Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Celebrating the legendary hip-hop producer J Dilla

  • The Dillatronics Band is one of several groups coming together Feb. 8 at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke to celebrate the music of the late hip-hop producer J Dilla. Photo by Zack Cross

  • Hartford-based rapper Tang Sauce, who will be part of the Feb. 8 concert, calls J Dilla’s music “smooth, intelligent, and soulful.” Image from Facebook

Published: 1/30/2019 3:29:36 PM

James Dewitt Yancey. Jay Dee. J Dilla. A hip-hop producer who made old pros like Q-Tip and Questlove shake their heads in awe because of the visionary way he took samples and drum machines and made them breathe and flow with musicality and organic soul.

Dilla created his masterpiece LP “Donuts” during a long hospital stay in 2005. He was dealing with an incurable blood disease while also battling lupus, but he still spent his waking hours hunched over a sampler, a portable record player, and stacks of 45 rpm singles brought in by friends and family.

The emotionally powerful album was released on his 32nd birthday. He died three days later.

Through his solo work and collaborations with A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, The Pharcyde, Slum Village and others, Dilla transformed hip-hop’s heartbeat at its most molecular level. 

Songs from all of the above artists will be performed at “The Soul of Hip-Hop: Live,” a concert starring Valley musicians The Dillatronics Band, Hartford-based rapper Tang Sauce, Northampton vocalist Caity Simpson and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Mtali Shaka Banda. The show take splace at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on Friday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m.

After the live set, DJs Rec and Krefting will be spinning classic hip-hop tracks until closing time.

The night is being produced by Genuine Culture, LLC, a Holyoke-based group founded in 2015 that organizes hip-hop-related events across the Pioneer Valley, showcasing live music, visual arts, dance, film and more. It’s Genuine Culture’s way of building community through what hip-hop artist/activist KRS-One called “edutainment.”

In a recent interview, Genuine Culture president Damany Gordon said “Unity and having fun are two of the main frameworks of hip-hop culture, so Genuine Culture always aims to bring people together in a lively, musical, positive environment.… we really want people to have an experience.”

Gordon is calling the Dilla-inspired event an “interactive live musical journey,” with The Dillatronics Band serving as the house band: keyboardist/bandleader Zack Cross, guitarist Killian Karlsson, bassist Reed Sutherland, drummer Ted Sullivan and percussionist/sample man Colin Jalbert. Most of the night’s performers have worked together in the past, or still do, in groups like Mammal Dap and the Mtali Shaka Banda Oneness Project.

Cross and Gordon made the set list for the show, choosing songs from various artists produced by Dilla, mostly from 1995-2005. 

Tang Sauce, who’s performed in the Valley numerous times (including opening for KRS-One, Dead Prez and others), described Dilla’s sound as “smooth, intelligent, soulful. It’s like waking up on a nice summer morning just knowing you have a good day ahead of you. But it can also dim the lights and get sensual on you, plus teach you something new.”

Vocalist Caity Simpson is looking forward to sharing the stage with Tang Sauce for the first time; she’s particularly excited to sing Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know,” a song Dilla built from a record Badu personally chose from his vast collection during a visit to his place in Detroit.

“I really dig the lyrics and the melody, and I can’t wait to vibe with the band on it,” said Simpson. “All of the music in this show is so tight, and it’s honestly a gift to get to explore it this way.”

Mtali Shaka Banda was 15 when Dilla passed away. “That was when his name really came onto my radar, and all my big bros put me on,” he said. “The sounds I search for in my own music are heavily influenced by Dilla's music.” He added that A Tribe Called Quest’s “Find a Way” is his favorite song in the show’s set. “That hook just transports me.”

Karlsson, the guitarist for The Dillatronics Band, was a hip-hop-loving high school student in Sweden when he discovered Dilla thanks to a store that sold goods imported from the U.S. — “dope jeans, 59FIFTY hats, and slick Nikes. They randomly had a bunch of Stones Throw Records stuff. I bought everything they had and fell in love with all the sounds, but particularly Madlib and Dilla.”

And Sutherland, the Dillatronics’ bassist, said the night’s song selection was crafted “with entertainment in mind, something that Dilla nerds and even people who have just heard Dilla in passing will like. To me it really encapsulates a lot of that scene’s vibe, more than it’s like a ‘greatest hits’ show.”

With a laugh, he added “I mean, how would you do that? It’d be a five-hour show!”

Ken Maiuri can be reached at

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