James ‘J Dilla’ Yancey died three years ago of Lupus related complications. Dilla was a talented producer, perhaps more appreciated by other producers than by the public at large. He worked with A Tribe Called Quest, Slum Village, the Pharcyde, and Common, producing underrated gems and unacknowledged classics. Dilla’s beats tended to be understated, focused more on constructing the perfect sound rather than creating a lot of bombast and noise. Anything he touched is worth checking out, and 2006’s “Donuts” is a classic, and one of the best instrumental hip hop albums ever made. Dilla’s passing was felt deeply by the hip hop community, and he has received tributes from a range of musicians, including Busta Rhymes, the Roots, Erykah Badu, Kardinal Offishall, and Q-Tip.
“The Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6” is Madlib and J. Rocc’s tribute to their old friend and collaborator. Madlib and Dilla recorded the Jaylib album in 2002, and then toured together in 2003-04 with J. Rocc. This CD, released three years to the day that Dilla passed, is comprised of 42 tracks, divided into “Vol. 5: Dil Cosby Suite” which came out on vinyl and MP3 last summer, and “Vol. 6: Dil Withers Suite.” The beats are entirely built around samples, lines from movies and TV shows, and other found sounds, and Madlib has dipped into both Dilla’s records and Dilla’s record collection. The focus of the album as a eulogy to Dilla creates a narrative that was missing from the previous Beat Konducta albums. “Vol. 5-6” is reminiscent of “Donuts,” in that both albums use music to tell a story; “Donuts” was Dilla’s love letter to hip hop, and “Vol. 5-6” recounts Dilla’s and Madlib’s friendship. Vol. 5 is built more around soul samples, included material sampled by Dilla, and Vol. 6 concentrates on hip hop samples, including work from Dilla and Jaylib. Madlib also recycles a lot of samples from his other work, and fans will recognize sound snippets from Quasimoto’s albums and the previous Beat Konductas.
All of the songs have two titles, which give the listener a clue as to Madlib’s mindset in constructing the beat. Often, these titles are a reference to the sample as well as the general mood of the piece (“Blast (Computer Rock)” for example). As with the previous volumes of the Beat Konducta series, “Vol. 5-6” is more an unedited collection of sketches and ideas than a carefully compiled opus. Most of the tracks clock in at under two minutes, and none of them ride a beat long enough to let the listener really get into the groove. This is about Madlib working out ideas on wax, and he isn’t concerned with how head-nodding his beats are or if they make sense. That makes for a slightly confusing and underwhelming listen at times, but it is worth hearing a producer as talented as Madlib think out loud for the many moments of odd brilliance, and the occasional moments of genius. No one can chop up a sample quite like Madlib; case in point “No More Time? (The Change)” which cuts up a 70s psych song and mixes it with sinister laughing and some movie lines; or “Rebirth Cycle (Super Soul)” which cuts up a soul song, repeating the lines “and this time remains/so why shouldn’t we start over again?”
“Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6” is a little unstructured, a little understated, and a little hard to digest. You have to spend some time with it to really understand what Madlib is doing. What makes it and all the Beat Konducta albums so essential is that the songs get under your skin and grow on you. You may not get a track on the first or second or tenth listen, but you’ll find it sticking in your head. Then one day you’ll hear Guilty Simpson or MF DOOM or some other MC rapping over it, and you’ll think, “so THAT’S what Madlib was going for.” “Beat Konducta Vol. 5-6” is a fitting eulogy to the late, great J Dilla, and and yet another insight into the mind of Madlib.