What A Time To Be Alive: Posthumous Albums

J Dilla’s ‘The Diary’ as a Time Capsule

J Dilla — The Diary (2016) via Mass Appeal Records

This past Friday, J Dilla’s final(?) rap album The Diary was finally released, after a 10-year quest to get it out. FACT Magazine published a story by Laurent Fintoni about that journey chronicling a bad record deal, shady estate managers, and the legal acrobatics performed to ensure the family of James Dewitt Yancey, aka J Dilla, would be provided for.

It’s an incredibly riveting read — even for someone who might not be as familiar with his legacy as longtime fans such as myself — but the thing that stood out to me the most was a section toward the end where the Creative Director of the J Dilla Foundation, Eothen ‘Egon’ Alapatt, and Michael ‘DJ Houseshoes’ Buchanan talk about the effort put into releasing an “accurate” J Dilla album, sonically speaking.

Once [Dave] Cooley had pried the files from the master tapes the puzzle was laid out in full, with dozens of folders outlining revisions, variations, and unfinished mixes of the album’s tracks. J.Rocc, Yancey’s tour DJ, lent his expertise to organise the files into the most likely order, while Cooley finished the job of mixing down and mastering the songs. “Dave was the obvious choice to figure out the mixdowns because he views this empirically,” Alapatt says. “I couldn’t be happier with the result — to me it sounds like what Dilla would have done.”

This detail is incredibly critical to the story of a posthumous J Dilla release, amidst an ocean of other J Dilla posthumous releases, because Yancey’s catalogue is so expanse and littered with literally dozens of unauthorised releases — releases by entities who definitely didn’t take the time to consult his closest friends and colleagues to ensure the degree of sonic accuracy and intent inherent to The Diary.

The idea of the posthumous album is not a new one, but certainly one that’s grown more controversial in the years since 2Pac’s mom finally stopped putting out every inch of tape with her son’s voice on it (and probably for that very reason). At what point does the publication of a deceased artist’s work stop being an execution of their intent, and become a thinly veiled cash grab?

Having observed the treatment of Dilla in death, Madlib — one of Dilla’s friends, and probably equally prolific contemporaries — has been quoted saying: “I’m gonna burn [masters of my unreleased music] down before I die, a little Lee Perry action. Ain’t nobody exploiting my shit. If I was dying in hospital I’d tell my son to go and burn it. Don’t think I’m going to get exploited like they’re doing to Dilla.

A valid strategy, for sure.

No doubt, there’s something especially magical about being able to experience your favourite artist’s work, one last time. But what about when it’s one more time? Then another? And again, still? Is it fair for just anyone to make the argument on their behalf that they wanted everything released? And what about how they wanted to release it?

As I write this, I’m actually listening to Dilla’s Rebirth of Detroit Instrumentals album (released in 2014 by Yancey Media Group; Ruff Draft on vinyl); the stripped down version of an album which drew much critique for featuring rappers who shouldn’t have been there, over-indulging on their verses.

I’ve read pages and pages of back-and-forth criticism between factions in his life (most notably his mom Maureen ‘Ma Dukes’ Yancey, and House Shoes) and, as much as I love a lot of the many projects that have come out (and been ambivalent about others), part of me wonders if it’s worth all the conflict between his loved ones.

Ultimately, I hardly think this will be the last posthumous album in the news cycle. Hell, it’s probably far from the last Dilla album. But I think it’s going to be the last one I buy. I have a great deal of respect for the due diligence and transparency put into making this release an album that would have met Dilla’s well-known standards of quality, but I have my doubts lightning will strike like this twice.

We live in a world where it’d be easier than ever to not only release a deceased artist’s unfinished work, but distribute it in all it’s stages of completion to literally anybody who wanted it. There’s no more cutting room floor; there’s just WAV files, Dropbox shared folders, and external hard drives. The question I think we have to ask ourselves though — and this is a question extensible to pretty much any area of technology — is should we?