Book Review: ‘Dilla Time’ by Dan Charna

Pacific Northwest (via New Orleans) artist and musician Chris Blount is a hip-hop aficionado.

Whether he’s laying his own beats and rhymes down in the studio or if he’s helping others to bring their sonic dreams to life, Blount is steeped into the world of rap. This is what makes him the perfect lens through which to understand the new biography, Dilla Timeabout the legendary hip-hop producer, J.Dilla, by author Dan Charna.

Below, check out Blount’s clear-eyed thoughts (with a little Fan Boy energy sprinkled in) on the new book, which fans can purchase HERE.

Written by Chris Blount:

“This is my natural rhythm. It’s how I bob my head.”

The above quote comes directly to us from James “J.Dilla” Yancy and it accurately describes his singular reason for making the acclaimed music that he did—music that would quickly change the landscape of modern hip-hop for years to come.

While Dilla never had a mainstream hit to his name, he was behind numerous accomplished artists every music fan has heard of, including The Roots, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and Common (who was a past American Songwriter cover star!). Dilla’s influence would radiate and inspire even more notable artists, such as Robert Glasper, Kendrick Lamar, DJ Premier, Janet Jackson, and many others.

Before we dive into his biography, though, let’s discuss the man, himself: as a musician, Dilla revolutionized the way people think about drum machines—to conceptualize this, know that his old drum machine sits right now in the Black History Museum in Washington DC And that little device was the impetus for how he changed how people created music. With it, Dilla, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 32 due to a rare blood disease, created a style that has become a staple of what is now called “lo-fi” hip-hop.

In other words, he was the vibe before there was one.

Today, his techniques are taught in universities all around the world. And his story is brought to light in the new book Dilla Time by Dan Charna. This tome is not your average artist biography; it’s nothing light and superficial. Instead, it’s a comprehensive view into the mind, music, and life of perhaps the most talented hip-hop producer of the modern generation.

Let’s get to the book:

Author Dan Charna is no stranger to hip-hop music. His previous works include The Big Payback (which is required reading if you’re thinking about diving into the business of music) and he was the co-producer of the criminally short-lived television show The Breaks, which aired on VH1. In Dilla TimeCharna gives us an up-close view into not only the creative process of J.Dilla but also describes the macro-landscape in which he grew up and rose to prominence.

Charna’s excellent offering takes you through a rather detailed journey of the history of Detroit, which is where both Dilla and Motown were born (some 15 years apart). Motown, of course, is the cornerstone of soul music and much of hip-hop. Charna also does a phenomenal job of creating a scene for the reader to follow; he’s a true storyteller. It is important to understand that Dilla was a product of the environment in which he grew up. From the music of the ’70s to his father’s tireless work as a struggling artist and his mother’s domestic creativity, Dilla would be encouraged to form his own style from the get-go.

Dilla’s early beats came from his study of jazz musicians and their imperfect moments, which in turn inspired him to later adjust his tempo and beats ever so slightly. By doing this, he created a woozy vibe to the tracks that became addictive. This technique was his own way of experimentation and creation. This innovative sloppiness would become a milestone for the work that would define his style. It was also known simply as “Dilla Time,” and later became the title of Charna’s book.

Part-biography and part-crash course in music production, Charna’s work goes through Dilla’s techniques and creative processes. The Audiobook, too, is highly recommended, as it takes you sonically through beat tutorials and music samples. If you are already a Dilla fan, there are some fun callbacks to several of his most known tracks, too.

For those less aware but interested in the man behind the boards, the book gives you all that you could ask for, from his business achievements and struggles, celebrity interactions, and song origins. His collaborations with artists like Q-tip, Erykah Badu, and Madlib, give colorful insight into how he related to other artists and the industry. One thing, too, is apparent throughout the book: during his time alive, Dilla underestimated his massive influence on others. Producers such as Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and various producers who would usher in the “Neo-Soul” movement would deliberately copy his style much to his discontent.

Because Dilla rarely did press and was mostly a quiet workhorse, over 150 interviews were conducted with various family, friends, and collaborators to give us a full view of the man of few words. Dilla, like so many talented artists, was not immune to controversy, however. The book finds a man who was mainly committed to his music and that caused his relationships with others to suffer. His connection with his popular hip-hop group Slum Village was on again, off again. And sadly, his temper (and infidelity) led to the fissure between him and his long-term partner and the mother of his child.

Truly, the aftermath of his death serves as a cautionary tale for estate planning (yeesh!). Yet, overall this book is a detailed, emotional rollercoaster of music, stories, and life of a genius mind and producer as American as any. On a personal note, as a huge Dilla fan, myself, I was taken back to the times when I discovered him as a producer and artist—a priceless feeling.

Dilla Time invites you to listen to music with a detailed ear while providing context for some of his more classical works and connections (the story of how his magnum opus, Donuts, came to be worth the price of admission, on its own). And by the time, you’re done with Dilla Time you will either become a new fan or realize that you’ve actually always been one.

So, go check it out and then start bobbing your head to J.Dilla’s music.

—Chris Blount

Photo by Gregory Bojorquez/Getty Images

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