Winnipeg's first Celebration of the life of J DIlla
I swear to god I woke up on February 7th with the biggest smile on my face. It was Dilla Day! Winnipeg’s first ever! A defining moment for the city’s burgeoning rap scene, to be spearheaded by the young vanguard that is Brendan Kinley, Chris Bennett, the Happy Unfortunate, and a few other of Winnipeg’s most talented artists. As Brendan would say during the show, it was a night for “not only celebrating Dilla but celebrating some of the better artists in the city”.
The importance of J Dilla to hip-hop, however, cannot be overemphasized. The producer/MC defined a sound for Detroit in the 90s with Slum Village that made its way to all ends of the rap world. Dilla went on to produce for, and later have his music sampled by, A Tribe Called Quest, MF DOOM, D’Angelo, and even Daft Punk. Honestly, if you don’t already know about how massive of a character James Yancey was in his era just listen to Phife talk about him. If you love hip-hop you love Dilla, and vice-versa. The two are inseparable. Most posthumous rappers are seen as untouchable after they die, but Dilla is raised to new heights in the rap pantheon due to the insane commitment he had for his craft. Months before his death, after suffering for years from a debilitating blood disease and lupus, Dilla still toured, performing in a wheelchair, straining to push out his lyrics to adoring fans.
It was a bearable night by Winnipeg standards: that is, cold as fuck but not face-burning, hands instantly falling off cold. Walking into what hours earlier was a Franco-Manitoban café, Le Garage had morphed into a packed bar, filled with the sounds of DOOM, the GZA, Santigold, and of course, J DIlla.
After sound check and further finicking with instruments that seemed to last an eternity, Super Duty Tough Work kicked off the show. The meticulous nature of the jazz sextet’s preparation paid off on stage, as the group crafted beautiful jazz renditions of Dilla classics and some soulful improvisations of their own. SDTW would replace the usual DJ/Drum machine combo for the entirety of the show, to create a brilliantly intimate atmosphere that paired excellently with the smaller size of the venue. A stream of MCs followed, interspersed with SDTW’s frontman Brendan (also of Sleeping Giants fame) rapping Dilla classics with his own spin on them. Chris Bennett was first up.
Chris Bennett possesses an overwhelming stage presence, which was more than apparent on the night. Although defining acts isn’t really my thing, I’d call his set a series of ‘heartfelt street stories’ eloquently told through rap. He killed it. After Chris and a couple songs from Brendan, Desi Ma, the self-described ‘Queen of the Peg’ took the stage. I had personally never heard of her before, and that title may be a bit hubristic, but she didn’t disappoint. At the end of her set Desi Ma revealed that as this was her first time playing with the band, which was almost unbelievable for how well she played. Her first song was a staccato-style rap, and the second was a quintessential slow jam about being saved by hip-hop. It was spectacular.
Next up was a shorter, red-bearded man with wiry glasses and a crazed look in his eyes. He got up on a milk crate and glared menacingly at the crowd for a few moments, disparaged a nameless heathen for pissing all over the seat in the men’s bathroom, and proceeded to launch into the HARDEST self-deprecating raps I’ve heard in this city. And so began my introduction to the blandly-named, yet anything-but-bland, John Smith. Never before had I gone so wild for a song about moving back into one's parents’ house.
The Happy Unfortunate came on with a quality set as always. They performed their hit ‘Laronda’ to SDTW playing the beat for Time: The Donuts of the Heart to rapturous delight from the crowd. At this point I was in the middle of the crowd attempting to squeeze my way towards the mini-mosh pit that was forming in the front. When 3PEAT came on to close out the show, however, the front two rows turned into a full on mosh-pit. The most committed of hip-hop heads were sent into a delirious frenzy, smashing into each other to the tune of a reworked Lightworks.
As I stepped outside of the show to escape the now sweat-box climate of Le Garage, the looks of joy, accomplishment, and satisfaction on the faces of my fellow rap enthusiasts made one thing very clear. Almost a decade after his death, Dilla’s influence can still be felt heavily throughout the world of hip-hop, and specifically in Winnipeg, where hardcore heads, the apologists of the classical 90s sound that he in part embodied, feature heavily. For myself, it seemed way overdue for this to be Winnipeg’s first celebration of the life of James Yancey, but hey, it’s a big step that Brendan, SDTW, the crowd, and all the acts of the night executed brilliantly. Winnipeg’s first Dilla Day was an unforgettable and undeniable success.