In 2001, J Dilla sat in a booth at Detroit’s Studio A with one goal in mind: to make his mark on the music industry. After signing a two-album deal with major label MCA Records, Dilla’s mainstream debut was intended to take advantage of a certain momentum.
Having been a member of ’90s rap trio Slum Village, he was about to transition into becoming hip hop’s brightest beat-maker, inspiring the likes of Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots.
Things started to go wrong, however, when his most-trusted connection at the label – A&R Wendy Goldstein – left to work at Capitol Records, prompting MCA to shelve the album.
Dilla subsequently moved to Los Angeles and joined indie label Stones Throw, where he developed the most revered collaboration of his career with fellow beatmaster Madlib. But he soon began fighting an incurable blood disease and eventually passed away in 2006, aged 32.
The producer’s stature has grown ever since. Maintaining that legacy, however, has been a source of drawn-out contention and legal battles.
Now, 15 years after its inception, that vocal-led album for MCA (originally titled Pay Jay but renamed The Diary) has been re-booted by Eothen ‘Egon’ Alapatt – the man Dilla assigned the project to before he died.
Egon, who serves as creative director for Dilla’s Estate while running his own imprint Now Again, talked to Huck about the years spent years trying to resurrect a lost album by one of hip hop’s greatest pioneers.
What was it like to be the one responsible for the sonic architecture of The Diary?
With a project like this, where there are numerous different threads that have to be stitched together in one piece and numerous people that know how the threads are supposed to be arranged, a dialogue has to happen. House Shoes, J Rocc and all the collaborators that were part of the record had to be consulted and their opinions taken seriously, because its creator didn’t leave us any sort of direction other than what he organised in his files and what we knew of the demos sent to MCA. But because of all the archival work that I do with Now Again, I realised that if I spent too much time discussing the outcome with the committee, I was never gonna please anybody and the final work would be a jumbled record with alternate versions and bonus tracks and extra CDs… Dilla wouldn’t have wanted that. Even though we can all make him into our own and love and cherish what he did, there’s a certain point where we also have to respect the fact that he had a very clear idea for this project. That’s what I wanted to see through… I hope I’ve done him justice because, at the very end of this process, I knew the one person I didn’t want to piss off was him.
What was Dilla like to work with?
He was one of those people where you realise how important and special they are but also how fragile your relationship [with them] is. He’s coming from a different space. I believe he was touched by a higher power. People like that can be very fiery; you had to be on your A-game with him all the time. It could be odd to be around Dilla. You could say the wrong thing and it could lead to a very tense situation. But at the same time, he could be very generous, giving and loyal. He inspired confidence in those around him. That’s basically what he did to myself: inspired me to be confident enough to work on this project after his death.
How did the plan for releasing The Diary come about and what was the biggest challenge throughout the process?
Dilla and I had a conversation one day about The Diary, Ruff Draft and a couple other projects that he worked on when he left Detroit and moved to Los Angeles. His mother was there with us; we were at the hospital. So we decided that, at the appropriate time, we would get these tapes, look into them and figure out how to put them together – especially The Diary andRuff Draft.
Later, when he passed away and his mother Maureen felt ready, we called up Studio A where he had warehoused the tapes. Me and Dave Cooley, the mastering engineer who worked with Dilla in the last couple of years of his life, unpacked all the files and then started piecing it all together. J Rocc was a huge help in the early part of the process; House Shoes later on as well; Karriem had the electric guitar track that we couldn’t find in the multi-tracks. It was a nightmare! Then it was about asking questions and finding what made sense. In the end, the biggest challenge for me was putting into place a structure with which we could release the music. I didn’t even have an idea of how it should be done. The only thing that made sense was that I was running Stones Throw and this should be released through the label. In 2006, I didn’t have any idea that I would restart Pay Jay and put it out through that. But that’s the end result, with its trials and tribulations over the course.
Were there moments when you felt this project just wasn’t going to happen?
A couple of months before the record was put into production, I thought about just removing myself from it all together. I had a really tense conversation with Dilla’s mom because she was beefing with House Shoes [who took to social media to accuse her of profiting from Dilla’s legacy]. I think she still is. It was really, really bad. I wanted to remove myself but then I realised I couldn’t. This is something I committed to and regardless of what comes next, I’m gonna deal with this commitment.
Is ‘Ma Dukes’ happy with The Diary?
I don’t think so, honestly. She told me to shelve the record before actually going into production because of this thing with House Shoes. We haven’t really spoken since, although I tried to talk with her. I have a great deal of respect for her and for being welcomed into her son’s life. And during the time we spent at that vulnerable space at the hospital, she told me it was okay [to work on The Diary]. When I took the role of creative director [of The Estate of James Yancey], I’d just listen to whatever she said and do it. But when she told me to shelve the record, I said ‘I can’t.’ Regardless of what happened between ‘Ma Dukes’ and House Shoes, it’s water under the bridge for this project, because [the collaboration] was a decision House Shoes and Dilla made together in 2001 and that’s the Dilla that I’m trying to portray, not what happened since. It was all very difficult; it was almost heartbreaking. She suffered so much and I wanted her to be happy with everything, but I don’t know if she’s going to be happy with this. I really don’t. I hope she will, because I believe this is very close to her son’s vision for this record and I spent a tremendous amount of effort doing it… I’m going to see this thing through and ultimately this will be an asset to pay back not just his immediate heirs, but his children.
How did you feel after realising it was ready to be released?
The first thing I felt was a great sense of relief. When you finally take the leap off the cliff and you put the record out there, you know there’s nothing else you can do except wait. It may take a couple of weeks or months for people to start getting it, listening to it, experiencing it and giving their take. It may not be well received. That’s something you come to terms with when you work in the record industry and put out something you believe in, regardless of what you suffered [through] or the time and money you spent on it. It comes out, people pick it up and judge it based on this man’s legacy.
Did the fact that this was shelved by a major label, leading Dilla to Stones Throw, reshape his mindset and approach?
Of course. You know, it’s hard to take compliments if you don’t like compliments, but getting one from Dilla was the most difficult thing to achieve. But he would always say in subtle ways very nice things about the environment at Stones Throw and the way that it worked and how dedicated some of us were. That probably came from the way he was treated when he was working with major labels where he was looked as a cog in a big machine, whereas at Stones Throw he was looked as ‘it’. Him and Madlib were collectively ‘it’. We were not sitting there bowing down and praising him, we were just working with utmost respect and loyalty and feeling blessed to have Dilla with us. That internal, emotional state resonates outwards in a lot of ways.
Many of Dilla’s projects were released posthumously and they obviously went through edits without him present. That’s also the case with Donuts, for which you have the original cut. Where has this version been and how was it edited from its original assemblage?
He once gave me two CDs in the hospital with the inscription ‘Dilla Donuts’ on the cover. Normally I throw CDs out, but in that case I kept one of them and I just threw it in the closet somewhere. It wasn’t until long after he passed away that I was looking through my closet and I saw the CD. I’ve put it on and listened to it and I was like, ‘Wow, this is way different’. I remembered that Jeff [Jank, Stones Throw’s art director] did an intense amount of editing on the record because he was the only person Dilla hadn’t screamed at at Stones Throw. I’ve been screamed at by Dilla, I was definitely not gonna call him; Wolf [Peanut Butter Wolf, head of Stones Throw] was screamed at more than anybody so he was definitely not gonna call. We were all about putting the record out as Dilla wanted it. But Jeff, out of full heartiness, just figured he’d call up Dilla and say he was going to edit the record. Dilla approved it and so now we have the version that everybody heard, which is this edited version – although we still have his original vision. I do go back and listen to it now and then.
Will we ever get to listen to it too?
Maybe. Everything that comes after this is a revision and the thing about my role as creative director is that I can be let go tomorrow. It was always tenuous: I had to litigate with the first executor to keep my position and even get The Diary out, so I don’t look at anything as a given. I just hope that all of this music, if ever put out to the world, is done with the utmost respect.
What have you learned from working with Dilla?
You know what he taught me more than anything? That at a human being’s most difficult point, you still have to carry yourself with humility and as if you’re fortunate. You still have to push forward. If you’re a creative person, you have to create. I’ve been around a lot of creative people and I’ve been around a lot of musicians close to death and I still think about Dilla all the time because you have to push yourself. If I’m ever in a position like that, I hope that I can look back and be inspired by that.
The Diary is out on Mass Appeal.