Ahead of the release of the long-lost vocal album, Stones Throw’s Eothen ‘Egon’ Alapatt sheds light on experimental hip-hop’s hero, The Diary and its decade long journey
Shout-outs to the lux life of Cadillacs and mink fur coats jostle with aural middle fingers to the police over an ominous, swaggering bassline: this is the diary of J Dilla. James Dewitt Yancey is the patron saint of experimental hip hop, a shooting star snuffed out aged 32 from chronic blood disease. The Diary is the Detroit beatmaker and MC’s posthumous vocal debut, pieced together during his time in hospital and in Michigan studios. It was initially intended for release in 2002, to ride on the waves of his behind-the-scenes success with the likes of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes. His work with the rap group Slum Village was still very much underground, but with this album, Dilla was taking the mic as a burgeoning star in his own right – until MCA shelved the project, that is, believing it wouldn’t appeal to a mass audience.
Ten years later and, following major setbacks, copyright battles and conflicts between Dilla’s estate, label and legal team, The Diary is here. The album was meticulously reassembled at Dilla’s request by former Stones Throw general manager Eothen ‘Egon’ Alapatt, who over the course of a decade oversaw new mixdowns and remasters, delved into the beatmaker’s scattered archives, and brought together the vocal and technical prowess of Bilal, Pete Rock, Mad Lib, Snoop Dogg and Karriem Riggins, to name a few.
Speaking at last week’s pre-release listening party, Alapatt – creative director of Yancey’s estate – talked through the life and times of the creative polymath’s final musical accolade, and the man from a long line of “pimps, hustlers, soldiers and thugs”.
HOW LEGAL BULLSHIT ALMOST BURIED IT FOREVER
“His attorney asked me to become creative director of Jay Dee’s estate. It became obvious there was a strong disconnect between the business and his family, and I ended up cutting cheques for his mother from Stones Throw, because there was no money coming in elsewhere. It all came to a head and they were going to sue me if I didn’t turn all his work over. They wanted Dilla’s old manager in, but I knew Dilla didn’t like the guy. So not only would this vision not get to meet your eyes, but the family wouldn’t make any money on it. We went to court and I spent a lot of my personal money. It was shitty; there were dark moments.”
WHEN THE DIARY BECAME A TRUE DILLA RECORD
“A couple of weeks before we turned it in, honestly. Dilla made this record in the period of about a year, between 2001 and 2002, and he did it quietly. He was given money by MCA, built his own studio and decided he would do this entire record in Detroit. And he wouldn’t ask anybody for advice. So, even though I was a part of the process early on because I was running Stones Throw, which is a hip-hop label that has been around since 1996, when we got the call from Detroit to work with Dilla because he had $25,000 to play with, we thought he had to be joking. I spoke to him about this record in the hospital in the last year of his life – he didn’t think it was gonna take ten years. After he died, he hadn’t given me much direction as to what the record was supposed to be. I had to feel it out, to make sure that it felt like him.”
HOW IT’S AN UNUSUALLY ROWDY HIP HOP RECORD
“Donuts, which he made and left the world with, is beautiful. It’s like an impressionistic thing and anybody can put their description on it and it works. You can feel that the soul of Dilla and your soul are intertwined because you’re reading into everything he’s done. The subtlety is masterful. This guy rapping about cars and coats was who he was, too. This stuff is blasting in your face, but this is the Dilla that we all knew. This was the Dilla that, if you fucked up, would scream at you.”
THE MAKING OF THE DIARY
“To create it, I went by the dates on the files of songs he had created. So if I knew that one song was created in an early iteration of the record – let’s just say in late 2001 – and he did a revision of it in 2002, I knew that Dilla was revising stuff, like the version of ‘The Anthem’ you heard. I had to use incomplete versions of tracks, like the version of ‘Fight Club’ here, which doesn’t have Dilla rapping on it because no one could find anything higher than a really horrible 128kbps MP3, so we just have him on the chorus. The only features that were added on after he died were Snoop Dogg and Kokane, which he had called out on ‘Gangsta Boogie’. The Nas was after, too. Everything else was done while he was alive, in 2001 and 2002. And the one song that I wasn’t able to get done was the song produced by House Shoes with Dilla singing.
“I think when you look at it creatively, there’s a triumph here, because you start hearing songs like ‘The Anthem’, and his version of ‘Give Them What They Want’ and ‘Fuck the Police’. When you hear it in the context of this album, you see why he was gravitating towards Madlib beats that he used on Jaylib and the hint of stuff on his masterwork Donuts.”
“He was humble and transformative to the people around him, and he also liked wearing big coats and driving big trucks and driving around Detroit saying ‘Fuck the police’” – Eothen ‘Egon’ Alapatt
ON JAMES YANCEY
“He was humble and transformative to the people around him, but the only reason he was able to do that was because he was a singular genius touched by a higher power. And he also liked wearing big coats and driving big trucks and driving around Detroit saying ‘Fuck the police’, and you gotta give it up to him. When I had to pick him up at the airport, while we were doing the ‘McNasty Filth’ video for Jaylib, Peanut Butter Wolf was running Stones for us. He was like, ‘Are you really gonna go pick him up in a fucked-up 1993 Volvo?’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘What could be more perfect than to pick up Jay Dee at the airport in this fucked-up car and see what he says?’ And he was actually very gracious about that.”
“He had this incredible amount of respect for all genres’ architects. Pete Rock is on this record, who was his idol. But Dilla was also this guy who was cool going out and buying a stereo to make a rather big Busta Rhymes record out of it. It’s kinda hard to gel those two parts of his personality. It was bizarre being in somewhere like Nando’s with him and trying to grill the guy.”
FIRST MEETING DILLA AND THE BIRTH OF JAYLIB
“The first record that I knew was The Pharcyde’s ‘Runnin’’, a wonderful moment for many hip-hop fans. There was a record called ‘Drop’ that The Pharcyde did also, and there was a sticker on the 12” that said ‘Jay Dee’s Revenge’ or ‘Jay Dee’s Remix’ or something. And then Jay Dee’s remix of Busta Rhymes’ ‘Woo Hah!!’. I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I had a horrific experience interning at Loud Records during the Pete Rock era, so I was like, ‘Man, this guy Jay Dee’s sample got (musical composer Galt) MacDermot with that Busta Rhymes remix, let me try to get in touch with him.’ Peanut Butter Wolf gave me his cell and they invited me to the studio. Dilla, Bob Power and Common are there working on ‘The Light’. They shut down the whole session, start talking about 70s music. I was trying so hard not to be a groupie. But (it was) Bob Power – you heard him on the Tribe Called Quest record (Power worked on the group’s classic Low End Theory) – and there was Common and Dilla. I left Stones Throw in 2000 and I was working with Madlib when he said he wanted to work with Jay Dee, so we had to figure it out. From there came Jaylib. I couldn’t believe when Zane Lowe used to play ‘The Red’ as a top track. We were proud.”
“I do look towards the future when this is seen as a transition piece, between the Dilla that was making records that were selling millions of units, and behind-the-scenes influencing people” – Eothen ‘Egon’ Alapatt
ON HIS FINAL DAYS IN HOSPITAL
“There were a couple of nights where it didn’t seem like he was gonna make it through the night, and I was in the hospital a lot because his mother was very generous, and she said, ‘You can come in and you can hang out, and we can all kind of talk about music and life and just be a part of this thing.’ And we watched Napoleon Dynamite a lot.”
“The main thing that inspired me with all this is that Madlib, who I’ve been working with 16 years and who, when I left Stones Throw, made it very clear that he was gonna work with me regardless of Stones Throw. He’s such an important person in my life and he’s basically like Dilla’s other hand. And he always said Dilla was Coltrane, which would make him either Sun Ra or Miles Davis.”
HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH FOUR TET
“Four Tet was one of the first people to truly understand Dilla, they would intellectualise the creative process. He’s a creative person himself and he’s been forced to go through similar: creative reinvention, financial situations, whatever – same stuff as Dilla. He was saying, 'Think about Jimi Hendrix and what happened after his death.’ There was a rush to cannibalise anything left, you had to throw it out there. And Four Tet was like, ‘But 30 years later, what are the conversations that we have about Jimi Hendrix?’ We have conversations about authenticity. I do look towards the future when this is seen as a transition piece, between the Dilla that was making records that were selling millions of units, and behind-the-scenes influencing people from Erykah Badu to D’Angelo. Then the guy who made the Rough Draft record, the guy who said ‘Fuck the Police’, who made the masterful Donuts.”
BOOTLEGS AND THE ALTERNATE DONUTS
“I was making a lot of bootlegs back then, usually in Bill Smith Custom Records in El Segundo, with Wolf and Madlib. We would just hand-stamp them and sell them. I made one for this Peanut Butter Wolf mix that he was doing and I put a Jaylib song on it. Dilla heard that, so we did it with his track ‘Ice’. We sold, like, 500 copies or something: red label thing, no jacket. I don’t know what they would be worth now.”
“Dilla got very sick at the end of 2004; he died at the beginning of 2006. And over the course of that year and a half, in and out of the hospital, he took beats that he’d been making and compiling on CDs and made what was to become Donuts. He transcended the illness for a while, like the creative force was so great. So when he finally handed me Donuts I didn’t think much of it. He handed me two CDs in the same case and he wrote on it. He had this funny way of writing things, so I kept it. I didn’t think about it for years until one day I was cleaning out my closet and I found the CD. Whoa, it’s so different. The transitions, track lengths. There’s no other songs, but a weird interlude where a guy is like 'It's strange!’ There’s a version with Dilla rapping. Maybe someday those revisions will all come out.”