J Dilla Disassembled His Cassette Deck to Extend Certain Samples

How one of rap music’s most storied producers used technological innovation to make incredible pause tape beats.

In mid-October of 2006, Cincinnati native and esteemed veteran producer Hi-Tek dropped his sophomore album Hi-Teknology²: The Chip. Featuring Common, Devin The Dude, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, and many other talented MCs spitting verses over his expert production, the record received widespread praise from critics.

Hi-Teknology²: The Chip contains no shortage of highlight verses, but the most moving moment on the entire project may be an answering machine message from the late J Dilla during the opening of “Music For Life.”

The Detroit icon, who had tragically passed away just eight months prior to the album’s release, had the following to say about his lifelong love of sound. “Music is — my total existence, dawg, straight up/Everything in my life revolves around music/It’s like, I can’t get in a relationship/’Cause I’m still with my first love, which is music/You know what I’m sayin’? For real/It’s the reason I’m here.”

Dilla’s unrivaled passion for creating sound was evident throughout his life, but when and where did the relationship with his first love start?

According to a 2003 interview with Rimehis reverence for making music began with elementary school music class and piano/drum lessons in church. Then Run DMC dropped “Sucker MCs” and Whodini released “Big Mouth” in 1984, sparking a neverending fascination with music production. “Those songs were the first time I heard the beats that weren’t melodic—just drums,” he told Rime.

Dilla, who started building his skills as a DJ at a young age and played records in a local park when he was two, began a multi-year odyssey of making pause tape beats not long after hearing “Sucker MCs” and “Big Mouth.” Based on observations from some of his collaborators, Dilla’s pause tape productions were a cut above most after just a few years of practice.

According to late Slum Village rapper Baatin, a teenaged Dilla would pick up him, Dilla’s brother, and T3 up in his Escort and drive them around Detroit while showcasing his latest pause button concoctions. Some of the samples he flipped were pretty surprising. “He would come and pick us up in the Escort and play these beats from the song ‘Louie Louie’ that he had sampled on two tape decks,” Baatin told Bill Murphy in a 2006 Electronic Musician article.  

No matter what song he sampled, the music that came through the speakers often left the passengers in awe. “We’d roll around listening to beats he made with the pause and record on two tape decks,” Baatin told journalist Ronnie Reese in his timeless 2006 Wax Poetics cover story on Dilla. “He was just a genius at that, even back then. The beats sounded so perfect.”

Dilla’s pause button finesse was so impressive that it even lead to an early, unreleased Slum Village track. But how did he manage to make something so damn good with such restrictive equipment? His cousin and early collaborator Que. D shed some light on the topic in the Wax Poetics cover story

In true DIY fashion the late Detroit producer disassembled his cassette deck and modified it so he could elongate specific parts of the tape and sample them. This next level ingenuity proved to Que. D that his cousin was operating on a different wavelength than most of his peers. “That shit, to me, showed that he was more than a beat maker—he was like a mad scientist,” he told Wax Poetics.

Que. D wasn’t the only one impressed by Dilla’s production prowess. After meeting Detroit singer, songwriter, producer, musician, and former Parliament member Amp Fiddler, Dilla showed him some of his cassette deck beats. Like others who had been lucky enough to hear the iconic producer’s early work, Fiddler heard talent and potential. “There were a few drops—but for the most part it was pretty damn precise,” he told Kelly “K-Fresh” Frazier, Tate McBroom, and T3 for Real Detroit Weekly’s excellent 2006 cover story on Dilla.

Fiddler assigned Dilla some homework afterwards to see if he could take his talents beyond the tape deck. “I told him he needs to go home and separate all the samples to load into the MPC, and he came back with all the samples separated and mapped out exactly how he wanted it,” he told Real Detroit Weekly. “As time went on, he got better and better.”

As Dilla honed his skills and the quality of his output increased, he experimented with several samplers after leaving pause tape beats behind. He started with an E-mu SP-12, moved on to the more powerful SP-1200, and then brought an Akai S950 intro the fold while producing songs like “The Jam” for Richmond, Virginia native Skillz.

He later he switched over to AKAI MPC60 and 60II, before eventually settling on the MPC3000 as his favorite. “I’ve tried other samplers but the 3000 is best for me for what I like to do,” he said in his final interview, a 2006 Scratch magazine piece written by Alvin Blanco.

Dilla continued to amaze listeners with his ability to make magic on any and every piece of equipment until the end of his life, creating the majority of Donuts on a Roland SP-303 in his hospital bed before succumbing to health complications from what was reported as both the rare blood disorder thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) and lupus.

Regardless of what equipment or process he used, it’s the enduring emotion and resonance of Dilla’s music that matters. He crafted songs that took listeners to a higher place, whether it was early pause tape beats played for his high school friends, guest production for other artists, collaborative albums, or an instrumental release of his own.

In the 14 years since his passing Dilla’s influence shows no signs of losing any luster. The sounds that started out as extended samples from his tape deck and grew into trademark off-kilter MPC drums and untouchable sample chops will undoubtedly continue to endure.

(This article is a modified and updated version of a story that was originally published on Micro-Chop.)

Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!