You interviewed more than 190 people from all aspects of Dilla’s life, and synthesised all that information together in a way that reads almost like a novel. We’re often inside J Dilla’s head, or there in his basement flipping through his records as he cuts up with friends, or watching him make tracks with some of hip-hop’s biggest names. Everybody had something to say about him. Was it difficult to stay focused on putting together a clear narrative of his life and art?
“There was definitely a lot to work with. I want to start by saying that it’s harder to write the stories of people who aren’t white, due to white supremacist culture’s resistance to preserving them. Related, it’s even harder to write deep, seriously researched biographies of people in hip-hop. There aren’t that many around. I realised that nobody else was doing this, and a decade had passed since his death. I thought, ‘If I don’t do it, it will never be done’.
“I had already created a syllabus of his story for my Dilla class, which began in 2017 at the Clive Davis Institute at Tisch School of the Arts New York University. For the book itself, I ended up concentrating on two tracks — just like much of Dilla’s production. The first laid out the music theory, explaining how Dilla changed things, his mechanics and his influence: the musical time track. I also knew I had to have a biographical track. But that soon burgeoned, because more and more people started sharing their stories. The more I spoke with them, the deeper I went.”
Was there anyone it was hard to coax into talking?
“One of the main ones was Q-Tip, who plays such a fundamental role in James’ life and development. First he said he would talk, then he said he wouldn’t talk. I think what happened with him, and others who were reluctant to speak, was someone came along to tell them that I wasn’t on some bullshit. I think people are very protective of James and his legacy, and want to make sure it’s being done justice.
“On the other side, surprisingly, was his mother Maureen, who shared so much. I think there was a relief that someone was finally telling the whole story. She was eager to dispel a lot of the clichés and false rumours that had grown up around him since he passed away.”
You establish Dilla’s deep roots in Detroit music and history, through his family’s extensive musical past and the Conant Gardens neighbourhood where he grew up, one of the first places in the city where Black people were allowed to buy homes. Then you go beyond that, and map Dilla’s music directly onto the actual geography of Detroit. Its cartography of off-kilter street grids, overlaid with a network of side roads and byways, becomes an ingenious metaphor for his production method. How did this idea come to you?
“I’m an urbanist by training, my degrees are in urban studies and African American studies. So I’ve always been obsessed by the layout, design and function of cities. Sometime around 2016, an old black-and-white industrial film concerning the evolution of Detroit’s street grid began to circulate, and I thought it was just fascinating. I was trying to fit Detroit history, Dilla’s early family history, and the musicology of his technique all together, and that’s when it jumped out at me. The grid is really a conflicted polyrhythm. If you look at the cartography on a musical level, it’s threes and twos placed against each other, but also complexly misaligned on a more micro level. I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t you use the Detroit street grid to teach the theory while you talk about the family that lived in that grid?’ There was every reason to believe that that conceit would fail spectacularly. But that’s the chapter everyone seems to love.”