50 YEAR RETROSPECTIVE: Nujabes & J Dilla

On this very day 50 years ago, two GOATs were born on opposite sides of the world. One was from Tokyo, named Seba Jun- flip that around alongside a few samples and you have one of the greatest lofi hip hop producers of all time- Nujabes. The other was from Detroit, named James Dewitt Yancey, known better by his stage name J Dilla (or Jay Dee)- the other greatest lofi hip hop producer of all time.

Nujabes and J Dilla are yin and yang. Champions of uplifting music that sets people to motion. Wild forces of innovation in hiphop. again, GOATs.

To give a little heads up for the flow of this article, I’ll preface here. This article will focus on what I believe to be the two magnum opuses of these tragic heroes of hip hop: Luv(sic) Hexalogy by Nujabes and Donuts by J Dilla. Following these breakdowns, we’ll explore the other work of these artists including Nujabes’ involvement in Samurai Champloo and J Dilla’s collaborations which are as numerous as the Starz.

Nujabes was a record store owner in Tokyo, owning a sizable collection of records that led to the diverse range of samples found in his music- these samples would range from bossa nova guitarist Luiz Bonfá to jazz pianist Yusef Lateeft. He worked with his friends in Tokyo, the likes of Shing02, Uyama Hiroto, Pase Rock, Cise Star, and Substantial. There’s a buzz of folks who’ll say, “Nujabes worked with lame rappers” -but I’d personally counter by saying Shing02’s Luv(sic) Hexalogy is my favorite rap album.

Luv(sic) Hexalogy – Artwork by Syu (a japanese graffiti artist)

As the name suggests, Luv(sic) Hexalogy is a 6 part project that illustrates a lover’s journey. Everytime I hear Shing02 dancing through poetic verse on these boom bap beats- I’m reminded of how Shing02 almost wasn’t on Luv(sic) – the beat was originally for Pase Rock. Something in the beat stuck with Shing02 and he called up Nujabes to ask if he could use the beat. Nujabes told him that if he could get Pase Rock to give up the beat, then it was Shing02’s to use. This was the beginning of a legendary collaboration.

Here’s the original art for Luv(sic) – a photo taken by Emuse of Shing02 and his dog.

As the track begins, you can hear opening lines that any Nujabes fan could recite off the rip:
“Lovesick like a dog with canine sensitivity / Developing this new theory of relativity /

Connecting our souls resting in captivity / Positive life sacrifice what it is to me”

Eventually we break into the iconic chorus which has always stood out to me as incredibly emblematic of Shing02’s style

“’Cause the beat plus the melody / Makes me speak of L-O-V-E eloquently, so evidently”

All in all, Luv(sic) is about love, parting, and uniting. This chorus harkens back to an old Common track (an artist that J Dilla later collaborated with), “I Used To Love H.E.R.” Shing02 felt the two tracks shared a soul of sorts with their similar production styles and messages about hiphop. Shing02 dedicated this track to the goddess of music. 

The story continues with Luv(sic) pt2…

Nujabes emailed me another track. It was a nice release from the task at hand and the vibe inspired me to write what I was feeling towards the world. the first line came naturally, “once again now…”

— Shing02

Luv(sic) pt2’s justification is spoken in it’s chorus:

“C’est la vie, as they say L-O-V-E evidently, see every song has a sequel / Never same, everything but the name, all fresh just like back then, how we do everyday / C’est la vie, as they say L-O-V-E eloquently, see every dream has a part two / Never same, you got to keep it tight, all fresh just like back then, now hear me out”

Shing02 wrote part 2 for his love of hiphop music. With plenty of callbacks to Luv(sic), it’s certain that “the beat plus the melody’s the recipe.”

My personal favorite part of the Hexalogy is Luv(sic) pt3. The opening lines mean a great deal to me: “It’s funny how the music put times in perspective / Add a soundtrack to your life and perfect it.” Shing02 has a talent for conjuring nostalgia in his raps and I feel like this whole album is a masterful display of that. 

In Luv(sic) pt4, Shing02 dances back through the months, reminiscing on past times and the cyclical nature of it all. 

“Snow flakes in January
Heart warm like February
I wouldn’t ordinarily
March to the drum, play a fool like April
May the best dance in a Juno bridal
Power of the will, Julius and Augustus
Aw, you know, it’s just us
In a new semester, back in September
Boy, I wonder if you still remember”

…he darts through some verses before ending the year and starting again:

“Dress up at the end of October
Give thanks to the fam in November
A cold but cozy December
And we’re back to the origin, so let me begin”

And now we’re back at the start

“Snow flakes in January…”

It’s between pt 4 and pt 5 that Nujabes tragically passed in a car accident. The music from here on out reflects this loss, immortalizing Seba Jun in beats left behind.

Luv(sic) pt 5 – the first of two posthumous tracks begins with somber piano and the sample that speaks the words: “Everything is quiet.”

The line “til death to us part and it did.” spikes out like a cold shock. This line is stated by Shing02 to be dedicated to beatboxer Jeff Resurreccion who passed 2 months prior to Seba Jun, but it’s pretty obvious of its placement here. From this point, the track builds beauty out of pain. Shing02 talks to his lost friend saying “Now I hit the stage in honour of you / How’s the other side, I bet it’s a splendid view”

I think Shing02 was beyond inspired to capture everything he could with this track, honoring his friend and the art they made together. There are so many lines in this song that shake me up when I hear them. Part 5 ends with the words, “Whether a tree lives to see the end of centuries / Or a random hand picks it instantly / Life is art, a miracle for all to see / I must tell you that you lived beautifully.”


Luv(sic) Grand Finale begins with the words, “I met a metaphorical girl in a metaphysical world,” bringing it back to where it all started. The parralels that outline this idea as hiphop or a girl blur and coalesce. 

“A pen can be sharper than a scalpel to a patient / to an open heart, it’s a daily operation”

Shing02 reflects on the power of his words in this finale, dwelling on the impact of his art- realizing that there’s meaning to finishing what he started so long ago.

“After six come seven and eight
Access code to the pearly gates
They say heaven can wait
And you speak of fate
A finale to a play for my mate
I see the angels draw the drapes
Over the earthscape
Where the wine is the spirit of grapes
Gotta finish what we started, so I cut this tape
As our records will stay on rotate”

Shing02 drops his last verses before letting Nujabes’ heavenly beats play us out- coupled by record scratches and samples that add a sense of grandiosity to this finale. We hear “goodnight” and then it’s just Nujabes and the listener. 

Listen to all the parts together here.

Luv(sic) Hexalogy is just such an extremely extensive and meaningful piece of art to both it’s creators and fans alike. I’ve done my best to capture what makes it special to me but I think words from the creator are irreplaceable. Here’s a link to a transcription of the history of Luv(sic) by Shing02 from a notebook in the vinyl.

Luv(sic) Hexalogy also contains some beautiful remixes, my favorite being the acoustic remix of pt 2. The track goes out from Shing02 to Nujabes, take a listen below.

The instrumentals are also all accessible on streaming too, they’re beautiful if you just wanna hear Nujabes speak through his beats.

Finally, there’s a bonus track called “Perfect Circle” that you can sink your teeth into as well. Shing02 puts everything into perspective over lazy lo-fi piano beats from the GOAT Nujabes. 

Now let’s get into J Dilla. On his 32nd birthday, J Dilla released his magnum opus, Donuts. He passed three days later. 31 beats for 31 years of life. The album begins with the last song on its tracklist, aptly named, “Welcome To The Show.” The track samples Motherlode’s 1969 song, “When I Die” – it’s a haunting choice for the last sampled song on the album considering his passing 3 days after the release but the harmonies on this track are breathtakingly beautiful.

From here the album loops into track 1, “Donuts (Outro)” – the “end” of the album. 

Track 2, “Workinonit,” calls for everyone to take “center stage” as they grab the mic and start yammering commands. The music obeys Dilla’s orders as they assume positions amidst electric guitars and drunk drums.

J Dilla is best experienced in a slew of his ideas. Tapping into a flurry of his creative transitions can really showcase his genius. 

“The New” excitedly exclaims that “We’re putting it on WAX!” beating down into the instrumental as it sends off waves.

“Stop” is a beautiful boomerang of love, riding along a beat until it bursts into a lingering electric guitar

“People” entrances the listener in the sounds of bongos and echoeous mantras.

“Mash” is a banger- twisting the listener into serpentine piano riffs as he fires off bits of dissonance until…

The beautiful gem “Time: The Donut of the Heart” begins. This track samples the enchanting guitarwork from The Jackson 5’s “All I Do Is Think Of You.” As he speeds up and slows down time, he transports us away.

From here on out it’s great vibes. Dilla experiments with a variety of ideas in his beatwork shifting styles every minute to two minutes.

“Two Can Win” is a bop that doesn’t stop, boasting maybe the best transition on the whole project as it slides into “Don’t Cry.”

“Don’t Cry” is an incredibly personal track. J Dilla created this from his deathbed in order to comfort his brother. Both the samples and emotions are incredibly complex. Take a listen to the breakdown below:

“Anti-American Graffiti” swings between jagged tinny guitars, striking up a scene as it flares up. The title is a reference to a 1973 film directed by George Lucas.

What’s awesome about Donuts is how you can blink and the next thing you know, he’s sampling Hendrix’s Electric Lady Land. He goes all over the beatmap with this album.

“Gobstopper” is an absolute blast of a beat, championing trumpets as it struts down its 65 second run time.

“One For The Ghost” is yet another haunting track from Donuts. I sometimes wonder about what these track titles might’ve meant to J Dilla.

“Dilla Says Go” is another one of my favorites. This song is so chill, it just rolls into itself so easily as a xylophone chimes in the background.

From the depths of the “Factory” arrives “U-Love” – another fabulous gem of this epic. “U-Love” samples “Just Because I Really Love You” by Jerry Butler – creating another otherworldly earworm that plays itself into forever. 

We hear “Hi.” & “Bye.” before hearing the “Last Donut Of The Night.” As we spin around this sound, we reflect on 30 tracks we’ve been voyaging through. At long last, track 31 plays and we hear the glorious “Welcome To The Show.” But this thing just keeps going, right back into track 1: “Donuts (Outro).

With 31 delicious beats that loop into themselves, J Dilla creates an inescapable paradise. Within each track lies a lifetime of artist’s poise that comes together to form, what is in my opinion, the greatest album of all time.

Let’s flip back over to Nujabes now.

His 2003 debut, Metaphorical Music, is the album that I feel like best exemplifies the diversity of his sound – from jazz to wavey beats to swift poetry- Metaphorical Music’s got it all.

Here are some of my favorite tracks from Metaphorical Music:
-Lady Brown
-Beat laments the world
-Blessin it- remix

Modal Soul is a soulful soundscape filled with jazz piano, wisdom, and innovative beats. Uyama Hiroto added to the magic of this album withThis was the last album that Nujabes completed in his lifetime.

Here are some of my favorite tracks from Modal Soul:

-World’s end Rhapsody
-reflection eternal

And, well, Luv(sic.) pt3 of course

Then, there’s the posthumous Spiritual State guided steadily by the hands of Nujabes’ friends. This album is as serene as its album art depicts it to be- as expected from the tranquility of past projects.

Favorite Tracks:
-Spiritual State
-City Lights
-Dawn on the Side

Nujabes shaped the sounds of Samurai Champloo (top 5 anime of all time) alongside fat jon and Force of Nature. The two albums, departure and impression, were finally put onto spotify this year for your streaming pleasure. Even, the intro and outro for the show were both done by Nujabes and they’re both flames. Check ‘em out below.

Opening – Battlecry

Outro – Shiki No Uta

Now that we’ve shown some light on some of Nujabes’ other work, let’s hiphop back over to J Dilla’s catalog.

It’s absolutely insane how much music J Dilla made within such a short span. Dillatronic, The Shining, Fantastic, Vol. 2.10 (Slum Village), and J Dilla Presents (Slum Village) are all Dilla classics and there’s even more under the surface. Once you take the dive, you’ll never come back. 

I’ve asked some of the expert J Dilla fans out there to help us all with understanding the J Dilla iceberg by sharing some of their favorite tracks from the GOAT, here were their choices:

Ethan Hollingsworth’s Picks (Organist of Mirage @mirage_chs / DJ of Crate Digging @cratedigging_cyr):

Won’t do
Two can win
Dillatronic 41
Don’t cry

Koseph’s Picks (twitter: @itskoseph)

So Far To Go – The Shining
Gobstopper – Donuts – J Dilla
Fantastic – Dilla Instinct – Noveliss
Abracadabra – Act One – Jay Electronica (soundcloud only)
Welcome To The Show – Donuts – J Dilla
Untitled/Fantastic – Fantastic Vol.2 – Slum Village
Gazillion Ear – BORN LIKE THIS – MF DOOM
African Rhythms – Welcome 2 Detroit – Jay Dee
Stakes Is High – Stakes Is High – De La Soul
Runnin’ – Labincalifornia – The Pharcyde
The 6th Sense – Like Water For Chocolate – Common
Hustle – Fantastic Vol.2.1.0 – Slum Village
Crushin’ (Yeeeeaah!) – Ruff Draft – J Dilla
Love – New Amerykah Part Two: Return Of The Ankh – Erykah Badu
Flowers – Sunset Blvd – Yancey Boys
Dillatronic 41 – Dillatronic – J Dilla
1nce Again – Beats, Rhymes & Life – A Tribe Called Quest
Let’s Ride – Amplified – Q-Tip
Didn’t Cha Know – Mama’s Gun – Erykah Badu

And here’s a few of my personal favorites:

Welcome To The Show
Time: The Donut of the Heart
Dillatronic 07

There’s so much more to be explored in the catalog of these two shooting stars. They burned brighter in their short lives than most could hope to in a lifetime. Undeniably, they’ve lived on through the countless artists of whom they have inspired. Mirage literally called “Dilla Time” by Dan Charnas their bible. Just the other day my friend Koseph was showing off this new track they were working on with DRPEBBLEZ that sampled Dilla. The love is all around.

RIP J Dilla (February 7th, 1974 – February 10th, 2006)

RIP Nujabes (February 7th, 1974 – February 26th, 2010)

Rest In Beats.

c/o @itskoseph & @drpebblez

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