J Dilla Celebrated at Thalia Hall

Posted by: Jacob Levy

One of hip-hop’s most legendary artists is Detroit’s J Dilla.  The underground producer was a pioneer of modern sampling techniques, a master of grooves, and is synonymous with the soul and funk sounds of hip hop of the past and of today.

Born February 7, 1974, Dilla tragically passed away at the age of thirty-two from lupus, and while in the hospital, he crafted his magnum opus; “Donuts,” a forty-three minute thirty-one track instrumental hip hop album that is revered today for its sampling dexterity, variety, groove, and attitude. The album was released on his birthday, only 3 days before his death.  

Charlie Coffeen is a Chicago pianist, composer, and producer who has worked with local hip hop acts such as Sidewalk Chalk.  Coffeen has spent the past several years building a recreation of Dilla’s “Donuts” album.  Coffeen assembled a full horn section, 8 piece string section, two guitarists, a bass, and three stellar vocalists. Coffeen and his ensemble performed at Thalia Hall February 9th, in wake of Dilla’s birthday along with special guests New York saxophonist & vocalist Braxton Cook, Vocalist Chris Turner, and Chicago’s own ‘beat scientist’ Makaya McCraven on drums. The result was pretty damn great.

Starting with the quiet and subdued album intro “Donuts” (Outro), the band proceeded to run through “Donuts” in its entirety.  They stayed relatively close to the source material, but also added lots of embellishments to certain songs.  The thirty-five second fourth cut on the album “Light My Fire” was extended into an all-out jam featuring Jonathan Horde, one of the three singers on stage. When they got to “Donuts”’ tenth track, “Time: The Donut of the Heart”, the band featured young local Chicago guitarist Jackson Shepard, who opened the tune with an extended solo, and the moment the whole band came in and dug into the groove of the song was pure musical bliss.  

This was one of many moments throughout the show where just the groves alone were enough to make anyone move.  In many spots on “Donuts”—a hallmark of J Dilla’s production style—the grooves switch rapidly and the tempos change with little warning.  Coffeen, McCraven and company consistently nailed these tempo changes, never missing any of the subtleties that make Dilla’s music as iconic as it is.

Having the full live horn and string sections on stage also added greatly to the performance.  While the horns and strings on “Donuts” are sampled, having live arrangements brought a lot of life to the songs.  The strings swelled and crescendoed in songs like “Stop” and “Don’t Cry,” adding dramatic tension, while the live horns popped on “The Diff’rence” and “Geek Down.”  

The last cut from “Donuts”, “Welcome to the Show”, samples Motherlode’s song “When I die”. The mantra of the song being “When I die I hope I will be a better man than you thought I would be”.  Seeing J Dilla’s music reimagined and performed so captivatingly by such a strong group of musicians served as a beautiful and bittersweet celebration life.  A sold-out crowd at Thalia Hall would most definitely agree that Dilla’s influence is vast, long lasting, and will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.

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