‘Love’ by J Dilla

Hip hop has a reputation for some appalling posthumous releases (just look at Tupac), but Dilla’s close friends did a great job of patching up his unreleased beats to make ‘The Shining’ LP. This impassioned burst of Al Green-esque funk (featuring rapper Pharoah Monch) was a standout.

Influenced: 'Fall In Love' by Flying Lotus

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