Posted by: Dominic Umile | 06/05/2009

Close Listen: J Dilla, ‘Jay Stay Paid’

J Stay PaidStructured in a fashion similar to his Ruff Draft or Donuts — segues rounded off with pitch-bent synths, sirens, and drops a la late night radio (with actual on-air bits peppering the album) — Jay Stay Paid is a colorful collection of beats from J Dilla, mostly left untouched to stew in their glorious instrumental origins. In 28 tracks mixed and arranged by Pete Rock (and executive produced by Yancey’s mother), Jay Stay Paid is striking, sample-heavy hip hop, the kind we’ve come to expect from the prolific, long under-appreciated artist.

James “J Dilla/Jay Dee” Yancey passed away three years ago of complications from a blood disease and lupus, an illness in which one’s immune system attacks the body’s healthy tissue. He made an unforgettable mark in both popular and independent music circles, holding down a sometimes uncredited main producer role for a number of acts that readers here are familiar with, while pouring his life’s work into records that a lot of folks haven’t heard, but should (Jaylib, Slum Village, the Donuts LP).

I had planned on interviewing Dilla for Chord Magazine just months before his Donuts saw release in early 2006. Our talk never materialized because he was sick; I regret that the piece I eventually filed with my editor was a tribute. By the time stores got a hold of Donuts, a landmark ode to classic soul dealt in a seamless blend of chopped and enhanced 45s samples (I wrote about it for Orlando Weekly, 2/2/06 issue), J Dilla had just three days to live.

The sentiments expressed with regard to Dilla’s work ethic, talent, and overall demeanor are identical — I spoke with Detroit’s Phat Kat, Guilty Simpson, and Black Milk about the multi-faceted artist for an Orlando Weekly/Detroit Metro Times story in 2007. They’d all professed primarily the same deep admiration for the work that Dilla had done, and for the doors he’d opened for Detroit musicians.

Phat Kat contributed a verse on “Digi Dirt,” one of the shorter Jay Stay Paid tracks. It’s head-spinning: each of the emcee’s adjourning syllables lands in the same vicinity, and Dilla’s tapestry of both taut and swelling string samples don’t help much in slowing down the ride. “Reality TV” features a devastating appearance from the Roots’ Black Thought, who aptly curls his quick wordsmithing around the names of dozens of reality TV programs, perhaps in the vein of GZA’s “Labels,” while one of the more urgent Dilla creations serves as the Philadelphia emcee’s launchpad. It’s the best pairup here, but the wordless moments — although it’s tough to get used to their cutthroat brevity — win by a long shot. This is a delirious record, with sometimes hard, slamming drum breaks and blaring synth snippets when the productions aren’t just slow grooves, animated with a fascinating mesh of carefully nicked pieces from a universe of sources. “Milk Money,” “Expensive Whip,” and “King” differ so strongly in makeup that it’s mind boggling that they came from the same place. For the uninitiated, Jay Stay Paid is a good look at the life of a “master appreciator,” someone who’d basically spent years honing his ability to draw attention to the granular particulars of a record — all of the bright, hidden pieces that too often go criminally unheard. But don’t stop with this one; there’s a whole catalog to discover.

“I don’t really listen to too much music,” Stones Throw emcee MED told me in the run-up to the release of his 2005 Push Comes to Shove LP. “I usually just listen to beat CDs, like Madlib’s, J Dilla’s, Oh No’s, and Kankick’s. [And] of course, Doom and everybody that I’m down with. They’re always my favorites. That’s all I really listen to are people I’m doing stuff with, like Doom, Jay, Madlib, and all them.”

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