That Swing You Do

We’re going to start with Dilla. J Dilla. Jay Dee, aka James Yancey. Dilla is credited as being one of the most influential hip hop producers ever, recieving most of his acclaim after his death in 2006 from the rare blood disease TTP. Once he died, people started to look deeply into his catalogues of official and unreleased material. His fame subsequently skyrocketed. I feel there are some subtle ideas that Dilla introduced that have played a huge role in the development of modern hip hop. (When I refer to electronic music in general, I’m including hip hop, since many of the same tools and techniques are used, especially ‘behind the scenes’) And, interestingly, some of these developments were heavily influenced by the producer’s chosen hardware.

Listen to the drums in this track. The kick drum is very loose and the the hi hats are light and bouncy. The type of swing employed is on a 16th note subdivision, that is, every other 16th of the bar is pushed forward; It happens a tad later than a mathematical 16th of the bar. Very common in hip hop and dance music. Old drum machines offered this type of swing (albeit not as funky as dilla, he uses volume and extreme swing to his funky advantage,) as well as 8th note swing and others, which seemed to hardly ever be used unless making slower genres not typically produced with drum machines (samba, traditional jazz, etc.) Now listen here..

Particularly to the hi hats, (though the other drums follow as well.) This is the 8th note swing. Each bar is divided into eight equal sections, and sections 2, 4, 6, and 8 are pushed forward in time slightly, as opposed to the 16th note swing I mentioned earlier. Check the diagram

|        |        |        |        |        |        |        |

These are our evenly spaced 8th notes. Fine and dandy.

|           |     |           |     |        |           |     |

And here are our same 8th notes with every other note pushed forward. Subtle, but oh so powerful.

Drum machines give you the ability to apply a chosen swing to the patterns you record, and it does this using “quantization”. The computer will snap your recorded events to the closest subdivision that you choose. My theory here is that one day Dilla decided (or perhaps accidentally chose) the 8th note swing instead of the 16th, giving the beats a special push and pull feeling, like that of your breath or ocean waves, and said to himself “Dope.” This is only one of my theories on Dilla’s 8th note swing, and we’ll discuss others in another post.

Who cares? Everyone it would seem. Without analysis, Dilla’s beats are just “funkier”, or to some people (like my dad!) “wrong.” But an entire generation was simultaneously made aware of this strange development when Jay Dee passed away. Many surely already knew, but I wasn’t that cool yet 😉 And as hipster kids will do, we copied it. Everyone who watched “Family Guy” or “Futurama” on Cartoon Network heard his tracks between commercials, so suddenly we all have a brand new “cool” to look up to. Violent hip hop took a backseat, and the hip kids were now allowed to loosen up and groove a little. It also started to open doors for other producers. When you hear something wacky, especially if you don’t fully understand how it was done, letting it influence you (copying it) often results in more new development.

Now, we can call it genius. But was Dilla deliberately changing the face of contemporary hip hop?

Next time we talk about Doom.

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