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The Underrated – Dilla, The Vocalist

Written by Ben

Dilla the producer, Dilla the beat-maker, is held in high reverence by anyone who knows Hip Hop. He’s in the same sort of area as Tupac and Biggie are. Dilla, as a producer and beat-maker has become an immortal, infinite, mythic sort of figure.

But Dilla, as a vocalist, is both underrated, and less known. He rapped, and he sang, and he done it extremely well. There’s people out there who’d put Dilla in the same category as Timbaland, or Diddy, in the sense that they’re rappers as well, but they’re not that great, have ghostwriters, or have it as a secondary thing. With Dilla, nothing he done was secondary, it was all one thing, he was just a musician, who put 100 percent into everything he done.

As a rapper, he didn’t just manage to fit in, and seamlessly be ‘one of them’, he was better than a lot of rappers, and stood out with that, too. As a rapper in Slum Village, not only did he make some classic beats, he was the best rapper in the group, too. When comparing the verses, it’s not even close. His rhythm, cadence, and rhyme schemes were so advanced that it wouldn’t be out of the question to put him up there with the greats. If someone told me Dilla was one of their top 10 MCs, I wouldn’t be surprised. His technique was incredible, especially when considering how good he was at making beats, I don’t understand where he found the time to learn to do it so well. An example of Dilla’s skill is in Untitled/Fantastic:

He is on the third verse. Listen to his multi syllable rhyme scheme, rhyme pattern, and assonance. He also uses the same rhyme for nearly the whole verse. Only a bar and a half use a new rhyme.

Another example of Dilla’s complexity is in Remember, which is featuring Bilal:

Not only does he use multi syllabic rhyme schemes, he uses a technique that most rappers even today don’t use. That includes the people we all know as great, it even includes the people we all know as great, lyrical pioneers of the past. I’ll type out the lyrics, let you read, and see if you can work it out. If not, I’ll unveil the mystery after them.

“Let it be a lesson to you for choosing to jet
I’m through with the stress of messing with you
One second you’re cool, and you’re fooling the next
And who would’ve guessed, it’s best that you do,
Just leave me”

Lesson to you, messing with you, second you’re cool, best that you do, all rhyme with choosing to jet, through with the stress, fooling the next, and who would’ve guessed, when you rhyme them backwards. Break down the syllables of each phrase, and say the rhyme backwards:

Less-on-to-you, jet-to-ing-choose(backwards version)
Stress-the-with-through (backwards version), mess-ing-with-you
Sec-ond-you’re-cool, next-the-ing-fool (backwards version)
guessed-would-’ve-who (backwards version), best-that-you-do

It’s something that some (few) rappers do sometimes, although not often, and your subconscious picks up on the rhyme, it makes your rhymes sound cool, and lets you use the rhythm of the syllable pattern of your rhyme, even though you haven’t used the rhyme itself. I’ve never heard anyone do it so consistently, and for so long, though. It’s usually just slipped in, here and there, on a random track.

Not only that, but he began to, in the least technical way possible, switch around where and when they rhyme. I say in the least technical way possible because getting into what he done on the beats, rhyming this or that on this beat, then rhyming this or that on that beat, gets into even more technique, and to be honest, it started to make my head spin, trying to simplify it so that music lovers, rather music makers, could understand. The only other rapper to make my head spin when breaking down the way they write is early Eminem, pre-Encore. Both Eminem and Dilla are from Detroit, coincidentally (or maybe not). The lesson to you rhyme scheme takes two bars before it gets back to where it was originally, in the beat. The same goes for choosing to jet rhyme scheme.

Dilla was also a great singer, particularly melodically. The melodies he came up with and executed were always perfect for the vibe of the beat. He could do everything, and so he could connect it all together well. His beats, lyrics, rhythm, and melodies, could come together perfectly as one. That is essentially Dilla’s entire musical-personality. He was a tight-knit overall musician. I heard somewhere, I’m sure in this audio documentary, that he had perfect pitch, and did so from when he was about 2 years old. He typically only sang on hooks, outside of Nothing Like This and Think Twice, but a lot of the time, his hooks made the song. His most well known and popular hook is probably on Fall in Love by Slum Village:

which, along with the beat, at least in my opinion, is the best part of the song.

He also sang on Common’s Like Water for chocolate, on two songs, one being Nag Champa:

and the other being Thelonius:

where he also has a rapping verse.

I’m glad Dilla gets the credit he deserves for his contributions to music production wise, but there’s so much more he offered, and so much he could teach rappers if only they knew to listen. I’m sure he could teach singers about melody, too. I can’t be so confident in that, though, I’m not a singer, and never have been.

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