One night outside a small music venue in North Carolina, Questlove’s life was changed forever. He was in the car leaving the venue when he heard a beat coming from inside that sounded… wrong.
“As I’m leaving the club, I'm hearing the vibration of the kick drum. It was the most life-changing moment I ever had… like, did I hear that? It sounded like the kick drum was played by a drunk 3-year old, and I was like ‘Are you allowed to do that?’”
The drums are the backbone of a band. They provide a steady beat for the other musicians to follow. Up until this point, Questlove, like many drummers, had essentially trained to be a metronome, keeping perfect time.
But what he heard that night was the opposite of perfect - some notes hit slightly sooner than expected, others slightly later. The whole thing was messy, imperfect, uneven. And it was… awesome.
“I’d just never heard someone not give a fuck, and that to me was the most liberating moment. Like, oh, so all this pleasing my father, being perfect… Now I've got to undo all the education and all the hours of preparation that I did.”
The beat that captivated Questlove was made by the legendary James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla. Although he only lived to 32 and never had a mainstream hit, he is now considered one of the most influential producers in hip hop and popular music. The songs he produced reshaped our understanding of rhythm and time, and their influence persists among many musicians today.
At first glance, it might look like chaos, but beneath the surface lies a meticulously crafted rhythmic sensibility. We’ll break down the techniques and subtleties that go into these grooves that break the rules.
Note: This piece is heavily inspired by Dan Charnas’ great book “Dilla Time”, which goes deep into J Dilla’s life, music, and legacy. This piece aims to add visuals that you can see, hear, and interact with to some of the material covered in Charnas’ work.
S t r a i g h t
Let’s begin with a basic groove.
This groove is straight. Everything aligns perfectly with the evenly spaced grid. The space between notes stays consistent, so each note falls exactly where you would expect it to. This is the way Questlove had trained so hard to play.
Here are some songs with straight grooves.
In today's popular music, producers can use technology to ensure instruments are aligned to the grid. This technique is called quantizing. Even if notes are originally slightly off beat, they can be snapped onto the grid with the click of a button.
S w i n g
Sometimes straight can get a little boring. Fitting an evenly spaced grid is just one way to think about rhythm. Another is swing, where the second note within each beat is intentionally delayed. So, the first note takes up slightly more space, and the second beat takes slightly less than if they were evenly spaced. It’s a common feature of blues and jazz, and the whole band does it, all playing on this new long-short-long-short grid.
Here are some songs with swung grooves. Can you hear a difference from the straight grooves?
Want to go deeper on swing? Let’s get in the weeds.
Swing is defined by delaying that second note, but by how much exactly? The swing examples you just heard are called triplet swing because if we divide each beat in 3 parts (called triplets), the groove can be felt as the first and third of those triplets. Ordinarily, the beat would be divided into an even number of parts, and we could play two evenly spaced notes. Dividing the beat into an odd number of parts always results in an uneven feeling, since one note must be slightly longer than the other.
What about other odd divisions? This song’s groove is a quintuplet swing, derived by dividing the beat into 5 parts and playing on the first and fourth subdivisions. It’s a subtle difference, but the swing is slightly less steep, it’s closer to straight than the triplet swing.
Let’s visualize this a different way. A rotation around this circle represents 1 beat. For a triplet swing, the beat is divided in 3 parts, and notes are played on the first and third, which is as close to even as we can get. Another way you can describe this rhythm is to say it has a 66.6% swing percentage, meaning that the first note takes up 66.6% of the beat. The higher the swing percentage, the steeper the swing, the further from straight (50% swing) we get.
Depending on how many pieces you divide the beat into, that second note is delayed a different amount. Each of these swings is subtly different, try them out for yourself.
As you divide the beat into more pieces, the rhythm inches closer to straight, but never quite reaching it. These grooves have a unique funkiness - caught between a swung and straight feel, they have a lilting, off-kilter feeling. To me it feels like we’re stumbling down a flight of stairs and never quite catching ourselves. This tension is signature to J Dilla’s style.
Some drummers actually think about and count these subdivisions out in their head. Others just think “play somewhere between straight and swung” or “play drunk.”
S h i f t
When most music is straight and even, we develop expectations of where notes should fall. Even a slight deviation can feel bizarre, but that bizarreness is what made J Dilla’s time-feel so compelling. Another technique he used was to shift an entire part over ever so slightly on his drum machine. It results in this distinctive flam or rubbing effect between instruments that now fall slightly apart from each other.
D i l l a T i m e
What made J Dilla truly groundbreaking was his fusion of these elements — straight, swung, shifted — giving different parts of the groove different time-feels and slight deviations. This creates the looseness, tension, and humanness that defines the innovative time-feel known as Dilla Time.
This toy example incorporates multiple J Dilla-inspired elements, but it's worth noting that every Dilla and Dilla-like song is distinct, featuring its own unique combination of these techniques. Armed with this knowledge, we can now identify and label these elements as they appear in actual songs.
This first one, “Fall in Love” by Erykah Badu (a frequent collaborator of J Dilla’s), has a similar feel to the groove we just created.
Fall in Love by Erykah Badu (2010)
Get Dis Money by Slum Village (1999)
Heart Don’t Stand a Chance by Anderson .Paak (2016)
I’ll end with a quote I like from the musician Jacob Collier, a contemporary musician who has been influenced by J Dilla’s work:
“When you learn music, you’re trained to think [in terms of a] “right way” and a “wrong way.” It’s all just made up. You have to find your own way. And so often [in making music], the things that are deemed wrong, or unconventional, or strange — those are the things that work the best and move people the most, because people are moved by things that aren’t perfect.”
Grooves were transcribed by putting the song in GarageBand and recreating the drums, lining things up until there was no audible flam between the two tracks (a technique borrowed from this blog post).
- Dilla Time by Dan Charnas
- Jacob Collier breaking down one of his wonky grooves
- These two blog posts analyzing Dilla Feel
- A drummer talking about how they achieve Dilla Feel