To say Detroit must have something in the water when it comes to musical talents may not seem terribly positive upon first glance, but their grip on the hip-hop scene has proven that statement valid at the very least. From the earlier stages of the scene with artists like D the Great, Detroit’s Most Wanted, and Esham, to somewhat more recently relevant acts like Eminem, Big Sean, Danny Brown, and Tee Grizzley. James Dewitt Yancey, better known by his stage name of J Dilla, serves as no exception to this rule, being one of the most notable and prolific producers to hail from the Motor City. Dilla’s third studio album, The Shining, was the first to be released following the producer’s death in February 2006.
Coming from a musical family—his mother being a former opera singer and his father being a jazz bassist—an affinity for the art wasn’t too far of a stretch for Yancey, his mother quoted saying “He had perfect pitch and harmony at a couple months old; he couldn’t talk, of course, it was just something that he did.”
Dilla cut his teeth with production fresh out of high school as a founding third of Slum Village, a group he formed with fellow Pershing High School alumni T3 and Baatin. Upon meeting frequent Parliament collaborator Amp Fiddler at Lollapalooza ‘94, Fiddler introduced him to Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, to whom Dilla gave a Slum Village demo tape.
This introduction would lead to Dilla’s enlistment into The Ummah, a production collective that consisted of Q-Tip and fellow A Tribe Called Quest member DJ Ali Shaheed-Muhammad. While relatively mismanaged—people considering The Ummah simply to be a moniker of Q-Tip’s and consequently misattributing most of the collective’s work to him—any non-remix work would adequately be credited to Dilla as his catalog grew to include remixes for Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, and Jamiroquai.
The turn of the millennium saw Dilla as the founder of two more groups in Soulquarians and Jaylib, as well as releasing Welcome 2 Detroit under Barely Breaking Even Records, kicking off the Beat Generation series from the label. During this time, he had also notably tweaked his stage name from Jay Dee to J Dilla to avoid any conflation with Jermaine Dupri.
Three days after releasing what many consider to be his magnum opus, Donuts under the Stone’s Throw label, Dilla tragically passed after succumbing to a rare blood disease known as thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) as well as lupus. Having somewhat of a habit of abandoning projects in the middle of production to gather more records and come back, Dilla was in the process of recording for another album, The Shining, for most of 2005, but was unable to finish it before his death.
The Shining‘s main body of production was handled by Jaylib (a collaboration between Oxnard-born producer Madlib, his DJ J Rocc and J Dilla) and Detroit compatriot Kariem Riggins. Dilla’s contributions came while he was undergoing treatment at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre for TTP and lupus. Upon Dilla’s demise, Riggins was given the blessing by the Yancey estate to complete the record. With this blessing, Riggins would go on to release further posthumous albums like 2007’s Ruff Draft and Jay Love Japan, up until the most recent release (remasters and anniversary editions notwithstanding), 2017’s Motor City.
Keeping in line with J Dilla’s signature production style, the record features off-kilter, oddly syncopated rhythms and low-end attenuated samples. Ranging everywhere from The Isley Brothers to Giorgio Moroder to the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra, the eclecticism present throughout never feels overly novel or hokey. Previous collaborators like Busta Rhymes on “Geek Down,” Black Thought on “Love Movin’,” and Common/D’Angelo on “So Far To Go,” proves Dilla ever-adaptive ability for the duration of the album’s 36-minute runtime.
The album art itself, as well as the title, takes obvious reference from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film of the same name. However, according to collaborator J Rocc, the initial idea for the album cover was a photo of Dilla in the CPAP machine he used to treat his TTP. The cover as we know it was decided upon posthumously and before the album’s completion.
While not quite living up to the exact hype that Donuts had earlier that same year, The Shining saw a moderately positive reception, receiving a Metacritic score of 80/100 and 3.5 out of 5 stars from Rolling Stone.
Despite such a tragically short career in life, only spanning about 10 years, J Dilla boasts one of the most influential legacies in all of hip-hop. The Shining exists as a monument to how salient Dilla’s vision was, even when he wasn’t there to see it all the way through.