Seldom as a writer do I get the pleasure of covering an event I enjoy as much as the DC Loves Dilla Benefit Concert. The benefit concert which is in its eighth year honors world renowed rapper and super producer James Dewitt Yancey better known as Jay Dee or J Dilla. Dilla is best known for producing for De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Common, Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson and many others in addition to success as a solo artist and half of Detroit based rap duo Slum Village.
Proceeds of the concert will benefit Lupus, which Dilla died of just three days after his 32nd birthday. Its important to note however that the concert feels like a vibrant celebration and nothing like a funeral or memorial. Dilla left fans and fellow artists alike with a robust catalog of work and has inspired tribute albums and concerts by his contemporaries.
The energy at the DC Loves Dilla Benefit Concert is unlike anything else and this year was no exception. Hundreds of fans turned out to the historic Howard Theatre selling out the downstairs and flooding into the upstairs VIP section.
Before the concert I was able to speak with several of the talented artists who would be paying tribute to Dilla onstage.
I sat down with Washington, DC born and raised singer, emcee, poet and actor Wes Felton who I talked with two years ago and discussed the state of hip hop mainstream and otherwise. This time we discussed his upcoming album “Imagine the Future” produced entirely by Kenny Allen. Wes’ goal on this album was to do an “easy” “palatable” album without compromising his sound and style. DC raised singer and songwriter Raheem DeVaughn will appear on the album which is a treat for local music lovers who still have their 2007 collaboration “Admit It” in rotation.
I asked Wes his opinion on mainstream hip hop and the direction it’s gone in since we last spoke. He replied “Some of it I get and some of it I don’t”. Wes still feels that artistry and quality are too often compromised for marketing and that much of the music has become product. The example of this on both our lips was Jay Z’s July 4th release of “Magna Carter: Holy Grail.” The new Jay Z album has been panned by critics, and music fans alike. The album which was available as a free app download from Samsung days before the July 7th release failed as technical problems and underwhelmed reviews of the project plagued the artist.
When I asked Wes who he does listen to he mentioned J. Cole as one of his favorite mainstream hip hop artists but contended that he spends a lot of time listening to his contemporaries.
One of Wes Felton’s contemporaries is internationally known hip hop artist Substantial. I had the pleasure of talking to Substantial about his own upcoming project, and being a pioneer of Jazz Hop. As I approached Substantial, the first thing I noticed was his passion as he concluded an interview with another reporter, he beamed as he talked about the energy of the evening and the honor that it was to be included in concert for Dilla who is clearly an inspiration to him. That presence and passion is the reason fans the world over have been rockin’ with Substantial since 2001.
Substantial describes the benefit concert as “edu-tainment” a celebration of Dilla’s life and music for both the longtime fans and the new people who are unfamiliar with his work, he adds that the event makes him think about his legacy.
Substantial’s legacy will include a new Jazz Hop album that’s in the works with producer Marcus D. and appearances from Syce Star from the group Sign and Carolyn Malachi. Substantial is excited and has big expectations about the new album. After the release of the last project, he was featured on Vogue magazine’s website which is a huge deal for an independent artist.
When asked about his creative process and what goes into him starting a new project, he takes me through the process of writing and researching “like any writer” he says. Substantial wants to tell not just his story but the stories of others, the ones his fans will connect with.
At the helm of fans connecting with the music at the DC Loves Dilla concert is keyboardist Arrow of Jon Laine and the Players. Arrow is a keyboardist, musical director, producer and man of many other talents. Arrow shares the honor that Substantial and Wes expressed about the honor of being invited to take part in the concert.
Arrow speaks candidly about being a keyboardist in the DC Loves Dilla concert, he is “cool with being just that”. Arrow is a laid back musician’s musician. He is serious about his craft but with none of the ego that runs rampant with some other artists. In the very beginning stages of a new project I asked him who he would love to work with. His first choice is Layla Hathaway. His excitement is palatable as he talks about the richness of her voice, and her sheer talent.
Arrow is tentative as he discusses his hope that he can get her involved in the project. Arrow isn’t only interested in well known names for the album, he recognizes the need to pair lesser known artists with more well known one. “there are so many talented people who deserve to be heard” Unsure of the sound and direction of the album, he is certain of one thing – he wants to break new ground and innovate.
When asked who he listens to in his Ipod, he immediately lists a synth based rock group called Phoenix, as well as a group called Mutemath as well as mainstream artists such as Jay Z, and Justin Timberlake who he calls “refreshing” in his brand of soul. He has over 23,000 songs in his digital collection including Janelle Monet who he lists an major inspiration.
The theme of the night is indeed inspiration and artists honoring a man and a musician who opened doors and created concepts that are still being recreated and renewed. Musicians who are humble, innovative, and fresh who support each other and the listeners. These talented artists love Dilla just as the whole city of DC does. It was apparent by the shoulder to shoulder crowd as each of these talents and many others took the stage well into the night.
The DC Loves Dilla benefit concert took place Friday, July 10, 2013, at the Howard Theatre in Washington, DC.