So I was late to the party and hadn't heard about J Dilla until about a year ago. I was listening to a bunch of Jon Bellion and always loved the way his drums felt but I never knew what he was doing. The timing on Jon's drums is so wonky but it grooves so hard. I was watching some behind the scenes footage of Jon producing in the studio and I heard him mention Dilla talking about drums so I started listening to Dilla and tinkering with grooves and quantization.
First off, just wanted to say sorry if you're working in another DAW. Different DAW's are great but I just happen to use Pro-Tools.
During my first few attempts at getting this feel, I realized how much more there is to the Pro-Tools Quantize function in the event operations field. I usually would just select some midi notes, hit Alt+0, then hit enter to quantize the stuff perfectly to the grid. Anyone who has tried this knows how lame and robotic it gets to be. Many a cool musical moment has been crushed by the 100% quantize button. In my studio at least.
First let's experience what this groove style feels like and then we'll dig into how to do it.
First, during my Google-fest, I found this video and as a drummer was instantly hypnotized seeing somebody play this feel live.
Check it out
Here are some of my favorite songs that use this feel.
There are a lot of ways to go about putting this together. The best way I think is to start messing with different "tuplets".
Start with like 4 bars of 8th notes on a track. Play them straight around 120 bpm. Boring, right?
Duplicate the track so you can compare the following versions and open up your quantiziation tool. Turn on the "Swing feature" to 100% and quantize your eighth notes so they sound completely swung.
Do the same thing duplicating the tracks but now quantize the eighth notes at 50% swing. Interesting right? This feel on a sixteenth note reminds me of the Suit and Tie groove.
Now add a kick drum and snare drum on 1 and 3 on all three of the tracks.
Duplicate the track again and squeeze 5 hi hat notes roughly equidistant from each other in one measure. Quantize them but turn "Swing" off, and click the tuplet button. Enter "7" in time "2" and click quantize. Now you have a measure of quintuplets Keep note 1 and note 4 but delete the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th note. Copy this out so you have a measure of this with kick and snare and see what it sounds like.
This should sound kind of like Dilla Swing.
One more, let's try septuplet swing.
Do the same thing but start with 7 hi hat notes in the measure. Quantize them with "7" in time "2" and then delete notes 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7. Sequence this out with kick and snare and there you have it! "Dilla Swing"
To wrap up, I think the biggest take away here is that there is a lot possible with elements of music that we take for granted. Just by dividing a measure into 7 instead of 8, you can create a completely different emotional feel. Jacob Collier describes grooves like this as "spinning like an egg" (Video below, skip to 10:58). These sort of details are the benefit of working with skilled session musicians who can play these feels.