I rolled my eyes when I started reading the second chapter of Dan Charnas’ recent book Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm. It seems like every time outsiders write anything about the Motor City, they have to cram in an obligatory boilerplate history lesson: the fur trade, the arrival of the French in 1701, the Great Fire of 1805, Henry Ford, the Great Migration, deindustrialization, the 1967 summer of civil unrest, white flight to the suburbs, etc. Yawn.
But then something unexpected happened. Charnas segues into Augustus Woodward’s grand vision to rebuild Detroit after the Great Fire with a meticulous hexagonal, honeycomb-like layout. The author then contrasts the rigid standards of European music with the traditions of African polyrhythms. Next he’s talking about how Detroiters sabotaged Woodward’s plan, blocking it with a grid of latitudinal and longitudinal lines to protect their property. Interspersed among all this are instructions asking the reader to clap and stomp along to simple sheet music, illustrating the difference between straight and swing time feels, as well as the history of Dilla’s family moving through Detroit.
Dilla, born James Yancey, was all about defying expectations. His production work—which includes the seminal Detroit rap group Slum Village and collaborations with the national experimental collective dubbed the Soulquarians that counts D’Angelo, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Erykah Badu, Common, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, and the rapper formerly known as Mos Def among its ranks—is often lazily characterized as “lo-fi hip-hop,” or for Dilla’s unexpected use of (as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of) jazz samples, or his penchant for hand-programming beats on his MPC drum machine, giving them a broken, yet soulful, feel. But as Charnas shows, a closer listen to Dilla’s beats reveals there’s nothing “broken” about them. The sound of error is actually the sound of two time feels dancing around each other, breaking through the grid.
By walking you through the history of Detroit, and music theory, and Dilla’s life, Charnas makes a compelling point: that the very city Dilla lived in, with its two conflicting street layouts crashing against each other, is the perfect visual representation of what Charnas calls “Dilla Time,” Dilla’s novel time feel.
It’s genius, and it blew my mind. I’d been driving the city’s streets my entire adult life, but I never saw Detroit this way—or heard Dilla’s music this way, for that matter. All I really knew was his album Donuts, famously created while Dilla was in and out of the hospital after being diagnosed with a rare blood disease until he died in 2006 at age 32.
The sound of error is actually the sound of two time feels dancing around each other, breaking through the grid
I wondered: Could J Dilla’s approach to music have actually been inspired by Detroit’s cartography?
Reached by phone, Charnas, who lives in New York, admits his research comes short of establishing a solid link between the two. “I suppose I am being somewhat loose,” he says. “The connection that I make lies somewhere between metaphor and causation.”
Still, it’s an awfully compelling parallel.
“That grid of downtown Detroit is visually a conflicted polyrhythm, an internally conflicted polyrhythm, which is exactly what we’re listening to when we hear Dilla,” he says. “In a sense, sure, that’s a coincidence. But in another sense, it actually isn’t, because a grid plan is a record of the city’s history. It’s a record of conflicting intentions over time, and the idea of how a place is made does have psychological effects [on the people who live there].”
In fairness, Charnas is no stranger to Detroit. His wife, Wendy, is from Michigan, and he says he first came to the city in 1999 to meet Dilla when Charnas was working in A&R with the rapper Chino XL.
In college, Charnas majored in urban studies with a minor in what the university called Afro-American studies. Both informed how he came to view Dilla’s music, he says.
“So urban studies, you’re combining economics, political science, sociology, architecture, and urban planning, all of those things,” he says. “For example, in urban studies, we looked at how something like housing projects affects how people behave within them.” Charnas describes himself as an acolyte of Jane Jacobs, whose 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities took aim at the white-male-dominated fields of “urban renewal” and “slum clearance,” challenging consensus by arguing that such programs actually harmed poor people.
He says his eureka moment with Detroit’s street grid came from his time as a professor at NYU, where he’s taught a class about Dilla since 2017 and wound up using a map of Detroit as a visual motif in lessons. But he didn’t make the connection to Dilla’s beats until he came to Detroit to do research for Dilla Time and learned more about the history of the city, realizing why and how Detroit’s streets looked the way they did.
He said that particular chapter of his book was originally written as three separate chapters. Right before he turned that section in to his editor, he decided to tear it apart and instead stack the concepts on top of each other, toggling between history, music theory, and Dilla’s ancestry.
“That chapter was such an experiment; I wasn’t sure that it was going to work,” he says, adding, “It ended up being the chapter that people talked about the most, which was a super relief for me.”
At the very least, Charnas says Detroit’s cartography is an “act of God” that provides a unique opportunity to teach Dilla’s music visually.
“The idea is, ‘Look at this map, this is what Dilla Time sounds like. This map of downtown Detroit is fucked up, and that’s what Dilla Time sounds like,’” he says.
Of course, the idea that artists would be inspired by their surroundings in subconscious ways is hardly far-fetched or even novel. In the packed red-light district of New Orleans, Charnas points out, ragtime and blues influences collided to form jazz, “where the banjo is doing one thing, and the piano is doing another thing, and the horns are doing another thing, and they’re all right, they’re all working together,” he says. “That is a result of geography as much as anything else and could not have happened anywhere else.” Similarly, he says, hip-hop developed in New York City where people gathered in the streets, in parks and rec rooms, DJing, break-dancing, and emceeing. “It could only have happened in those spaces,” he says. “It would not have happened in a place with car culture.”
In Detroit, where we’ve got car culture to spare, our music was influenced in other ways. Berry Gordy worked in two different auto plants before applying an assembly-line approach atMotown Records, while Iggy Pop has said he was inspired by the actual ungodly noise the factories made, which he once called “these giant metallic castles, these castles of hell.” In a similar way, Jack White has said his former job as a furniture upholsterer helped him think about economy of form.
According to Charnas, those close to Dilla have described him as having different personalities depending on where he was and what he was doing. “On stage, he’s a completely different person than he is when he steps off that stage,” says Charnas. “The minute he steps off the stage, he’s quiet again. He doesn’t want to meet anybody’s gaze. But then when he gets into the car, he’s back again.” By all accounts, Dilla seemed to be most comfortable in the basement of his childhood home in Detroit’s Conant Gardens neighborhood, making beats.
There is one last bit of evidence from Dilla Time that suggests Dilla could have had a unique perspective of the grid that makes up and surrounds Detroit. According to an anecdote relayed in the book, one day Dilla decided to take a break from a recording session with Common, suggesting they catch a screening of a new movie called The Matrix.
Charnas sees plenty of parallels between Dilla, who mastered the drum machine, and the film’s hero Neo, a computer hacker who realizes he is trapped in a virtual reality before learning how to manipulate it.
According to Common, Dilla found the movie so mind-blowing that afterward he couldn’t find the words to describe how it made him feel. That’s how I felt after finishing Dilla Time, and how I feel exploring Dilla’s vast trove of recordings now, searching for his ghost in the machines.