J Dilla Disassembled His Cassette Deck To Extend Certain Pause Tape Samples
How one of rap music’s most storied producers used technological innovation to make incredible pause tape beats.
In mid-October of 2006, Cincinnati native and esteemed veteran producer Hi-Tek dropped his sophomore album Hi-Teknology²: The Chip. Featuring Common, Devin The Dude, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, and many other talented MCs spitting verses over his expert production, the album received universal praise from critics.
There’s no shortage of highlight verses throughout the project, but the most moving moment on the entire album may be an answering machine message from J Dilla during the opening of the “Music For Life.” The Detroit icon, who had tragically passed away just eight months prior to the album’s release, had the following to say about his lifelong love of sound. “Music is — my total existence, dawg, straight up/Everything in my life revolves around music/It’s like, I can’t get in a relationship/’Cause I’m still with my first love, which is music/You know what I’m sayin’? For real/It’s the reason I’m here.”
Dilla’s unrivaled passion was obvious throughout his life, but when and where did his relationship with his first love start? According to a 2003 interview with Rime, his reverence for music began with elementary school music class and piano/drum lessons in church. Then Run DMC dropped “Sucker MCs” and Whodini released “Big Mouth” in 1984, sparking a neverending fascination with music production. “Those songs were the first time I heard the beats that weren’t melodic — just drums,” he told Rime.
“That shit, to me, showed that he was more than a beat maker — he was like a mad scientist.” Que. D
Dilla — who started building his skills as a DJ at a young age and played records in a local park when he was two — began a multi-year odyssey of experimenting with pause tapes not long after hearing “Sucker MCs” and “Big Mouth.” Based on observations from some of his collaborators, it sounds like Dilla’s pause tape beats were a cut above most other producers after just a few years of practice.
According to late Slum Village rapper Baatin, a teenaged Dilla would pick up him, Dilla’s brother, and T3 up in his Escort and drive them around while showcasing his latest pause button concoctions. The music that came through the speakers often left them in awe. “We’d roll around listening to beats he made with the pause and record on two tape decks,” Baatin told journalist Ronnie Reese in his timeless 2006 Wax Poetics cover story on Dilla. “He was just a genius at that, even back then. The beats sounded so perfect.”
Dilla’s pause button finesse was so impressive that it even lead to an early, unreleased Slum Village track, but how did he manage to make something so damn good with such restrictive equipment? His cousin and early collaborator Que. D shed some light on the topic in the same 2006 interview. According to Que., the late Detroit producer disassembled his cassette deck and modified it so he could elongate specific parts of the tape that he wanted to sample. This next level ingenuity showed Que. D that his cousin was operating on a different wavelength than most of his peers. “That shit, to me, showed that he was more than a beat maker — he was like a mad scientist,” he told Wax Poetics.
“We’d roll around listening to beats he made with the pause and record on two tape decks. He was just a genius at that, even back then. The beats sounded so perfect.” — Baatin
Que. D wasn’t the only one impressed by Dilla’s production prowess. After meeting Detroit singer, songwriter, producer, musician, and former Parliament member Amp Fiddler, Dilla showed him some of his cassette deck beats. Much like others who had been lucky enough to hear the iconic producer’s early work, Fiddler was impressed. “There were a few drops — but for the most part it was pretty damn precise,” he told Kelly “K-Fresh” Frazier, Tate McBroom, and T3 for Real Detroit Weekly’s excellent 2006 cover story on Dilla.
After hearing Dilla’s mad scientist pause looping, Fiddler assigned him some homework to see if he could take his talents beyond the tape deck. “I told him he needs to go home and separate all the samples to load into the MPC, and he came back with all the samples separated and mapped out exactly how he wanted it,” he told Real Detroit Weekly. “As time went on, he got better and better.”
As Dilla honed his skills and the quality of his output increased, he experimented with several samplers after leaving pause tape beats behind. He started with an E-mu SP-12, moved on to the more powerful SP-1200, and then brought an Akai S950 intro the fold while producing songs like “The Jam” for Richmond, Virginia native Skillz. Then he switched over to AKAI MPC60 and 60II, before eventually settling on the MPC3000 as his favorite. “I’ve tried other samplers but the 3000 is best for me for what I like to do,” he told Scratch magazine in his final interview.
“It’s like, I can’t get in a relationship/’Cause I’m still with my first love, which is music/You know what I’m sayin’? For real/It’s the reason I’m here.” — J Dilla
Dilla continued to amaze listeners with his ability to make magic on any and every piece of equipment all the way until the end of his life, creating the majority of Donuts on a Roland SP-303 in his hospital bed before succumbing to health complications from what was reported as both the rare blood disorder thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) and lupus.
Regardless of what equipment or process he used, it’s the enduring emotion and resonance of Dilla’s music that matters. He crafted songs that took listeners to a higher place, whether it was early pause tape beats he played for his high school friends, guest production for other artists, collaborative albums, or an instrumental release.
In the 13 years since his passing Dilla’s influence shows no signs of losing any luster. Undoubtedly, the sounds that started out as extended samples from his tape deck and grew into trademark off-kilter MPC drums and untouchable sample chops will continue to endure for a very long time.