Anti-American Graffiti

 

ARTHUR JAFA RELAYS A HAUNTING INTERPRETATION of the griot as someone who cannibalizes the flesh of those whose stories he tells, as a matter of pragmatism, in order to keep those stories alive for the telling in himself. At the end of his life, the griot’s unsolicited efforts at preservation of both self and other are met with the same gesture: he is denied a traditional burial. His carrion is left out in the open air to be consumed by maggots, completing a loop or energy cycle in nature, which can be ruthlessly just and deliberate in its delivery of karmic retribution. James Dewitt Yancey, a hip-hop producer born in Detroit in 1974, and known by his stage name J Dilla, saved his last beat to his MPC—a recording device that allowed him to chop songs into fragments and compose new ones, with new rhythms—the night before taking his last breath in 2006. His final beat sampled the title track from Funkadelic’s 1972 album America Eats Its Young. Dilla had just celebrated his thirty-second birthday. This detail is one of the many poignantly arrayed facts of Dilla’s terrestrial journey that we’re given in Dan Charnas’s Dilla Time, a meticulously researched book that details “the life and afterlife” of the producer, and aims to demonstrate how he shifted the collective time signature by honoring his own inimitable rhythmic sensibility. What we learn tangentially is that the griot story was inflicted on James Yancey. As he ravenously consumed sounds from records—turning those samples into original compositions using soulless machines that he inflected with feeling, asserting “I want people to feel what I feel”—he was consumed too: he was sampled, mimicked, worshipped for his skill, but ultimately left on the radio and records and beat tapes to decompose or be eaten by the maggots who help America eat its young griot heroes.

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J Dilla