In this piece Carter Lee deconstructs the intricate basslines of deceased record producer and rapper J Dilla, examining the structure of his music both in terms of the theory behind it and the challenges of recreating his specific tone.
I often get asked about my favorite bassists. It makes sense — I’m a bass player. The truth is though, my answers have changed almost constantly throughout my musical development. But despite my shifting interests, ever since I first heard The Shining, J Dilla has consistently had an impact on my playing, and has been the first name that pops into my head as a favorite.
Dilla was a legendary producer; he was the “Mozart of Hip Hop”; and he had some serious emcee chops. But to me, as a bass player, his construction of bass lines makes him an undeniably talented low-ender. The lines he sampled, chopped, and at times even played, are some of the most beautifully placed and harmonically rich lines ever recorded.
I have always found hours of fertile practice ground in Dilla’s music, a dojo for anyone trying to understand harmony and groove on a higher level. If you’re a bass player and want to hear what tensions in the bass line can sound like, listen to “Believe in God” from Jay Loves Japan.
And if you want a real challenge in playing on different parts of the beat, check out Dilla’s remix of the Pharcyde’s track “She Said.” I remember being in a bass lab at Berklee, as eight different players tried to play that line. Some came closer than others, but nobody really nailed it. A lot of players try to mimic Dilla, and can sound awful doing it, because on first listen, the lines can sound random, chaotic even, but as you dig deeper into each track, you realize every note is exactly where it needs to be.
With the release of a new posthumous album, The Diary slated for April 15th, now is the perfect time to take a closer look at some J Dilla, starting with his first mainstream production, “Stakes Is High.” Dilla produced “Stakes Is High” for the 1996 De La Soul record by the same name. With the bulk of the track coming from a precisely cut sample of Ahmad Jamal’s “Swahililand,” this track provided the perfect bed for De La’s attack on what was perceived as a declining hip hop culture.
Digging into the musical components of this track, the first thing you’ll notice is that it feels relentless and in seemingly perpetual motion. That has a lot to do with how active the bass line is, but it has even more do with the fact that the loop is a three bar phrase. While most producers create an even number of bars for their tracks, Dilla was so in command of his craft that he could make the odd structure feel natural. The first two measures provide the tension, and when the harmony resolves with a II-V-I progression, there is a feeling of release and calm for the third measure before it sets right back up.
Keeping with the theme of threes, check out the dotted eighth note figure throughout. To my ear, that’s where most of the emphasis seems to be placed. Now look at where those figures occur in the track: beat one and four of the first measure and beat three of the second, or every three beats. The fact that “Stakes” has all of this rhythmic complexity and is STILL a neck-breaking beat is a perfect example of what makes Dilla ahead of his time. Producers like Flying Lotus and Knxwledge have this much depth in their music today, but Dilla did it in ’96.
Harmonically, there isn’t anything too crazy happening here. As the bass line winds down the F minor scale, the melody uses a fairly constant G, employing it as just about every chord tone and tension possible, beginning and ending as the 9th of the F minor chord. Simple, singable melodies are another Dilla trademark.
Recreating His Bass Tone
The sample is an upright (Jamil Nasser’s to be exact) so electric bassists won’t be able to totally recreate that tone, but you can make some adjustments that will help get you close. Using flat wound strings is a good place to start, as they offer a warm, dark tone that you can’t get from round-wounds. Next, use your neck pickup (if you have a P bass even better), keep the tone knob fairly closed, and pluck closer to the fretboard. Scoop out some of the low and high mids on your amp and boost the lows a little. Finally, if you have a reverb pedal, mix in just a touch of it. Nothing can totally recreate the weight and resonance of an upright, but with some experimentation, you’ll find a wide range of tones on an electric that can almost substitute.
It’s hard to explain exactly what learning Dilla’s music can do for you. All I know is that I’ve spent hours sitting on the same loop over and over, trying to get the feel, tone, attack, and placement just right, and I’m hoping that eventually, one day, that will show in my playing.
J Dilla’s posthumous release, The Diary, was released on April 15th. Preview and buy the album on iTunes here!