AUGUST 10, 2022
IF YOU ARE into hip-hop, J Dilla and DJ Screw are names you should’ve heard of by now. Both men were producers, DJs, and performers whose music has been copied and/or celebrated by many contemporary artists. They both also passed away at a way-too-early age.
While he was here, James Dewitt Yancey was a music producer who was mostly adored by those who worked with him. Back then, he was referred to not as J Dilla, the nom de guerre he is now known for, but as Jay Dee, an up-and-comer from Detroit. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, drummer for the hip-hop crew and Tonight Show house band The Roots, and recent Oscar winner, became an instant fan when he was on tour with West Coast hip-hop quartet The Pharcyde and heard them perform a song where the beats were a bit, shall we say, off:
Outside that North Carolina nightclub, what Questlove heard was different. The claps, which should have carried that steady backbeat, slid into place just slightly after he expected to hear them. Each clap sounded like a book falling down onto its side just after being set upright on a shelf. The weirdest part was the kick: the drum sound played with the foot to carry that “stomping” downbeat. The kick drum was chaotic. It would appear on the “one” and then not show up when he expected it to hit on the “three.” […] It sounded, as Questlove would later describe in colorful language, like what would happen if you gave a baby two tequila shots, placed her in front of a drum machine, and had her try to program a beat. Nothing was exactly where he expected it to be. And that’s what made it exhilarating.
It’s worth noting that the song Questlove heard that night is titled “Bullshit.” For Yancey/Dilla/Dee, coming up with eccentric, off-kilter production — i.e., programming samples of songs into his trusty MPC3000 drum machine, chopping it all up, and churning out sounds that would make seasoned drummers like Questlove bug out — was just the sort of bullshit he did on the regular.
This anecdote starts off Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm, a hefty opus on the Motor City music-maker by author and longtime hip-hop gadfly Dan Charnas. (He wrote for The Source magazine and worked at several record labels before dropping The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop in 2010.) While Charnas begins the book by saying that it’s not going to be a fawning chronicle of Yancey (“In these pages you will not meet a god, though some have called him that”), he does characterize the performer as an awe-inspiring groundbreaker in late-20th-century Black music — a brilliant but difficult savant.
Before he died, Yancey was seen as something of a secret weapon among certain 1990s-era rappers. With the exception of Eminem (who makes an appearance or two in this book), Dilla was integral in making many Detroit MCs come out of their shells and realize their potential on the mic. The most well-known example is the work he did with Slum Village, the three-man crew he formed with rappers Baatin and T3. But even while he was working with his hometown chums to get their music noticed, he was already becoming an in-demand producer. In the mid-1990s, he caught the ear of A Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip and, along with Tribe DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, formed the production team known as The Ummah.
Charnas drops in esoteric chapters wherein he, along with musicologist Jeff Peretz, basically gives an alternate history of popular music that traces the invention of drum machines that could sample and create different rhythms, showing how it all inspired and influenced Yancey. As intriguing as these chapters are, the setup may lose those who aren’t hardcore beatnuts. Thankfully, by skillfully deploying interviews with family and friends along with documentary materials, Charnas does keep the rise and fall of Dilla flowing in the other chapters.
For someone who spent most of his adult years providing the beats for many conscious rappers, Yancey was still an inner-city hustler — or, at least, he worked hard at giving off that image. Dude would regularly go to strip clubs for inspiration, hooking up with a couple of dancers who eventually became baby mommas. While he was known as quiet and music-obsessed — basically, a genius in training — during his formative years, Yancey grew up to be a prickly (and occasionally prickish) man. Most of his Detroit pals had to take his my-way-or-the-highway tendencies with a grain of salt. He could also be cruel and controlling, sometimes violently so. One passage recalls the time he got into an argument with a high-school sweetheart during which he slapped her and then broke down the bathroom door after she locked herself inside.
Of course, when we get to Yancey’s final days, which saw him going in and out of hospitals due to a rare blood disease, we encounter a more vulnerable man looking to atone for his slothful, stubborn early days by creating more introspective music — such as his acclaimed album Donuts, which was released on his 32nd birthday, three days before his death in 2006.
Robert Earl Davis Jr., better known as DJ Screw, didn’t even make it to his 30th birthday. He died in 2000 at the age of 29, a victim of a workaholic ethic, a bad diet, no exercise, and, of course, an appetite for illegal narcotics. (The big one was codeine-promethazine, a cough syrup that is often mixed with soda and consumed as “drank” or “lean” in hip-hop circles.) Before he died, he was already one of the most influential music-makers in the city of Houston, putting out cassette tapes in which he slowed down and cut up music (the genre is known as “chopped and screwed”) while his MC buddies — the Screwed Up Click — freestyled on the mic.
In DJ Screw: A Life in Slow Revolution, journalist Lance Scott Walker chronicles Davis’s brief history as Houston’s most underground beatman. His chopped-and-screwed sound has been a topic of discussion in other works: former Houstonian Jia Tolentino broke down the music in an essay in her 2019 book Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion. Walker, Houston’s resident hip-hop historian (in 2013, he collaborated with photographer Peter Beste on the book Houston Rap and did a companion volume of interviews called Houston Rap Tapes: An Oral History of Bayou City Hip-Hop), uses Davis’s story to cobble together the history of Houston hip-hop’s early days. Getting his Legs McNeil on, he makes Screw an oral history, rounding up quotes (many from firsthand interviews) from the men and women who were there.
Just like Yancey, Davis was a quiet music nerd back in the day. Growing up in the small Texas town of Smithville, the boy aspired to be a rapper ever since he saw the classic breakdancing movie Breakin’ (1984). So, he began working on his craft, literally scratching records with a screw when he didn’t like what an LP had to offer (hence his DJ name), before getting whisked away to Houston by his father, where he eventually became a well-respected figure in the city’s hip-hop community. For many of the people interviewed, Davis was their lodestar, the connecting force that linked rising rappers from different parts of the city. They would flock to his makeshift home studio (known as the Wood Room) for the chance to hop on the mic during a Screw mix. Rappers from the other side of the city had to check their beefs at the door. A benevolent beat junkie, Davis refused to be in the middle of hood turmoil. For him, it was all about the music.
What inspired Davis to go slow is up for debate. (“There is no one truth as to why Screw started slowing records down, or exactly when,” Walker notes.) He wasn’t the first Houston DJ to slow down a track — Walker gives props to such early progenitors as Darryl Scott, slain DJ Michael Price, and even a guy from Florida called Disco Dave. But Screw perfected the method. In Davis’s hands, hip-hop could be woozy, trippy, damn near psychedelic. “Screw interrupted the course of the song to pull new rhythms from the ether and deal them into the deck of his sound,” writes Walker, later adding, “Screw took everybody’s favorite songs and ripped them wide open, tearing into the fabric of the original sound, decompressing, adding earth, adding sky, adding voice.” For local rap fans, his “Screw tapes” were must-haves. Swarms of customized cars — known in H-Town as “slabs” — would line up in front of his house on a weekly basis, filled with people clamoring to get the latest tape. He eventually opened his own store, Screwed Up Records & Tapes, when neighbors began complaining and his home became much too accessible to strangers.
Both Dilla and Screw close on depressing notes. Charnas’s final chapters lay out how the preservation and licensing of Dilla’s legacy has been a bone of contention among family, friends, and Dilla’s estate. (Even the legitimacy of his will has been up for debate.) Meanwhile, Walker spends the last 50 or so pages of Screw listing those cohorts of Davis who are sadly no longer with us, many either dying accidentally or being shot down, hood casualties. This list includes George Floyd, who, before he became a global symbol of police brutality, was a Screwed Up Click alum, rapping under the name Big Floyd.
Yancey and Davis put in a lot of work before their untimely deaths, producing volumes of music, much of it released posthumously. These two new books offer thorough portraits of artists who worked hard to come up with new beats from previously recorded tunes, inadvertently creating new forms of hip-hop in the process. What they did in their younger days has been saluted, duplicated, and appreciated by fans and artists all over. Whenever February rolls around, Dilla tributes are gonna pop off. And the screwed-and-chopped style has been emulated by such contemporary MCs as Drake and Houston’s own Travis Scott — and, some would say, ripped off by those who call their sound “slowed and reverb.”
Even in death, J Dilla and DJ Screw continue to be two of the most influential figures in hip-hop. And Charnas and Walker use their biographies to remind both diehards and novices why that is — and to give the performers hella flowers in the process.