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J Dilla - Welcome 2 Detroit Music Album Reviews

Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit a piece of Detroit history that rippled through all of hip-hop.

The opening two notes of Welcome 2 Detroit, a dramatic double hit of modulated bass guitar and dusted organ, represent the culmination of a vast musical history. Not only was this album J Dilla’s debut as a 27-year-old solo artist, but it was also the first time that name appeared on a record cover. After nearly a decade of DIY releases, high-profile remixes, and productions credited to Jay Dee, slowly a renown bordering on reverence was built for one James DeWitt Yancey.

Though he had several creative phases yet to come, Dilla was, in many ways, operating at the very peak of his game at the turn of the millennium. His production work with A Tribe Called Quest had brought him into the neo-soul collective Soulquarians, a circle of like-minded collaborators who had just worked on a string of critically acclaimed LPs: the Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Common’s Like Water For Chocolate, and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun. After donating his talents to artists, it was time for Dilla alone to step into the spotlight.

What Dilla ultimately delivered to the label was not even close to a beat tape, which was what he was ostensibly commissioned to create. As much a portrait of a city as a personal introduction, Welcome 2 Detroit is closer to a jazz-funk concept album like 1969’s Yusef Lateef’s Detroit than a conventional rap record, framing Jay’s own particular reinvention of hip-hop within the city’s multi-decade legacy, including live excursions into techno, electric jazz, and Afro-funk.

It was a lot to get across, especially for an artist known chiefly to those listeners who cared enough to read productions credits in the liner notes—which is why it packed so much into its very first bar. That initial double tap, followed by a more intricate resolution of the musical phrase in a bass and drum shuffle, admirably served to condense the history of Dilla, Detroit, and beyond. Like many individual notes and drum hits in Jay Dee’s extensive beat catalog, they reward obsessive, granular contemplation. The texture of the drum sample suggests a segment of funk or psych-rock committed to tape somewhere in Detroit in the early 1970s; you can practically hear the room noise at Motown’s Studio B or the equally legendary United Sound Systems.

Play those two notes again: Maybe they were lifted from some lesser-known Funkadelic spin-off, a more psychedelic side project from Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey or his Sussex labelmate Rodriguez, or maybe even a bluesier passage from Detroit proto-punks MC5 or the Stooges. The simple loop not only echoes through all those references in the space of a single bar, it conjures the clash and swell of the larger forces—the riots, the assembly lines, the church choirs—that shaped them. It’s hard to listen to that short vamp without assuming a hurts-so-good frown.

Despite the feel of its local origins, the sample actually comes from Moğollar, a Turkish group that sounds to the Western ear something like a cross between the Moody Blues and a band of actual gypsies. Jay Dee dug deeper and ranged much further afield than any of his contemporaries—all the way to Asia Minor, in fact—to isolate a few bars of gold that could speak perfectly to the heart of the inner city experience. The connection to Detroit, however, is almost entirely sleight of hand, created by Jay’s words (“Welcome to the D, Baby! It’s all live out here”) and the context he’s placed around it. A close listen to the Moğollar original, the 1970 single “Haliç'te Gün Batışı” reveals even more sorcery at work. There are organ flourishes that disappear on Welcome 2 Detroit, evidence that Jay Dee filtered, freaked and Frankensteined bits of the source material to get the perfect fluid-sounding bed for his first 50 seconds of fame.

There are novels that could be written just about this intro, recorded, according to Dilla’s original liner notes, “the night B-4 the album turn-in date” with a handheld mic under the influence of Möet and weed. The raw, dusted production quality, for instance, foreshadows Just Blaze’s work on JAY-Z’s 2003 “Public Service Announcement,” itself the start of a whole era of East Coast rap where the grungier side of rock was reclaimed by black MCs as a signifier for the depredations of the hustler lifestyle. But it is, of course, only the intro, its main job to pave the way for what follows—another introduction. “Y’all Ain’t Ready,” though more in line with the hip-hop productions Dilla had become known for by ’01, is essentially a second course of appetizers, letting Dilla swear to the listener’s unreadiness. In fact, as ardent Dilla dissectors have recorded, the words “get ready” or similar (“Y’all ain’t ready” etc.) are repeated some 18 times between these first two tracks. But what we’re meant to get ready for, apparently, is a sensation that combines musical enjoyment with a state of extreme disorientation. Track three, “Think Twice,” is another sharp left turn, the third in under three minutes. Instead of some riotous pay-off, there’s a single lingering chord painted delicately in electric piano, which then melts into a neo-soul cover of “Think Twice” originally by trumpeter and jazz fusion guru Donald Byrd.

This unconventional sequencing is Dilla’s way of announcing Welcome 2 Detroit’s unconventional story, filled with stray dialogue, some kind of plot, and a dizzying montage of twists and turns meant to sketch the whole spiritual landscape of Detroit. The result feels like the opening chase sequence of Beverly Hills Cop, where Eddie Murphy hangs from the back of a truck of stolen cigarettes as it jackknifes its way across Detroit to the tune of the Pointer Sisters “Neutron Dance.”

All of Dilla’s abrupt jumps gradually settle into a sort of jerky rhythm all their own. What at first seems like a series of non sequiturs slowly reveal an underlying structure: Welcome 2 Detroit is actually two or three different kinds of styles woven together. One is an entirely sample-less and mostly instrumental, like “Think Twice,” the first of five such compositions on the album that re-interpret a genre through Dilla’s lens. “B.B.E. (Big Booty Express)” is also a clear tribute to Detroit techno and its foundational texts (Kraftwerk, Vangelis, the progressive italo-disco of Giorgio Moroder and Alexander Robotnick) created on Triton keyboard and the iconic Roland TR-909 drum machine. “Rico Suave Bossa Nova” and “African Rhythms” are essentially drum covers of by the Milton Banana Trio and Oneness of Juju.

Carving through the instrumentals is straight ahead rap—or at least as straight-ahead as any Dilla project ever gets—operating more like a release from his original Detroit crew Slum Village. Several cuts on Welcome 2 Detroit sound more like sequels to tracks on their breakout 1997 album Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1, but here, in keeping with the all-city theme of project, the SV roster is replaced by a stellar who’s-who of mostly D-based vocal talent, including Dilla himself, who also stretches out as an MC. On tracks like “The Clapper,” he comes into his own as one of the game’s greasiest MCs. This side of Dilla unexpectedly complements the sophistication and musicality of his production, as if you suddenly discovered that Four Tet and Beanie Sigel were actually the same person.

In some ways, these different modes could be evaluated and reviewed on their own, but much more important is how they speak to each other and the overall thematic statement of Dilla’s debut. Where his influences sampled bits of soul-jazz to provide melody and timbre to compositions of eight-bar breaks, Dilla more often sampled bits of, well, anything to reconfigure them into less predictable compositions that functioned more like jazz. Helming all the instruments himself except for voice, trumpet (Dwele) and trombone (credited to “Dwele’s brother”), Dilla abandons the parameters of sample-based music altogether on “Think Twice,” following Byrd’s composition through it’s three distinct melodic movements with a feel that stands up with the best of what you might find on a Maxwell or D’Angelo LP.

Occasionally, Welcome 2 Detroit is marred by a goofily sexist voicemail skit and other moments of clunkiness (“‘Cause you know it’s Frank-n-Dank/Take a sip of/Ya drank”) and even a certain repetitiveness as Dilla’s always-banging drum tracks tend to veer consistently towards the minimalist end of his palette. The zags into other territory serve to break up the metronome quality of the rap tracks, but the irrepressible melodic sense that marks much of his other hip-hop production (think Slum Village “Fall in Love” or Common’s “It’s Your World”) are nevertheless a bit siloed here.

But even the jumps between genres and the album’s slightly scattershot feel speak to his restless brilliance. It wouldn’t be a proper Dilla introduction unless he was innovating on multiple levels—melodically, rhythmically, thematically—even if these seem to pull him in multiple directions at once. If anything, the needle-skipping mood hurt only in the sense that they keep the album moving sideways, rather than building upwards; always engaging but knee-capping the emergence of a larger sweep or clear story arc.

Even when they pull against each other, these individual moments of Dilla-ness—the squelchy-low end frequencies painted with a detuned Mini Moog Voyager, the bits of soul records you know by heart transformed into odd melodic passages that float in and out of a rap boast in sublime defiance of conventional verse/chorus structure—are are so, well, dope; the touch so deft, the innovations so original, that even the skips, clunks, pauses, and unexpected turns will be pored over and replayed so obsessively they almost become a part of the listener.

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