I try as hard as I can to not let an early death recontextualize an artist’s work. With someone like Pac (who was obsessed with death and how he’d be seen when he was gone), it certainly adds an eerie, prophetic element to some of his writing. But I refuse to see B.I.G. as a victim in the passenger seat of a car in LA; Big L isn’t a misunderstood martyr, he’s a very good punchline rapper from a clique of very good punchline rappers.
Similarly, I refuse to let J Dilla become the “real hip hop!!!! boycott Lil Wayne!!!!” icon that YouTube commenters so desperately want to make him, for one very simple reason: That’s not what he was.
My very good friend (and very good rapper) John Daniel pointed out to me a while back that these anti-mainstream (whatever that means) ‘activists’ are completely forgetting the fact that not only did Dilla surround himself with lots of violent, money-and-women-obsessed rappers, he often was one. So every time you see someone on the internet with a “J Dilla Changed My Life” t-shirt as their display picture talking about how we shouldn’t listen to Rapper X because they’re rich or on TV or say “bitch” or know what a gun looks like or whatever, remember that Dilla drew no such arbitrary lines in the sand.
Now, I hesitated putting this out there at all because I expect that that last paragraph will, at worst, be lifted from its context and used on OK Player to argue that we shouldn’t really hold Dilla in such high esteem and, at best, be ignored by the kinds of rap fans who run to the QN5 forums to hide from their cognitive dissonance. But, obviously, the point here is that Dilla was one of the most brilliant artists we’ll ever have the pleasure of knowing, and petty arguments about aesthetics and who “real rap fans” are (or if “real rap” exists) should go away all together.
And he was brilliant. I’m constantly on the lookout for the very human impulse we all have to romanticize the work of artists who have passed, but Dilla’s best work holds up under any amount of scrutiny. Lots of the most acclaimed instrumental albums we have are glorified beat tapes, and most of the rest are indulgent nonsense. But Donuts is an unqualified masterpiece that so far surpasses the best work of most other great producers–albums with rapping on them included–that it’s as if he put a GameShark on top of his MPC.
The story of him finishing “Bye.” in his hospital bed, being mad when his mother insisted on hearing it before it was complete, then releasing it on his thirty-second birthday (three days before his death) is too sad for me to handle tonight, so I’m going to have to play the album from the beginning and hope I fall asleep on the A side. But I probably won’t.