“It’s Fan-Tas-Tic”: New Approaches to Interpreting Un-Quantized Rhythmic Elements of Hip-Hop Production in the “Post-Dilla” Era

The late James DeWitt Yancey, known by his producer name of Jay Dee or J Dilla, is considered by many hip-hop scholars and musicians to be one of the most influential producers of the genre, and whether it’s called “wonky”, “drunk”, or simply a “Dilla groove”, his innovations and approaches to un-quantized drum programming are some of the most influential and intricate in the world of hip-hop beat-making. By analyzing his production on selected tracks “Untitled” and “2U4U” in Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 2, I will be exploring how Dilla implemented and expanded on his approaches to un-quantized digital rhythmic sequencing, as well as how these approaches have heavily influenced works of current hip-hop production. This analysis will focus on the problematic nature of how un-quantized rhythms are usually transcribed by scholars (usually with either sheet music or MIDI transcriptions) and instead look at how these rhythms can be interpreted through different levels of un-quantization found within a specific production, as well as looking at amounts of un-quantized grooves on a spectrum.

From a plethora of experimental beat makers from the Los Angeles beat scene to the countless producers posting “lo-fi” instrumental hip-hop beats on several online spaces, I will be also discussing J Dilla’s influence in these spaces and how his sonic aesthetics from his production discography have shaped the current sound and culture of hip-hop production and beat making, looking at specific tracks by current Los Angeles-based hip-hop producers such as Dibia$E and Flying Lotus, and focusing on how these un-quantized rhythms are interpreted and emulated by both producers and fans.

Zachary Diaz is a PhD Student in Musicology at the University of Bristol. Under the supervsion of Dr. Justin Williams, his doctoral dissertation and research focuses on the music of the late hip-hop producer J Dilla (James Yancey) and his musical influences on current hip-hop production and culture. He is also a hip-hop producer himself, having released several instrumental hip-hop projects under the Manchester-based record label Beatsupply.


  1. Yo, Zach!

    Love this! So nice to have it on video as well, as I had lots of thoughts around your work from the last time I saw you present on it in Oslo. To me, those last couple of slides of yours is the real money (all of it is good, but those are just IMPORTANT). The question of “what the ruler is” when we measure the relationship between different streams of rhythmic events is so crucial to all of us who are working with microrhythm/microtiming. The question of how we experience a rhythm is very different to that of how to recreate that rhythm using a specific tool, and that is the sidetrack/blind alley that all of these “play tuplets”-videos and discourse is going down.

    Do you have any thoughts on how to adapt/develop representational tools to look at these relationships? I, for one, think that we shouldn’t let go of traditional notation as part of it – as that is a really efficient tool to show our “cognitive quantisation” – or how we perceive the structure of the rhythms in a categorical way. Of course, we need something else to look at the “expression” part of the rhythms’ temporal positions, and if some parts of the track is perfectly in phase/on grid, the complete isochrony of millisecond-grids from DAWs is an option, but that is not necessarily the case with Dilla’s beats, right?

    (and not to mention the issues with the non-temporal parts of rhythmic events that impact their perceptual centres. Where we measure the onset/acoustic signal isn’t necessarily exactly where we experience the sound to be!)

    Looking forward to chatting more about this stuff in person again!
    \x/ – Kjell Andreas

    1. Zach was having some issues with the WordPress, so he answered me on facebook. I’ll post his answer here, so the rest of you can read it as well:

      “The question you asked is really the million dollar question for me and is what I’m trying to get a solid vision of in my research going forward. A lot of that was informed by my own experiences with producing, and knowing that trying to listening to references and practicing unquantized grooves by hand is a lot more practical than trying to figure and count out septuplet swing patterns. I do have an understanding of how to talk about that in terms of just general approaches to performing and interpreting these grooves, which is what I touched on in the presentation using Larson’s interpretations of swing, but in terms of what would be the best way to show these grooves in notation is the next step.”

  2. Nice work Zach, I really liked your use of Larson’s swing model. Looking forward to seeing how that develops in terms of visual representation. I wonder if something like comparing waveforms could be useful as a visual indicator of unquantized grooves? Or you could even record a video of yourself playing quantized/unquantized beats into the SP404, as there’s a whole different bodily feel and set of gestures that the two have. About the African/European dichotomy, have you come across this paper by George Lewis? He does an excellent job of deconstructing how improvisation was developed by black jazz musicians in the US (Afrological thinking) and later remixed by modernists and ‘avant garde’ composers like John Cage as ‘aleatoric’ and ‘indeterminacy’ (Eurological thinking). I don’t know if the J Dilla/Lo-fi binary maps exactly onto an Afrological/Eurological binary, but it might be a productive avenue to explore!

    George E. Lewis. ‘Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives.’ Black Music Research Journal 22, no. 1 (2002): 215-246.

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