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Dilla's Not Here, Mrs. Torrance: The Stop Smiling Tuesday Review

The Stop Smiling Tuesday Review


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

J Dilla: The Shining

Reviewed by James Hughes

At the conclusion of an August 14th interview on WNYC's Soundcheck, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, the drummer and musical director of the Roots, attempted what several prominent voices in the hip-hop community have struggled with throughout 2006: telling the life story of J Dilla, long considered Detroit's preeminent producer. "He is the tastemaker that inspired at least 20 tastemakers, but he's totally invisible to the listening public," Thompson said. "As far as producers are concerned, this is the guy that we worshiped." Despite producing tracks for marquee acts like De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest and Slum Village (the Detroit trio Dilla co-founded in the mid-Nineties), he kept a low profile. That appeared ready to change with the release of Donuts (Stones Throw), his explosive, accessible instrumental solo record, which hit stores on February 7th, his 32nd birthday. Three days later, Dilla was dead, ostensibly from complications related to lupus.

Though word of his ailing health had circulated since 2002, Dilla (who was born James Yancey and operated as Jay Dee until 2001) remained as productive as his body would allow, going so far as to smuggle in pieces of his studio into his Los Angeles hospital room. While his blood platelet count diminished, Dilla continued to regenerate beats, several of which appear on Donuts, Ghostface Killah's Fishscale and the sketches on the half-cocked but ultimately fulfilling album, The Shining, released today by BBE records. According to Kelley L. Carter of the Detroit Free Press, Dilla came up with title "after waking up in a hospital with a scary-looking mask on his face, reminiscent of the horror movie of the same name." With three quarters of the material for the record completed (the final running time is 36 minutes), Dilla entrusted 30-year-old Karriem Riggins to provide the finishing touches. Like Dilla, Riggins was a fellow Detroit musician with a background in hip-hop production, though he initially began his career in music as a touring jazz drummer. Among Riggins' duties on The Shining was drafting a roster of guest MCs — Pharoahe Monch, Madlib, D'Angelo and Busta Rhymes among them — to flesh out his colleague's final authorized send-off.

Although the guests' contributions are servicable, the focal point of the album's vocal track is the bedrock of dialogue poached from Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror film. The majority of the album's 12 tracks are lean — most barely reach the two minute mark — but the connective tissue of meditative Kubrick dialogue ensures a touch of the surreal at every turn. The samples, most of which are culled from the expositional sequences in the film's first half, are punctuated by the grace notes of Jack Nicholson's madcap performance as Jack Torrance and the soothing flow of Scatman Crothers (a four-time Nicholson co-star) who played Dick Hallorann ("folksy," as Kubrick described Crothers' performance to film critic Michel Ciment). On top of Dilla's beats (in retrospect, each moment a possible cry for help) the samples take on new meaning. The fusion is a feast for those who always wanted — but never realized it possible — to digest a serving of Dilla, who never met a donut he didn't like, and a dash of the clairvoyant Danny Torrance, whose favorite food, as any Shining fan worth his salt truck will tell you, is French fries and ketchup.

The album's dozen songs are soulful enough to warrant heavy rotation in the salmon-colored bedroom where Scatman stares longingly into the afro oil paintings that line the walls. In that Miami bachelor pad, the standout track would be "Love Jones." Along with infectious stabs of brass, the track showcases Dilla's signature drum sound, complete with kick drums that land a needle-bump late, yet somehow manage to cling within the margins of the rhythm, avoiding total collapse. Think "Blue Monk" on an MPC. However, large portions The Shining are not sample-based, but played on live instruments, courtesy of Riggins. (In the hospital, Dilla struggled even to handle drum machines, though he carried on through the pain. He also veered into new directions vocally, as heard on the hypnotic "Nothing Like This." The track appears on the Stones Throw compilation Chrome Children, due out in October, and will surely not be the last of the producer's posthumous releases.)

Elsewhere on The Shining, the triumvirate behind the Jaylib song "Strapped" on 2004's Champion Sound — a driving Dilla beat backed by Detroit's Guilty Simpson and West Coast mastermind Madlib — reconvene on the crowd-pleasing "Baby," along with "Love," featuring Pharoahe Monch. While living in Los Angeles, Dilla roomed with Common, another Midwest transplant, who chips in for two appearances. On the first, "E=MC2," he holds his own in a Vocoder duet, but falters when he trades in the club lights for candlelight on "So Far So Good." Accompanied by D'Angelo, Common offers coos that would keep even the promiscuous woman in Room 237 stewing in her bathwater. ("Let me lyricize you/ What your mouth don't say, baby, your thighs do.")

According to the dilligent Dilla reporting of Kelley L. Carter, during his LA hospital stays, he "called his mother and asked if she'd come out to LA to help take care of him." The two remained inseparable from that point on, regardless of whether they were able to psychically share the same space. Dilla, who at times struggled even to swallow his food, increasingly relied on relationships built on instinct and trust — the need for nonverbal communication and guidance in an increasingly cold, Kubrickian world. This level of intensely private outreach is evident in the ubiquitous Scatman sample that anchors the album. After cribbing his daydreams in the food storage locker, Crothers reveals his deepest secret to his new telekinetic brother-in-arms: "I can remember when I was a little boy, my grandmother and I could hold conversations entirely without ever opening our mouths. She called it shining."


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