First meeting in the mid ’90s through legendary Detroit fixture, DJ HouseShoes, J Dilla and Peanut Butter Wolf immediately hit it off, finding common ground in their love of R&B, soul, jazz, and dusty record digging.
The two didn’t reconnect until the turn of the century, when by chance, Dilla heard a mixtape featuring the Cali MC, Madlib, rapping over his own instrumentals. Dilla loved what he heard and placed a call to the label behind it, Stones Throw Records, the upstart independent label founded by Peanut Butter Wolf.
While Dilla’s sound was unmistakably underground, he had many powerful friends who were successful major label artists. Janet Jackson and Busta Rhymes sold units by the boatload, while contemporaries The Roots and Common moved more modest numbers, but remain on major labels to this day. After a failed attempt at joining his peers in the major label game (MCA shelved his album in the early-aughts), Dilla high-tailed it to the greener pastures of indie land.
He soon joined the Stones Throw family, releasing Champion Sound, a groundbreaking and highly influential collaborative album with Madlib, in 2003. Dilla went on to have a successful—if brief—indie career, releasing two more albums with the label before his untimely death, and two more posthumously.
Six years after Dilla’s passing (peep The 50 Best J Dilla Songs here), rumors continue to swirl that all of the tangled issues surrounding his estate have been rectified, and that his fans may finally get a chance to enjoy a stable of unheard beats and his never-released MCA album, reportedly titled Pay Jay.
The MCA album was tough because there were so many different producers. He had everyone doing beats on it: Kanye, Madlib. It was kind of a who’s who.
In this exclusive interview with Complex, Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf clarifies these rumors, talks about the status of Dilla’s unreleased music, shares some rare photos from his personal archive, and hints at a follow up to Dilla’s classic instrumental album Donuts.
Interview by Andrew Barber (@FakeShoreDrive)
We’ve heard that Dilla’s messy estate issues have been cleared up, and you may soon get the green light to sell his beats for new projects. Is this true?
I haven’t spoken to Ma Dukes in a couple of months, and I need to follow up on all of that. Everything with him just happened so fast. He got sick and then he passed away. We were working on a few Stones Throw projects right before he passed, and I told him let’s sell some beats in the meantime.
He got really sick, so it didn’t go down as we expected. I need to speak with Ma Dukes about all of that, because I haven’t been following the ongoings of his estate all that closely.
Basically, his Mom heard me and Dilla talk about putting out Ruff Draft and the MCA album [rumored to be titled Pay Jay]. After he passed away, maybe six months or so later, she talked to us about putting out Ruff Draft, and then the MCA album. The MCA album was tough because there were so many different producers. He had everyone doing beats on it: Kanye, Madlib. It was kind of a who’s who. That’s initially how Madlib starting working with him, actually.
Recently she told me that if they ever put the MCA album out, they’d do it through Stones Throw. I haven’t really talked to her about the estate stuff in like two or three months. Last time I saw her was when she came by the office to grab some T-shirts and stuff and hang out for a bit. I’m kind of in the dark about it myself.
So there are plans to release his shelved MCA album from 2003?
We’ve always talked about doing it. I’ve talked to Ma Dukes about it. I don’t know. It would be great to put it out at some point. There are a lot of unfinished songs, like one where he shouts out Snoop Dogg, and Snoop was supposed to kick a verse but it never happened. If Stones Throw were to get clearance to release it, we’d get everyone who was involved, like Snoop, to help finish it.
Didn’t most of these songs leak to the Internet?
Most if it did, yeah, but it wasn’t finished.
Who actually owns the rights to that project?
I don’t know who owns it. Stones Throw definitely does not own it. It was something that was always an issue. MCA has no plans to ever put it out, so someone else needs to.
There are a lot of unfinished songs, like one where he shouts out Snoop Dogg, and Snoop was supposed to kick a verse but it never happened. If Stones Throw were to get clearance to release it, we’d get everyone who was involved, like Snoop, to help finish it.
Does Stones Throw have plans to release any more Dilla projects?
We always talked about releasing—and we wouldn’t call it this—but a Donuts part two.
Dilla’s beat tapes always had these great titles, named after unhealthy food that he wasn’t allowed to eat. The doctors would always tell him that he couldn’t have Burger King, he couldn’t eat this, he couldn’t eat that. So he always named his beat tapes based around that. He had one that was really great that’s still unreleased called The Pizza Man—and we always wanted to do something with it.
It comes down to Ma Dukes, though. She makes all of the decisions, so it would have to come from her. She was with him in his final days and was sleeping on a cot in his room. She took care of him so much. If I was ever presented with doing something that would upset her, I just wouldn’t do it.
So how do you feel about rappers using his beats without paying his estate? Plenty of his unreleased beats have been used and abused for mixtapes and whatnot.
I mean, I don’t really want to say too much about that. Madlib did a whole album of that while Dilla was alive, before they ever worked together. That’s how they came together. Dilla reached out to us after he heard it, like, “What’s up man, we should do a real album together. Make it official.” If Madlib would’ve never done that, then we may have never met Dilla or worked with him.
Dilla’s beat tapes always had these great titles, named after unhealthy food that he wasn’t allowed to eat. The doctors would always tell him that he couldn’t have Burger King, he couldn’t eat this, he couldn’t eat that... He had one [beat tape] that was really great that’s still unreleased called The Pizza Man.
That’s a weird thing for me. I don’t want to criticize people for doing it, but sometimes it can get a little corny. With all of the tribute stuff, I kind of avoid it for the most part. I’m actually doing his birthday party tribute on Tuesday (February 7), which is a video tribute—which is something I’ve never done. I haven’t ever done a video tribute for him, so I was up for that. But I don’t ever aggressively seek out doing Dilla gigs, because sometimes it just gets self-serving.
Do you ever grow tired of having to answer Dilla questions?
I don’t really talk about it that much, but I also don’t get asked about him that much. I was more behind-the-scenes. We were just friends who liked to go record shopping. Like the first time he called to ask me to go record shopping with him, I hung up the phone like, “I just got a call from God.” That’s how I felt. I feel the same way with Madlib. Those two guys together are the best producers ever, period—hip-hop, R&B, any kind of music. They are the best.
Does Dilla still have a lot of unreleased beats floating around?
Yes. J Rocc has everything. J Rocc is the absolute authority on everything J Dilla. I have a lot of stuff, and definitely more than most people. I get calls from other DJs all the time to give them stuff, because they get asked to do a Dilla tribute or whatever. I definitely have a lot of stuff. Madlib and J Rocc have the most, though.
So there’s plenty of material for a Donuts part two?
Oh yeah, definitely. That’s the frustrating thing—Dilla wanted to put out more material. He would always tell us how much he loved Stones Throw. He couldn’t believe we’d do videos for him and everything. Typically indie labels wouldn’t spend any money or do videos, but we were constantly creating.
I never even thought a guy like Dilla would want a video—I thought I was overstepping my boundaries to ask him to do a video. He was always at everyone else’s video shoots, like MED and Oh No. And these were all kind of unknown MCs at the time, and Dilla was right there with them, supporting and uplifting them.
Dilla wanted to put out more material. He would always tell us how much he loved Stones Throw. He couldn’t believe we’d do videos for him and everything. Typically indie labels wouldn’t spend any money or do videos, but we were constantly creating.
Actually, the Donuts album cover we used is from a photo from the MED video shoot. We took the still from the video because we didn’t really have any other pictures of him that were as good as that. [Click above to see the original Donuts demo submitted by Dilla.]
What about another Jaylib project? I’m sure Madlib could get on some of those old Dilla beats.
Well, there were Jaylib remixes that we could put out. But we’d never do another Jaylib without Dilla here. I’ve always had weird feelings about changing stuff after somebody passes away. I was in a group with an MC named Charizma in ’91, ’92, ’93. He was gunned down when he was 20 years old. Eventually I put out his album because I promised him I would. But I have no interest in doing remixes or changing things. I just felt weird about it.
Everyone has their own feelings about that, and what the right thing to do is. If you know someone well enough you can kind of guess the best way to honor their legacy, but it’s always a tricky thing. Technically it could be put together, but I personally have no interest in doing it.
And that’s why we kind of fell back after Donuts. Donuts was such a huge success and we could’ve put out The Pizza Man right after it, and capitalized on it monetarily, but I felt kind of strange about it. It was just wrong in my eyes. I’ve always battled with that.
What are some of your favorite memories of Dilla?
I started working with Dilla in ’95, through DJ Houseshoes. Houseshoes was always talking about Dilla, and I probably first heard of him around ’94—he was still Jay Dee at the time. Houseshoes would just talk about “Jay Dee, Jay Dee, Jay Dee.” I wanted to put out a record with him overseas, and we did a bootleg type of record with all of these remixes on it and this was before he’d blown up.
When I first started speaking with him again in the early 2000s, he had us out to Detroit. He picked us up and took us to the strip club and all around the city. He just showed us a great time. I felt like he was this big star, but he was treating us as the stars.
At that time he wasn’t a big enough name, so a lot of the labels passed on him—they’d just go with a bigger name or a bigger producer. But by the time he started working with Stones Throw in the early 2000s, he had blown up. He had done all the Tribe and Pharcyde stuff, The Roots were messing with him; he was doing it.
He didn’t care about going to the Grammys when he was nominated or anything—that’s just not the type of guy he was. And I feel the same way about Madlib. They just remind me so much of each other.
When I first started speaking with him again in the early 2000s, he had us out to Detroit. He picked us up and took us to the strip club and all around the city. He just showed us a great time. I felt like he was this big star, but he was treating us as the stars. That’s what I always remember about him.