The dilemma of unlocking Dilla Dog’s Vault

When J Dilla died in 2006, he left thousands of hours of unreleased music. Most of it remained unfinished, never to leave his vault. But now his music in the hands of his estate, which includes his mom and his manager.

One of Dilla's earliest albums Rough Draft came to symbolize the way he produced music – live. His voice crackles on the album: “sounds like it's straight from the motherfuckin' cassette.”

But does his improvisational approach justify the release of his unpublished work?

“In this drawer we found a few pages, at this desk we found a few pages — scattered all over the house,” Cooley says. “Some overlap between things. Things are named strangely. It was a lot of detective work to figure out, okay, which version is the ultimate version that was supposed to end up on The Diary.”

Dilla recorded “The Sickness” in 2001. Nas rapped over the song this year before it got a posthumous release.

No one – not even Madlib – knows what edits Dilla would've made to the track. Would Dilla have added a snare or a horn somewhere? Would even want Nas to rap over it?

Piecing together and repackaging an artist's work after they die is a sensitive issue. Dilla's mom claims to make decisions in the eyes of her son. But how can she and the rest of the members of the estate do anything without looking greedy? After Prince died, 15 of his albums appeared on streaming site Tidal.

On the flip side, opening up the vault is a treasure trove for fans. They don't seem to care if the songs sound polished or not. Dilla fans go crazy for anything he touched, even if it's a half-baked loop.

Most work is practice. It's hard to say when we finish any project. As Dilla's life demonstrates, our work evolves even after we die.

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Published by Wells Baum

A daily blogger who connects the dots between arts and life.

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