They're like the Jackson 5 – from Mars!
Louis Pattison 2008-12-10
Since his death from a lupus-related illness in February 2006, former Slum Village member James 'J Dilla' Yancey has been all but canonised by a certain corner of the hip-hop community that likes their beats blunted, organic-feeling, and jazzy. Since, a string of other cats have pulled impressive moves in said territory – Flying Lotus, for example, whose 2008 album, Los Angeles, copped something of Dilla's hazy psychedelia and jazzy lope – but Yancey himself remains unimpeachable, the benchmark.
Inevitable, then, that the excavation of some previously unheard Dilla beats has got the fanboys excited, not least because they come with the added extra of Yancey's younger brother John, a 23-year old MC/producer dedicated to following in his older sibling's footsteps. Illa J is not quite a dead ringer for his brother, but his laconic, tuneful singing and casual, deliciously random rapping (''I'm super-talented, my favourite White Stripes album is Elephant/OK I know, that's irrelevant'' he announces, in lazy nasal, in Strugglin') should be familiar to anyone that’s heard Dilla on the mic. Meanwhile, the beats – which date back to Yancey’s spell working for Delicious Vinyl, producing tracks for The Pharcyde's 1995 album Labcabincalifornia – might be offcuts, but seldom bear that mark, sweet and subtle productions that wind up jazz keys, gutsy kicks, and clacking snare with a warm, natural feel. Perhaps the album highlight comes with RU Listening?, also featuring Guilty Simpson, whose gruff, assured delivery audibly has Illa raising his game.
If Yancey the younger sometimes too laid back for his own good, though, it's far from a big problem: it's clear he grasps the spirit of this music, to the extend that after a few spins, it's all but impossible to separate beats from verse. Perhaps Frank Nitty says it best, however, when he shows up on Alien Family to reflect on the skills of the multi-talented Yancey family. ''They're like the Jackson 5 – from Mars'', he says.