Words: Michael A. Gonzales
As my man DJ Clark Kent recently pointed out to me, there is no such thing as soul or hip-hop or rock. “It’s all just music,” he said. Indeed, if there was one thing our man J Dilla knew about, it was music. This is why he had no problem flipping tracks for hip-hop clientele as well as soul children Janet Jackson, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. Recently, I interviewed singer/producer Bilal, whose forthcoming A Love Surreal is already being lauded as one best soul discs of the year. He and Dilla first collaborated on the track “Reminisce,” from Bilal’s debut 1st Born Second (Interscope, 2001). Twelve years later, his man from the D is still on his mind.
Can you talk about the value of collaborations?
Bilal: The best part of working with people is learning from them. I’ve worked with a lot of masters, so to get to watch I learned mad stuff. Not even asking questions, but just observing how they hear the music and what they respond too. Just to see other peoples focus. One of the people who intrigued me the most was J Dilla. He was just so fluid in the studio. The way he worked was as if he was boundless. He knew the electronics so well, a lot of time he didn’t need an engineer or anybody. Then, when it came down to playing the music, he didn’t need any musicians. He’d be getting on the keyboard. I was like, “Man, I never thought you could do all of that.”
What was Dilla’s studio like?
Bilal: His studio looked like a library of records. You couldn’t see the walls. There were shelves that just went to the ceiling covered with records. He worked out of his house, then it got so busy he had two houses. In the house we worked out of this spot the basement was the studio. He had a gumball machine and a pinball machine. Then he had a Wurlitzer and all his instruments down there. And just mad records. He knew every record.
Was there a system?
Bilal: [laughs] If there was a system, you didn’t really know. It just was so natural to him. He would be talking to us and making the beat at the same time, not missing a thing. Ten minutes later, he’d turn up the speakers and he’d be playing a brand new beat. He did “Reminisce” in ten minutes. He would just ride around in his jeep all day listening to music. From me sitting down taking my coat off, he’d be grabbing a record off the wall, finding the sample, chopping it and he would just make it. He did everything from scratch.
How long were you in Detroit with him?
Bilal: I was there for like a week. Then, I went out there again to work with him on his album. He was doing an album for MCA at the time. Went out there for another week. Each time I worked with him, I’d be there for about five days.
What was it about the Dilla’s sound that stood out to you?
Bilal: Dilla… you could tell he was really inspired by what Q-Tip was doing. But he was so funky. And his understanding of rhythm, like it was a deeper understanding of rhythm and soul. And his understanding of simplicity. He could do so much in a beat, but still it sounded simple.