J Dilla's Last Album – A Conversation with Eothen Alapatt

As J Dilla’s long-lost vocal album is finally released next week, we talk to the man who made it possible.

The story of The Diary is one of legal complications, half-scrawled diary notes, pissed-off record execs, and a decade-long struggle to bring one hip-hop legend’s unique vision to life. It begins in the early 00s, in a time before those iconic latter-career and posthumous records like Ruff Draft and  Donuts, when J Dilla (or James Yancey to those who knew him) was riding high off his burgeoning reputation as one of underground hip-hop’s most innovative and talented young producers. Through his work with legends like A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, and De La Soul, Dilla had firmly established himself as a wizard behind the decks whose singular mastery of sampling and fuzzy, soulful style was in high demand.

Although it’s that exquisite reputation for production that’s grown to mythological proportions in the years following his premature death in 2006, it’s all too often forgotten that Yancey was also a nimble and intelligent MC: the three releases from Dilla’s group, Slum Village, as well as his collaboration with Madlib, Champion Sound, are evidence of those mic skills, but it was The Diary which Yancey hoped would cement his status as a bona fide rapper. One who could escape the long shadow cast by his own beat-skills by rapping over cuts from his favourite producers: revered talents like Madlib and Pete Rock. Sadly, though, Yancey’s stubborn idiosyncrasies and occasionally uncooperative manner sat uncomfortably with his label and, eventually, the record was shelved.

Enter Eothen Alapatt – Dilla’s sometime manager and, following a legal battle of monumental proportions, the eventual Creative Director of his estate – who has spent the best part of 10 years trying to make The Diary a reality. Burrowing deep into the archives, searching for long-lost final cuts, and roping in names like Snoop Dogg and J.Rocc, has finally resulted in a finished record that Alapatt hopes does Dilla’s vision of himself as an MC proud. In a revealing conversation with a lively and profoundly passionate Alapatt, Wonderland talk Detroit, the pressure of preserving a hero’s legacy, and the many faces of Mr James Yancey.

Wonderland: You must be excited to finally have reached this moment?

Eothen Alapatt: Here we are talking about this record finally. Its improbable that it would have come together but here we are. I saw the record for the first time today, I mean the CD. I haven’t even seen the record yet but this is the first time I’ve actually looked at the package.

W: Tell us the story. What was The Diary shelved and what was Dilla trying to achieve with it?

A: Dilla signed a deal with MCA and it was a label deal where he was going to able to envision a path, a music path for himself and anyone else he wanted to work with…and I love that he went out there [to Detroit] and spent all the money he was given on building a studio and paying for people like Madlib to fly to Detroit when no one cared who Madlib (or Kanye West, for that matter) was. The woman who signed him, Wendy Goldstein, was his champion at MCA and left the company and I think at a certain point, this rapping-producer from Detroit who doesn’t seem to be wanting to turn in hit records to the label that signed him and gave him all this money, and refuses to go to New York, is only recording in Detroit and is keeping all of his tapes and sending in demos when he needs to, and…he’s not producing anything and he’s rapping over somebody else’s beats…I think that, that might have been a hard pill to swallow for whoever replaced Wendy and whoever they had to answer to. So he was unceremoniously dropped…

W: But that kind of marked the start of a new period for him after this?

A: Of course…I believe that Dilla, who had the utmost confidence in himself…was just like, “well fuck em!” And that’s where Ruff Draft came from and Ruff Draft is a masterpiece.

W: So how do you ensure that Dilla’s intent and the way he wanted this album to be was carried through?

A: Well, I think it’s important you say the intent, I like that word. That’s the over-arching goal, is to find his intent and when you don’t have much to go on, when it’s like scratchy notes on a torn up piece of paper basically well then how do you find intent. You look for a bit of spirituality, you look for a bit of audio cohesion, you talk with collaborators, and then you listen, over and over and over again and you put yourself as close as you can to have worked with him and that period.

W: Were most tracks nearly complete, or was it a real mixture of finished and unfinished?

A: I mean look at that song “Gangsta Boogie” with Snoop and Kokane. Dilla, over a high tech beat does a verse and shouts out Snoop and Kokane, and then at the end of the first chorus says, “Snoop Dogg”. So what happens if Snoop doesn’t come in? What if Kokane not there? What do you do? You edit out Kokane? No, Kokane and Snoop Dogg have to be on the record, right? So it was a lot of experiences like that over the course of making this record but more often than not we were just trying to find the files themselves cause not everything was warehoused where we thought it would be and all of the CDs that we had sent in, the mixes he made, they were lost. Even the people knew that worked at MCA, during the time that were fans of Dilla couldn’t find the CD’s. It’s the Holy Grail to me if I could find the final version of the demo that he turned in, and I know it exists because I’ve seen photos on the internet. I don’t know who has it, no one’s ever come forward, so you know I think we came pretty close though man, I really do.

W: What’s the personal highlight for you from this record? What can we expect?

A:  First of all, I think it’s triumphant, this album. I listen to this record and I feel, life and I feel like we can celebrate his life. This record doesn’t look, feel, or sound like a testimonial to past greatness. It sounds like something that’s living right now. That ultimately, I think, is the highlight of this, when you listen to it, even if you don’t read the liners or notes, you just look at J.Dilla and listen to this album and it just sounds fiery, in your face, and immediate and that’s what Dilla was.

W: It doesn’t feel to you like an artifact or a relic?

A: Not at all…I think Dilla’s music and…his inspiration is so constant and so relevant right now that this does not seem like an artifact to me at all. It’s of course a time capsule but I think it’s a very joyous, alive one, and that to me is very special.

W: Do you think we’re seeing a different side to Dilla?

A: Oh yeah, of course, because we had this idea of him, especially the younger people that are more exposed to his music first and most readily through Donuts, that we can put any impression we want on Dilla, and every impression is as valid to the other. We know now, with this record and placing it inside other known records of his like the Tribe Called Quest records, the Slum Village records, the Jaylib record, Ruff Draft, we know that he had a very specific vision for himself and sometimes it might not be all that welcoming to some people. People who fell in love with Dilla because of some parts that are soft and lovely and taking you into a dream-like state. Well, maybe they’re not going to want to hear Dilla singing about “fuck the police.” Maybe it doesn’t jive with the myth we’ve created about J Dilla, and the thing to me is that I don’t that J Dilla’s myth needs to omit this, or anything about his personality. I think all of those things together are what made Donuts possible. And I think that if he wasn’t able to do songs like “Fuck the Police” then we wouldn’t have songs like “Nothing Like This”.

W: Is this a high point of his rapping?

A: Well you know I’m a big fan of Dilla as a rapper, I know not everybody is…I hear this, and I hear a swing that I don’t hear in many MCs before or after. I think Dilla is a tremendously capable rapper, but I know not a lot of people are going agree with me. Dilla let space occur naturally and we could hear the breathing in his music. A lot of people who are into rippity-rap don’t like that, they want every bar to be filled up with something…that you have to be showing technique. But Dilla knew that technique was also about letting go, pulling back and not showing everybody what you could do.

W: I guess using voice as sound?

A: And articulating moments in the beat, because that’s what the rapping producer does as well as anything. An exclamation point here, question mark here, comma, colon, semi colon, all of that. I think Dilla was tremendous at that.

W: Do you feel a real pressure with this?

A:  Yeah of course, tremendous pressure, and a pressure to do what I believe is right because ultimately you know I was given a role and then it was taken away from me, then I had to get it back and at a certain point I started saying, “I better justify this.” And even though I felt a pressure, I better be able to justify this one moment and be able to argue convincingly for it. I want to be able to argue for this record and its importance. And I want anybody to ask me a question and push me, and say this, that or the other and have a rhetoric, because if I haven’t thought about this then what’s the purpose? You know, this is an important record.

W: It’s a rare thing to have a CD.

A: To hold a CD. PDF booklets don’t really work, no one actually looks at them. Part of this is about the booklet because you have to read the story. I mean you don’t have to, you can read the story, I think it’s cool.

The Diary is released April 15th on Mass Appeal

Benji Walters
J Dilla's Last Album - A Conversation with Eothen Alapatt

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