Remembering J Dilla & Nujabes through Samples


Remembering J Dilla & Nujabes through Samples

Iconic hip-hop producers Nujabes and J Dilla seem like connected souls. Not just because they were born on the very same day in 1974. Or because both of their legacies are celebrated in February, as the Tokyo and Detroit producer passed away in the same month only years apart. These are the music production similarities that connect their timeless works.




January 28, 2022

South American Samples

j dilla welcome 2 detroit samples bbe

The photos of J Dilla and Madlib digging in Brazil should be etched in every hip-hop head's memory. The same goes for how Dilla refinedly sampled South-American artists like Gato Barbieri, Baden Powell, Luiz Bonfá, and Sérgio Mendes. “I fell in love with Brazilian music the day I listened to a Sérgio Mendes album,” Dilla said in the liner notes to Welcome 2 Detroit. “We used to have jam sessions in the studio after work was done, (and) one day my man Karriem Riggins came through. I asked him for ‘Bossa nova’. He gave me exactly what I needed.”

Brazilian Samples in Nujabes’ Music

Nujabes’ love for specifically Brazilian samples is also evident when one hears his albums Metaphorical Music and Modal Soul, which sample records by Luiz Bonfá, Toquinho, Jorge Barreiro's J.O.B. Orquestra, and the bossa nova-inspired "O Morro" by vibraphonist Gary McFarland. He even sampled Brazilian keyboardist and singer Ivan Lins multiple times for “Luv(sic) Part 2,” “Luv(sic) Part 3,” and "Liv(sic) Grand Finale" in the series with Japanese emcee Shing02.

J Dilla in Brazil

the pharcyde runnin j dilla samples

Seven years after producing “Runnin’” by hip-hop group The Pharcyde, J Dilla finally went on a trip to Brazil for the first time ever. “At that time, we were making Brasilintime,” recalls photographer Brian Cross to Ego Trip. “So I’m like, fuckin’ [Dilla is] the first person to sample a Brazilian record. The first dude [in hip-hop] to be feeling that shit – to make [Pharcyde’s] “Runnin’.” Let’s totally do it, let’s get Dilla to Brazil. Like that’s huge. In our world that’s like, wow, some kind of circle has been completed somehow.”

J Dilla Photography by Brian Cross

madlib j dilla digging brazil brian cross b+

Little did they know how sick J Dilla was at that time, as Brian Cross later told Boiler Room TV: “For a lot of personal reasons, my favourite picture of Dilla was the one I took of him and Madlib on the floor. The fact that we managed to get Dilla out to Brazil was a really big deal. We didn’t realise how sick he was, but I knew the trip meant a lot to him. Ma Dukes told me and Eric [Coleman] how much it meant to him. Just to get him there; even if he was only going to be there for a few days. He had to go home on an emergency flight, but that was one of the best things to happen through my photography.”

Nujabes & Jay Dee’s Sampling of 'Clair'

singers unlimited clair oscar peterson

Sure, Nujabes' sampling of the whistled intro of the a capella song “Clair” is not as ingenious as Jay Dee’s slowed-down vocals on Slum Village’s “Players.” Far from that. But whether or not it’s a coincidence that Nujabes sampled The Singers Unlimited on "F.I.L.O." barely three years after the release of Fantastic Vol. 2? We don't think so. The altered sound of the word “clair” to “players” by slowing down a sample, is one of the many production techniques that are part of J Dilla’s signature sound. A sound he also showed by producing hip-hop beats for groups including A Tribe Called Quest (partly as one-third of hip-hop culture brotherhood The Ummah), De La Soul, 5 Elementz, and The Pharcyde.

Emotions in Sampling

j dilla donuts alternate cover photo don't cry sample breakdown

Both J Dilla and Nujabes put heart and soul into their sampling. Not just by their dedicated digging, but also in terms of how they humanized hip-hop beats and conveyed emotion through samples. Take the combination of a sped-up piano composition by Japanese pianist Noriko Kose with the touching Kenny Rankin vocal on Nujabes’ "Reflection Eternal." Or Dilla’s right-in-the-feels use of the “Don’t Cry” sample, using “I Can’t Stand (To See You Cry)” by The Escorts. Many rightfully believe this is the perfect example of Dilla “speaking” through his samples to urge family—particularly his daughters—to not mourn his death. “The use of samples to convey emotional meaning is certainly not new but rarely has it been achieved with as much emotional weight,” writes music editor Ben Adams on J Dilla’s Donuts.

Don't Cry Sample

The Sample Breakdown video series aims to show chopping samples is a true art form. Each video visualizes how great songs were made.

Lo-Fi Hip-Hop: Textures & Effects

chillhop lo-fi nujabes j dilla

Both J Dilla and Nujabes are hailed in lo-fi hip-hop circles as godfathers to their genre. Whether that’s a rightful claim, is up for debate and a potential Tracklib feature for another time. However, studying both of their brilliant use of textures should be compulsory material for any (lo-fi hip-hop) beatmaker. From J Dilla’s unparalleled low-end texture and rearranged harmonies to the use of unconventional effects like ring modulation in Donuts beats such as “Mash” and “Glazed.”

That connects with Nujabes’ music with distinctive sonic textures to evoke a human feel in his productions: “The [drum] texture of my songs is never beautiful. Sometimes it may be perceived as distorted. But that’s why this is my sound,” Nujabes once told FK, the manager of the Tribe Records store in Tokyo.

J Dilla & Nujabes' Influence on Lo-Fi Hip-Hop

In our article How Chillhop Producers Got Back to Sampling, we also explore the influence of J Dilla and Nujabes on the music of lo-fi producers like Moods. “Late greats such as J Dilla and Nujabes are hailed as the kings of their mellow kingdom. And instead of dusty fingers in crates of old records, it’s partly anime samples, Adult Swim influences, and jazz loops that go hand in hand with the early wave of lo-fi and chillhop.” Coincident or not, the theme of the Chillhop x Tracklib compilation Timezones: Saudades do Tempo is a direct match with Dilla’s unparalleled love for Brazilian music.

Did J Dilla know Nujabes?

According to a Q&A with Shing02 (emcee and close friend and collaborator of Nujabes), Dilla and Nujabes never met. Needless to say, Nujabes was well aware of Dilla’s music. That also shows in a video of Guinness Records in Tokyo (Nujabes' record store), which shows J Dilla’s The Shining on display.

Learn How to Sample Like J DIlla & Nujabes

The video series Iconic Sampling Techniques, hosted by JFilt of Verysickbeats, teaches you about the sampling techniques of the greats, to inspire and expand your own production. Learn how to maximize Tracklib as a crate-digging tool to find the specific sounds you're looking for, and how to utilise samples to achieve the sounds of hip-hop icons like J Dilla and Nujabes.

Discover more Tracklib Tutorials by producer, teacher and beatmaking guru JFilt of Verysickbeats on sampling techniques:

Sample Like Madlib

Want to sample like J Dilla’s soulmate in sampling and one-half of Jaylib? Here you find a full overview on how to sample like Madlib, including music by artists he sampled for Madvillain, Freddie Gibbs, Blu & MED, and Beat Konducta in India.

Sampling Inspiration & Video Breakdowns

Dig into a goldmine worth of original music to sample, dig deeper by reading our Blog, or use any of the carefully curated Collections. You can also first watch Sample Breakdowns to get a better understanding of sampling techniques and how to process samples.

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