J Dilla – Ruff Draft

J Dilla - Ruff Draft 

Artist: J Dilla
Album: Ruff Draft
Label: Stones Throw
Rating: 3/5

This is one of those should have, could have, would have kind of albums. . .  

Its funny how the death of an artist allows one to truly appreciate their work- the magnificence of the body of work, the foresight of the art, and the unique context of the artists’ vision juxtaposed against their environment. One can only understand the importance of these elements in hindsight, for the work is still too personal in the present. Dead men (and women) don’t tell any tales, they just leave history.

Tupac was but a mere mortal; yet after his death, he transcended all worldly frames through his musical anthology. The same could be said for Marley, Hendrix, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joplin, Dandridge, Biggie, and Billie. . . .all gone too soon. 

Legacy is the most powerful affirmation of a human’s existence.

Such is the case with Ruff Draft, the rarely heard, highly sought-after album from James Yancey aka J Dilla. His production has been admired on tracks for A Tribe Called Quest, Common, The Pharcyde, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, The Roots, and Erykah Badu to name a few. Released on vinyl in February 2003 by Dilla’s own newly-formed Mummy Records, only those most familiar with J Dilla’s work know how exceptional Ruff Draft is not only as a singular body of work, but as a rare look and listen into the self-produced effort of a musical genius.

With that being said, I wanted to be fair with my review. I didn’t want to bullshit this review and give glory if it wasn’t deserved; if Dilla’s last will and testimony on wax wasn’t up to par,  I am for damn sure not going to be afraid to say so. . . .

“You wanna bounce in your whip with that real live shit. Sound like it’s straight from the ma’fuckin’ cassette!”

This is the proclamation that introduces Ruff Draft. Dilla wanted to take us back, not to 45’s and 72’s, but just far enough to appreciate. Cassettes. “Let’s Take It Back” sets us up for just that, diminishing the stereotypes of what has become ordinary hip-hop with instrumental synthesizers and the urban purity of being “ghetto with plastic cups.” This is one of those lets just chill and reminisce tracks-old school, but not overbearing. I could ride through my old hood to this joint. “Nothing Like This” is a favorite and one of the strongest tracks on this album in my opinion, especially for those of us who appreciate distorted vocals over a captivating percussion; this is all I need in life, on those days when you want to be retrospective about some shyt of your life that you regret. . This track is too good to flow over, it speaks for itself. And while I appreciate the production on tracks like “Reckless Driving” and “Take Notice,” the lyrical content fails to impress.

Then there are the fun tracks (did he really bring back the dees nuts joke? On wax? Wow. .) “The $” had me feeling like, I wanted to bust out the robot. Real hard. The synthesized bass brings me back to some old Beastie Boys cuts, classic humor (even though Dilla wants you to holla if you’ve even been placed in handcuffs. . . .). “Wild” is playfully amusing, ending with a childlike voice proclaiming “that’s the end of my slave song. . .”

“Crushin” was my least favorite track. Its like one of those joke tracks that one is never really serious about in the studio, but recorded anyway.  I didn’t’ expect this cliché shyt from Dilla, so I skipped over it.

Straight up, Ruff Draft reminds us of everything that hip-hop could be, but all things that it isn’t (remember, this album dropped in the same year “In Da Club” and “Get Low” were at the top of the Billboard charts). If there is anything that you take from listening to Ruff Draft its that a good producer (and MC) can put out an incomplete work and still make that shyt classic (even the Intros are brilliant).

Dilla demonstrates that Hip-hop can be eclectic and Hip-hop can be changed. His music lives in the essence of the old-school and while one could argue that the production could have been cleaned up in the mixdown, Dilla’s sound can only be appreciated in the haziness of its approach, like burning nag champa in a college dorm. With all that being said, this is a hell of a rough draft, leaving one to only wonder. . . what could have been?

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