The Dilla Feel, Part I: The History (J Dilla and The Soulquarians)

This post is part of a 4-part series on the rhythmic style of J Dilla.
Part I: (History) · Part II (Theory) · Part III (Grooves) · Part IV (Application)

The Dilla feel has its origins in the late 90s with the legendary hip-hop producer J Dilla and the neo-soul/RnB/hip-hop collective The Soulquarians.

J Dilla

Hailed as a modern genius, sampling virtuoso, and the Mozart of hip-hop, J Dilla was one of the most influential hip-hop producers of all time. He worked with big name hip-hop acts of the 90s and early 2000s such as De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Common, A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, and The Roots.1 Among other things, Dilla was known for his signature style of loose, shuffly, organic beats.2 In the following posts, I’ll be diving deeper into how he created that feel by eschewing quantization features that were common on drum machines and samplers of the day and instead intentionally playing between the beats.

The Soulquarians

The Soulquarians were a neo-soul/alternative hip-hop music collective formed in the late 90s by Dilla, D’Angelo, Questlove, and James Poyser, later joined by Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Q-Tip, Erykah Badu, Bilal, and Raphael Saadiq. They were bound by a shared taste for underground hip-hop, organic grooves, and a desire to push the boundaries of black music.3 From 1996-2002, the collective was centered around Electric Ladyland studios in NYC4, working day and night , collaborating on multiple records that are now regarded as landmark neo-soul albums including: D’Angelo’s Voodoo (2000), The Roots’ Things Fall Apart (1999), Common’s Like Water For Chocolate (2000), and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun (2000).5 .

Influence on modern music

The influence of J Dilla and The Soulquarians on modern music has been immense. The rest of this series will explore some of the new rhythmic concepts that came out of their music and dig into past and present grooves that reflect their unique style.

References and Further Reading

1.  NPR, 2006. “Hip-Hop Producer, Rapper Jay Dee AKA J Dilla”

2. The Michigan Daily, 2018. ” J Dilla and the art of computer-generated beats”

3. Chicago Tribune, 2000. “A Fresh Collective Soul”

4. Red Bull Music Academy Daily, 2015. “The Soulquarians at Electric Lady: An Oral History”

5. Pitchfork, 2018. “The Soulquarians: The Collaboration Between Erykah Badu, Questlove, D’Angelo, and More”

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