Written by Ashley Mitchell
Producers. The unsung heroes of both mainstream and underground music. While the argument of whether hip-hop has gotten better or worse will forever be batted around, there's no doubt an influx of limitless beats are being realized. There are beat-makers and tastemakers who are awake long after the party is over composing, thriving, and releasing their mastery.
One of those creators was the incomparable James 'J Dilla' Yancey. Producer to many industry greats, Dilla paved the way for an extensive list of musicians. Dilla's brilliance left a legacy for young, old, upcoming, and seasoned artists to study and admire. His music is transcending. My all time favorite song, "Didn't Cha Know" by Erykah Badu and produced by Dilla, is a classic because of the poetic rhythm. Erykah croons her mellow and relatable lyrics, but you could listen to his instrumental and still feel all the emotions the song has to offer. That is part of the DNA within Dilla's art, and why he's continuously celebrated more than a decade after his passing.
Dilla Day, originally started as 'Detroit Loves Dilla,' is a moment to celebrate Jay Dee's life and what he gave us. The event usually takes place early February to commemorate both his birthday and his death (February 7th, 1974 - Februrary 10th, 2006). Since its Detroit debut in 2011, cities across the country, including San Antonio, have joined in on the tribute to the legend. Dilla Day SA was held at the Limelight, hosted by DJ Freeverse. In addition to honoring his music, a portion of the event's proceeds were donated to the Lupus Society Texas Chapter. A group of local artists were handpicked to perform throughout the night and share their appreciation for Dilla's craft.
"My whole goal in doing this event was to make it free, fun and inviting for everyone. When dealing with choosing the talent, I personally hand select every artist on this showcase, and I make sure that no two sound alike," said Freeverse. "I only pick the artist if they are really putting in work. I try and select musicians from all over the city. I want to show you the different parts of San Antonio. I want you to know about the OG's like Mad One, and the pride of the westside Apaso. However, I also want to introduce you to the soul of artists like Amea, and the versatility of lyricism like Intre."
The line-up also featured, Phree-Bass Sampulz (Mikey Strange and Baby Aztro), who performed songs from previous mixtapes, as well as music from their latest project, XP8. Aztro credits Dilla as one of his major influences when creating music. "His music serves as a reminder to avoid being confined in a box, while creating obscure sh*t into something refreshing. I honestly use his music as a metric for beats I make. When I start feeling like a beat sounds basic, that's when it's back to the drawing board."
Freeverse led the night, spinning mash-ups of Dilla's music mixed with the original songs he sampled. While waiting for the following acts, local producers provided the crowd with interludes from their own archives.
"In the beginning of hip-hop, it was all about praising the DJ in the park. Now, in present day hip-hop, it's all about praising the producer and pushing him to be beyond belief. J Dilla made it possible for the Kanyes, Apollo Browns and Statik Selektahs. That's why I offered time in between performances to showcase and honor the local producers such as Progeny of Chisme, Ghost Palace, and Kizer Soze," said Freeverse.
Kizer Soze, one half of the duo Dead the Poets, has been producing in San Antonio for about 5 years. His music paired perfectly with artists and music aficionados conversing between sets, donuts being washed down with Lonestar Beer, and the overall love for Jay Dee that filled Limelight.
"I think I got a few techniques from Dilla when it comes to the working with soul samples and using heavy 808's to make sure my shit knocks. I believe it would be hard for any fan of hip-hop to not know, or heard of, anything he manufactured. I mean, his catalog spans from Tribe[Called Quest], Pharcyde, Janet Jackson, Doom, Ghostface...etc...If you can't find something memorable from any of those artists, then you have no ear."
It's hard to pinpoint one aspect of Dilla's music that makes him so iconic. Nevertheless, his gift was unmatched. Because of this, we'll continue to perpetuate his art. When someone's work can inspire others to keep creating and do better, it's imperative we nurture that, and celebrate.
"A producer has not been able to set the bar that high creatively. There are plenty of good producers that exist, but Dilla really created a soundscape. A vibe that can't be duplicated and it's obvious when people try to emulate his style. Plus, when you throw in the resume and track record, that is why the celebration is deserved," Aztro said.