I don’t go out much these days. The music is never to my tastes, the drinks are overpriced and there’s a strong smell of stale alcohol, smoke and desperation. This wasn’t the case, however, as I stepped into Scala last night for J Dilla Changed My Life. In its eighth year, the tribute concert is a night dedicated to the memory and the music of the Detroit producer. Last year was my first time and having arrived late, I had to stand near the back. I was determined not to let that happen again so I arrived an hour early, expecting a mini queue by the time I arrived.
How wrong I was – the queue didn’t form until 15 minutes before it started and when I got in (later than the billed 7pm), I had mutterings of further delays outside. That explained the emptiness for much of the early parts of the concert, which was a shame as DJ LoK and Kutmah delivered some great sets full of Dilla breaks, beats and even some exclusive remixes. The original samples playing throughout were tantalising and special guest DJ Amir compounded the situation playing more Dilla samples. I felt myself getting impatient, waiting to hear the Dilla flips and then it finally came when Spin Doctor and Phat Kat appeared on stage. I had the “luxury” of standing right at the front (I say luxury in quotation marks as my ears are now paying for it) and got the full experience of Phat Kat spitting to some of his own tracks, all Dilla produced.
The tunes continued to flow and he never missed a beat, occasionally dabbing his sweaty brow in between tracks like a musical preacher. Some of the videos were projected in the background: Players, One Won’t Do, McNasty Filth. The atmosphere was so electric, they might as well have been in the room with us. Kidkanevil’s set started with something I hadn’t really expected, although the connection was obvious really – Check The Rime by A Tribe Called Quest.
He kept that momentum throughout, his performance one of the best of the evening. Eric Lau entered and dropped a superb 15-minute set, taking time to show his appreciation to Dilla, which was a nice touch. But the night was only just starting. It was announced that because of the delays outside, they were adding an extra hour to the gig. This worked out perfectly for Shortee Blitz and Mr Thing, with their two-man set of immense selections. Because of Dilla’s enormous discography, it would have been impossible to play all his tracks in one night but I had hoped for some Fantastic Vol. 2 cuts and my prayers were answered towards the tail end.
I had to leave an hour before the end which meant I didn’t get the chance to experience that extra 60 minutes, but one thing stuck with me as I took the short walk to St Pancras. As I’ve stated in a previous post about hip hop crowds, there’s always an element of “play this song, play that song” amongst audiences when I go to gigs. I didn’t get that feeling last night. They were there for the appreciation and enriching experience of Dilla’s music and to show support for the foundation, as were the DJ’s who performed (for free).
That’s how much it meant to everyone in the room, fans and musicians alike. To some, the title might seem like a misnomer – “how could J Dilla change your life? You didn’t even know him? What about?”. It’s those intricate details that you don’t see and hear that made him so great, the nuances in his life and music that gave hip hop a different perspective.
It’s not all about the materialistic excess (although Dilla was partial to lyricism of that ilk), there are other parts of the culture to acknowledge and just being there meant you were part of it. And in being there, I could reiterate the fact that J Dilla changed my life.