When Erykah Met Dilla
Erykah Badu talks about the sampling lesson she received from hip hop producer J Dilla – and the eventual tribute that she wrote when she heard of his untimely death
I met Dilla through Common around 1998. Common and he were good friends and I went to Detroit because I wanted him to be on my album. I didn’t know in what way, but you always hope something works out great and if not you’ll be good friends. I went into his basement and every wall from floor to ceiling was records, categorised. He was a scientist. If you opened his fridge, all the cans were turned the same way. It looked like a graveyard, everything was perfect.
He let me pick out some records and there were a lot of things I’d never heard before in my life. One of them was a Tarika Blue record and I was like, “Wow, this is beautiful,” and it became “Didn’t Cha Know.” Not only did he let me pick the record, he let me pick the spot in the record and taught me how to sample the portion of the song. He was very humble. He wasn’t like: “This is my lab.” He was: “If you like this, you can probably do it.” And that’s where I got my first sampling lesson, from Dilla.
I think he was almost a kindred spirit with Madlib. They’re so serious about what they are doing, they make beats all day long. That’s what they do. All. Day. Long. Don’t even save them, just put them onto a CD. They give out these CDs, volume 1 to 5, up to 121. And when you pick a track, they don’t know where the sample came from, it’s just beats. That can be the difficult part, not knowing the sample. You don’t want to get sued, so the record label’s doing research trying to find out where it came from, because this is just what they do, all day.
I recorded the vocals at Electric Lady studios in Manhattan. That’s Jimi Hendrix’s studio. I like Electric Lady. They don’t have all the best equipment in the world, but it’s just the vibe of it. You can feel the spirit of what was happening there in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There’s this cat there, his name is Jimi, that they claim is the spirit of Jimi Hendrix and if he likes the music he’ll come in the studio. If he doesn’t, he’ll come in and then leave. Sometimes he stayed, sometimes he left. Those songs didn’t make the album.
I remember during this time that Dilla is very shy, didn’t really talk a lot. He and Madlib are twins in that way. This is their conversation. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s right. That’s right.” [laughs] Common and I were dating at the time. He was so shy, so I’d play this trick on him. Whenever Common left the room I’d walk up to him real slow and say seductively: “So now, we’re finally alone, you’re such a sexy guy.” He’d be like [shrinks into the sofa] and Common would come in and I’d pretend I wasn’t doing it. He knew I was and would say, “Don’t do the man like that.”
It tickled me to do that to him, but he was also a very sweet and humble person, generous and giving. Of course, as an artist, when he wants his own space he wants his own space. You have to kind of give him that. He didn’t even tell me he was sick and we were very close. I’m known around my community as the herb lady, the healer lady, Mama Badu, because it’s mostly me and a bunch of guys all the time. And I’d say, “I need to come and see you, just talk and hang out.” And he’d be, “No, I can’t because of this, because I’ve got these things to do.” But he was really sick, he had lupus and it had escalated to the point where he was bedridden.
He and Common were roommates at that time. This is after we weren’t dating any more. Common didn’t tell me, Dilla told him not to tell. And I didn’t know until the end how sick he was. I knew he had lupus, but didn’t know how bad. So he was like that until the end, making beats and smoking blunts. It was good for the pain.
It was a very surreal moment when we heard Dilla had died. The most ironic thing was we were all in Los Angeles recording, we had formed a new supergroup: ?uestlove, Wendy & Lisa from Prince’s Revolution, Mike Elizondo – who did all the basslines for Dr. Dre – and a guitar player called Doyle Bramhall and Jazzy Jeff. We said we’re going to be a supergroup and we were hanging out in LA and got that call. Wow.
We express ourselves through music and that day we recorded this song “Telephone” that eventually went on my New Amerykah Part I album. It was based on a story Dilla’s mother told me. Dilla would hallucinate often – I don’t know if it was morphine or whatever painkiller he was on – but he would be talking to someone when nobody was there. His mom would ask who he was talking to and he’d say, “Ol’ Dirty Bastard.” Dirty had passed a couple of years earlier.
“So what was he saying?” “He was telling me what bus to get on when I cross over. He said, ‘Don’t get on the red bus, get on the white bus. The red bus looks fun, but that’s not the one.’” So Dilla’s mother told me that and when we were in the studio the night we heard about his passing, we paid homage to him, resting in beats, by writing that song.
“It’s Ol’ Dirty, wants to give you directions home, says it won’t be too long.”