Building like a crescendo, there was an industrious decade before his death, where J Dilla was developing into a major hip-hop prospect, producing work for names like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes and Erykah Badu, as well as continuing output for his rap group Slum Village and breaking out with debut album Welcome 2 Detroit in 2001. Within the next five years, J Dilla would go on to release two more LPs and a collaboration album with LA-based producer Madlib.
A quite sudden diminuendo hit in 2005. His output slowed. Fans noticed he looked weak and emaciated. On what proved to be his last show, in Düsseldorf, December 2005, Dilla appeared in a wheelchair and explained that he was battling a rare and serious blood condition. That night, DJ Deckstarr, the warm-up act, wore a T-shirt that read “J Dilla Changed My Life.” Deckstarr had made the T-shirt himself; the first in a line of items that would be created in Dilla’s honour following his death on 10 February 2006, just days after the release of his magnum opus, Donuts.
Like many greats who die prematurely, J Dilla’s mythology has found sources in his early pressings as well as the many posthumous releases that mine material from the archives, not to mention the proliferation of inspired T-shirts, prints, posters and merchandise.
Stüssy x J Dilla T-Shirt (2010)
DJ Deckstarr might have set the blueprint but since his death it’s Stüssy that’s been dropping the Dilla tees. When Dilla lived in LA, he was just around the corner from the Stüssy office and it was the now-famous photograph of Dilla at home in Los Angeles on his MPC wearing a Stüssy T-shirt that kicked off this long running collab. The photo was taken from Raph Rashid’s classic Dilla book, Behind The Beat, and the tee was released in 2010, in conjunction with Stones Throw and the Dilla Estate. Stüssy also produced a three-part documentary looking at Dilla’s life in LA as part of the project.
Obey x J Dilla poster 2009
“J Dilla was a great music producer who died of lupus,” said Obey’s Shepard Fairey. “Now his mom has lupus and needs help with her medical bills.” With that in mind, Fairey teamed up with B+ in 2009 to create this print of J. Dilla based on B+’s 2003 Jaylib photograph. Only 450 prints exist…
J Dilla – Pay Day CD
Pay Day was supposed to follow up Dilla’s first solo album, Welcome 2 Detroit. Looking to build on his career as a behind-the-scenes beatmaker, Dilla spent eight months rapping overs beats by some of his favorite producers (Madlib, Pete Rock, Hi-Tek, Supa Dave West, Kanye West, Nottz, Waajeed and others) but the album was shelved by MCA who were expecting something different. Dilla was dropped from the label, and out of frustration, he recorded Ruff Draft and released it on his newly founded Mummy label. But before MCA canned the release in 2003, they got as far as circulating a promo CD which remains rarer than hen’s teeth. Thankfully, a 2016 reissue project called The Diary brought the long lost material back into general circulation.
J Dilla – The Middle Finger
Two tracks that did not make it from Pay Day to The Diary were Dilla’s mix of the Kanye West version of ‘The Anthem’ and his album version of ‘Fuck The Police’ featuring an alternate vocal performance. In 2016, these tracks were released as “The Middle Finger” (a fuck-you to MCA), limited to 1000 copies, hand numbered and presented as a ‘white label’, with the labels mimicking a test pressing.
J Dilla – Turn It Up! A Little Louder (Box Set)
Stones Throw began working with J Dilla in the early days of his solo career in the early 2000s, releasing his works with Madlib as well as his signature album Donuts. The label has paid tribute to Dilla with jumpers, tees, posters, cassette releases and 7” box set versions of Donuts but the most sought-after collectible is this box set. Originally released in a limited run of 365 in 2007, the set included a cassette release of Ruff Draft, two T-shirts with the slogan: “Turn It Up! A Little Louder”, and a photo taken by B+ in Detroit, 2003. Expect to drop close to three figures on this one.
Joey Bada$$ x Dilla – Two Lips
In 2013, Joey Bada$$ joined forces with streetwear brand Akomplice and the J Dilla Foundation to create a clothing and musical collection. The line featured a crewneck and tee, plus a seven-inch vinyl of Bada$$’s new single “Two Lips”, which features an unreleased Dilla beat. The two never collaborated IRL but this imaginary meeting suggests that if Dilla was still alive, they’d be working together today. Expect to pay £50 for the vinyl alone.
The King of Beats (Ma Dukes Yancey Collector’s Edition Box Set)
This box set was something of a godsend for Dilla fans, featuring four 10″ vinyl records of music from Jay Dee’s “Batches” collection, a cassette with six unreleased “Lost Scroll” tracks and a booklet of interviews with his peers. Also included in the box is a 3.5 inch floppy disk (!) containing one unreleased beat that you can upload into an actual E-Mu SP-1200 drum machine. The box set’s design is inspired by the SP-1200, which Dilla used to make much of his music. “This project came about by a lot of soul searching and meditation as to what can I do now that my son has so many bootleg projects out by unknown artists without my approval,” said Ma Dukes Yancey back in 2014.
J Dilla figure by Rappcats and Stüssy
Conceived by Detroit artist Sintex and designed by Seoul-based toy artist P2PL, this 7.5” vinyl figurine comes dipped head to toe in all things Dilla: an officially licensed Stüssy tee, MPC tucked under the arm, a donut chain, kicks, and even his trademark beard. Released in 2014, the total edition size is 5000 units with 3000 units bearing the words “second edition” on the box. Two years later, Rappcats and Stüssy teamed up again to create a Donuts verison, which also sold out promptly.
J Dilla – Fuck the Police (Picture Disc 9” Police Badge)
‘Fuck The Police’ is one of his J Dilla’s best-loved tunes. Out-of-print for over a decade, the single was reissued and remastered for Record Store Day 2015 on a 9” picture disc shaped like a police badge. Designed by Jeff Jank, the record comes in a thick, custom-made pocket fold-over, inserted into a Japanese-style, resealable clear plastic sleeve. Limited to 2500, this one isn’t especially rare (or pricey for the matter) but no less a collector’s item.
Various – Jay Dee Unreleased EP
Could any J Dilla record be more mythic sounding than something titled the “Jay Dee Unreleased EP”? Confusingly, the EP was never “unreleased”. It was released as planned in 1997; nonetheless, it remains a highly sought-after slab of wax that sees Jay Dee apply his remix touch to classics by De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, and D’Angelo. The EP was released initially on blue and later repressed on green vinyl, both times in limited runs, and if you’re after a real holy grail, look out for the test pressing, which attracts a healthy three-digit figure on Discogs.