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How J Dilla humanized his MPC3000

What you’re looking at is an MPC 3000. It
sits in a room amongst the most iconic relics of our country’s musical history,
and that room is on the fourth floor of the National Museum of African-American
History in our nation’s capitol. that MPC was owned by J Dilla, who composed some
of the most revered beats in hip-hop history. Technology has just taken a
giant leap forward. Hello I’m Roger Linn, and this is the MPC 60 MIDI production
Center created by myself and Akai professional. The MPC is this compact
machine that’s a holding station for all types of samples which you can play with
16 touch sensitive pads. The very first model shipped in 1988 for just a few
thousand dollars and it was Akai and Roger Linn’s elaboration on the Linn drum
machine. The concept though of taking samples of prerecorded sound and
composing with them existed long before the late 1980s, but those machines were
limited by their price and portability. The MPC was a different beast because it
really put you in the driver’s seat in terms of a sonic texture that you
wanted to have. That’s Brian “Raydar” Ellis, and that’s his MPC Renaissance. You know
really just make a mess of it. It’s a fully customizable machine where
as you look at maybe like the Linn drum or the Roland tr-808 which were
specifically drum machines, the sounds came pre-loaded and you couldn’t change
them. In short, the MPC 60 was the musical brain of the studio. By 1994 when
Akai introduced the MPC 3000 it was the tool of choice for many of the top
hip-hop producers in the game including, J Dilla.
I think the thing with Dilla that inspired so many producers is that he
was able to use such a wide vocabulary of technique. J Dilla was a producer out
of Detroit in the mid-90s through his early death in 2006 from a rare blood
disease. He passed away just three days after releasing one of his most
fascinating and beloved albums, Donuts. He worked with an astounding list of iconic
artists and pulled off the majority of his sound with just a few simple
instruments, machines, and digital samplers, one of them being the MPC. He knew how to get
into every piece of the MPC and use it to a musical advantage. So let’s talk
about J Dilla’s drum style first. He figured out how to humanize the drum
machine by avoiding certain things that he could have done to make it more
robotic, make it more stiff. For instance the MPC has this incredibly useful tool
called quantization. What quantizing does is it takes your performance, let’s say
I’m playing my drum pattern, and when I’m playing it, sometimes it’s a little ahead
it’s a little bit time. If your kick drums are off by a little bit,
quantization snaps them in place. And so a lot of producers they use quantize, not
as a crutch, but just they just weren’t thinking about not using it and so Dilla was like yeah I’m just gonna turn this off. The result is a discography full of
incredibly off-kilter drums. This loose strumming style was
incredibly influential. When Red Bull Music Academy interviewed Questlove he
said J Dilla’s drumming technique single-handedly changed how he played.
Whereas this part is normal sounding. It sounded like the kick drum was played by like a drunk
three-year-old. I was like “are you allowed to do that?” So like that to
me was the most liberating moment. Dilla was known for his signature low-end
texture and his drums accounted for a lot of that sound. Here’s just a regular
sampled kick, here’s what that same kick with the high-end cutout sounds like.
You’ll hear that kick in a lot of Dilla beats, like on The Pharcyde’s “Runnin”. The other half of Dilla’s Low end came
from his bass lines. He had a way of kind of getting the fuzz in the pump out of a
bass line. The MPC gave Dilla the flexibility to
create and manipulate his bass in a lot of different ways. J Dilla didn’t just
you know drop out of nowhere and just know how to do everything all at once, he
was listening to a lot of the the legends. In fact, producers like Large
Professor, they used this technique a lot to get extra mileage out of the sample.
So right now I got this loop this is Gap Mangione “Diana in the Autumn Wind.” In order to get a verse section what
producers would do is they would filter out the high-end and they just leave
this base space in here for the rapper to rap and then when the chorus came
back around they bring all the frequencies back, so you have a verse
section and of course section two-for-one sale. One of my favorite Dilla baselines
though actually came from his moog synthesizer which was custom made by
Robert Moog himself. Just focus on how much his bass line rattles the low end
of the song and meanders in and around the beat. He’s very meticulous about you
know what was going to kind of ooze and lay back a little bit. You listen to his Moog bass and it couldn’t care less if it got there on time, but somehow it does. He
internalized every possible technique used in hip hop and expanded upon it, and
he did so with just an intense love and curiosity of sounds, and a lot of
patience. If we look back at E=MC2 we’ve got an incredible sub
bass-y low end and example from an incredibly off-the-wall song by Giorgio
Moroder. Something that that makes this record stand out is the “equals” how he
extended it, because if you just listen it kind of only goes for a few beats,
and he was able to extend it as far as he wanted. There are so many songs that showed J
Dilla’s ability to flip a sample, but there’s one that gives me goosebumps
every time I hear it. A lot of people think sampling is easy
because they’re like oh they’re just listening to the melody on top and
they’re not thinking about what the instruments below that lead melody are
doing and how they’re playing a role in the beat. The first 40 seconds of “Don’t
Cry” is just a few long loops of The Escorts “I can’t stand (to see you cry)” –
he barely did anything with them. He’s basically saying “this is all I have to
work with” at 40 seconds though he says “now look
what I can do with this MPC.” Instead of chopping to the melody, he
chopped up a handful of kicks and snares throughout the entire song regardless of
the melody on top of it, and like little puzzle pieces,
he resequenced those kicks and snares to create this entirely new dreamlike song. I think Dilla was just like super funky
a lot of that had to do with you know him being willing to not care if the
record speeds up or slows down as long as it feels good you know and just
throwing that care out the window and just being like “forget quantize man, it
does what I say it does” and just rocking like that. Akai has
released a steady stream of MPC since the MPC 60 and 3000, they’ve gotten
glassier, more high-tech, more portable, and more integrated into digital audio
workstations than ever before. But those 16 pads and scroll knob have persisted,
and that tactile design has even influenced the design of countless other
pieces of audio software. In the instruction manual for the MPC 3000,
Roger Linn gives an introduction, and in that introduction he asks the people
that use the MPC to treat it like an instrument – it’s like the modern-day
piano or violin. And even though a lot of people say J Dilla never read the manual
for the MPC 3000, he still internalized that same idea. He used his MPC like Jimi
Hendrix played his guitar, or John Coltrane played the saxophone – it was an
extension of himself. That’s probably why out of all the MPC’s
used by countless hip-hop producers and beat makers
over the years, J Dilla’s is in a museum. Hey thanks so much for watching the
video, I want to give a special thanks to Brian “Raydar” Ellis. In addition to being a
professor at Berkeley, he is also an emcee and producer and I’ve linked his work below
in the description. You will also find all of my sources and a lot of amazing
links to further reading about J Dilla if you want to learn more about him. I
didn’t make a Spotify playlist and that’s because one of the greatest ones
about J Dilla already exists. I’ve linked to that one in the description below
it’s like 16 hours long it’s amazing.

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