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J Dilla - Ruff Draft

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Artist: J Dilla

Album: Ruff Draft

Label: Stones Throw

Review date: May. 14, 2007

Frustrated by major-label bureaucracy, J Dilla recorded Ruff Draft at his house in the Detroit suburbs. The title has meaning threefold. The tracks are noticeably more rugged than his previous production work, seem generally unfinished, and the shift in sound was an outline for what was to come. Released on extremely limited vinyl on Dilla’s own Mummy imprint in 2003, the record served as an outlet to present his new unrestrained – and unparalleled – low-end theory.

The first thing you notice is the stark departure from his earlier soul revisions. On Ruff Draft, Dilla wields unruly synthesizers, programs gritty drum patterns, spits callused rhymes and relies heavily on the sampler. Ten year’s deep into a storied career behind the boards, the EP was a return to the street and a complete overhaul of his beat practice. Song titles like “Reckless Driving” lay out the anti-strategy: Fuck the industry. From the first words of the opening track, the theme is clear. Let’s keep it ghetto.

A prime example of that motto is the menacing, Mobb Deep-like “Make’em NV.” Using xylophone, a plodding drum shuffle and MOP samples to ill effect, Dilla drops jewels like: “I’m in the booth / Chain swinging sound like extra percussion.” “Crushin’ (Yeeeeaah!)," which boosts the sex interlude from A Tribe Called Quest’s first LP, is a laid back cousin to his production for Med’s “Push.” Instead of rushing the floor, his crew is on the periphery, waiting for the ladies to come hither. Inverse “Let’s Take It Back,” with its tingly, harp-mimicking synth and burrowing bump sounds like something Prefuse might fuck with. On “The $,” all you feel is the filthy bottom.

But nothing shines quite like the mesmeric “Nothing Like This,” with its extroverted guitar phrasing, T. Rex-sized drums and Dilla unabashedly exclaiming how he feels about his one and only. The track also appeared on last year’s Chrome Children comp and ironically – buried in this lost artifact – is the pop single of his career.

On the microphone, Dilla can sometimes sound like a producer boasting about how dope his beats are, instead of a real MC. But it can work: “I’m lettin’ you know / I’m like the professional / Making my hits / Collecting my dough / I’m so extra / So next to blow / So fly get pest control.” In other spots, he’s referencing Errol Flynn, getting lifted like Winona Ryder and pleading for you to turn the bass up a notch in your ride.

The reissue fleshes out the original eight-song EP with a few new tracks, alternate takes and a second disc bereft of rhymes. The instrumental version works as a gutter counterpoint to his smoothed-out beat tapes for MC’s, specifically The Official Jay Dee Instrumental Series: Unreleased Volume 1 & 2.

In Dilla’s intro, he shouts out his intended audience: “This is for my real niggas only. DJs that play that real live shit. You wanna bounce in your whip with that real live shit, sound like it’s straight from the mothafuckin’ cassette.” Situated between his production for Common’s Electric Circus and Champion Sound with Madlib, the record scripts Dilla’s now triumphant escape from the majors and represents the more mercurial facet of his vision.

By Jake O'Connell

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