Soul Séance

Will Madlib's new album be enough to bring Dilla back from the dead?

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There’s no better way to conjure cherished memories of departed, musically inclined loved ones than spinning a dusty groove. That’s essentially what the rapper-producer Madlib has done on his phantasmagoric Beat Konducta, Vol. 5-6: A Tribute to. . . (Stones Throw), an homage to one of his greatest contemporaries, James “J Dilla” Yancey, the legendary backpack hip-hop producer who succumbed to complications of lupus three years ago.  

In many ways, Madlib and Dilla, best known for his work with A Tribe Called Quest, Slum Village, Common and Erykah Badu are twin musical souls. They shared an indefatigable work ethic and similar sonic sensibility. When they began collaborating in 2000, they billed themselves as Jaylib, eventually releasing Champion Sound (Stones Throw), three years later, on which they spat rhymes over each other beats. The tracks were far more superior to the rapping, but as producers, Madlib and Dilla forged a symbiotic bond. 

Beat Konducta is not the first Dilla tribute. Various hip-hop, R&B and jazz greats, such as The Roots, Erykah Badu and Robert Glasper have toasted Dilla. Donuts (Stones Throw), the now-classic J Dilla disc hit the streets just three days before he died. And now following the release of Beat Konducta in India, Vol. 3-4 (Stones Throw, 2007), a frisky excursion into Bollywood music, Madlib, with the help of J. Rocc, finally venerates Dilla explicitly on Vol. 5-6 

Soul stirring if somber in many places, Vol. 5-6 sounds as if Madlib is trying to send Dilla messages through a sonic séance. Madlib’s grief and gratitude reveal themselves on the opening “For My Mans (Prelude),” on which a recurring sampled chorus, “Since you’ve been away so long” accentuates his lament. An announcer soon bellows: “You’re welcomed any time you want to come back/Thank you very much for giving us a lot of great things/We have something special for you/So you’re going to be involved with the music,” offering a setup for 41 more vignettes that are decidedly Dilla-esque in sonic design.   

Listening to Vol. 5-6 and Donuts back-to-back to discern their similarities and differences requires numerous, concentrated spins and discriminating ears, Vol. 5-6 is abstract and personal, almost to point of being cagey. Madlib effectively reprises some of Donuts’ signature sound effects that Dilla incorporated to achieve a suite-like feel. Blaring sirens, bleeping vintage video games and manic screams function as recurring motifs throughout Vol. 5-6. Madlib also channels Dilla’s knack for tweaking the emotions of old-school R&B songs by alternating the tempos and chopping up vocal chorus as well as his gift for crafting melancholy soundscapes, saturated in hazy reverb and bolstered by sinewy yet jazz-inflected beats 

This tribute album hearkens back to another musical partnership between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. When Strayhorn died in 1967, Ellington paid his respects that year with the misty-eyed . . . And They Called Him Bill (Flying Dutchman). In similar fashion, Madlib started his Beat Konducta series soon after Dilla passed.  

Without knowing the circumstances behind how the disc was made, Dilla’s Donuts was a laborious listening experience. With its jarring pacing, it initially resembled a scattershot vanity project. But once the back story was revealed of Dilla recording much of it in his hospital bed, the disc resonated with more apocryphal anguish. Theories have since surfaced about Dilla sending cloaked messages about his pending mortality through cuts like the remorseful “Stop,” the somber “Don’t Cry” and the eerie “Bye.” There were talks about the disc’s title as being a reference to the circle of life; some hip-hop enthusiasts argued that the disc’s number of tracks symbolized Dilla’s age. Whatever the case may be, Donuts remains one of the most distressing and disorienting hip-hop albums of this decade. 

Today, Dilla’s spirit may guide Vol. 5-6. But it doesn’t possess Madlib’s voice entirely. Madlib’s fondness for lifting dialogue from vintage movies and live, standup-comedy acts pops up intermittingly, as does his love for vertigo-inducing panning effects and thick beds of anthemic strings. In some ways, Madlib has improved upon Dilla’s beat-centric approach. While swift and erratic in places, Vol. 5-6 flows more evenly than Donuts. Maybe it’s because Madlib had three years to perfect the methodology or that he didn’t have the chill of death hovering over him. Nevertheless, the ghost inside Vol. 5-6 is unmistakably Dilla.  

John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.