Last week, I had the privilege of being in conversation with Dan Charnas about his new book, detailing the life, career, and afterlife of James “J Dilla” Yancey: Dilla Time. The event was held on April 21, 2022, at Artform Studio in Highland Park (Los Angeles) and it was me, Dan and Peanut Butter Wolf, discussing Dilla’s musical and personal journeys, complete with an annotated playlist. You can listen to the conversation part of the event here.

First off: Dilla Time is a fantastic book, easily one of the best musical biographies I can remember reading and certainly amongst the very best ever devoted to a hip-hop artist. As good as the stories therein are — and trust me, they’re good even when they’re also low-key depressing — it’s Dan’s multi-pronged approach to telling “the Dilla story” that I especially appreciated: this isn’t just biological, it’s also socio-historical as well as (accessibly) musicological. And that latter point — which is reflected in the book’s very title — is where I, personally, gained some of the greatest insight into understanding just what it is about Dilla’s music that was so affecting.

I told this to Dan last week but after Dilla passed, I had pitched a piece to NPR about the producer in which I emphasized how the feel of his production was key to his legacy. At the time, I had no idea how he did it or what was happening, only that this feel was there. It wasn’t until I read Dilla Time that I fully appreciated what Yancey was doing to create this kind of affect through a mix of innovative techniques that included freestyled drum programming, slowing down samples to bring out its nuances, and optimizing the functions on samplers/sequencers to subvert timing conventions and how rhythms are experienced.

Take one of my favorite Jay Dee productions of all time (and one of his first recorded ones): the Pharycde’s “She Said” remix. If you’re unfamiliar with the source material, it’s from a live recording of Gato Barbieri’s “El Arriero”. You can hear the remix loop in the original sample but you can also, instantly, sense how there’s something profound different between Barbieri’s original vs. Dilla’s transformation of it: it’s not just slower (which, as Dan notes, makes it feel more melancholy and somber) but the basic rhythm behind it has been chopped and reconstructed too. That riff from Barbieri is certainly good on its own merits but what Dilla did with it was sublime.

If you’d like some more Dilla-centered tunes, my Shades of Soul radio show that aired the same day of the event was also devoted to his music and Dan’s book. Check it out here.

My huge thanks to the folks at Artform Studio and Dan. If you haven’t had a chance to pick up Dilla Time yet…whatcha waiting for?

(Originally written for my Soul Sides Stray newsletter)


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(Gang Starr at D&D Studios, 2003. Photo by author.)

I interviewed Gang Starr at D&D Studios in 2003 for an URB cover story. I later shared a few excerpts from that interview in 2010, after Guru’s passing. I was reading through this new New York Observer Q&A with DJ Premier about the closing of D&D and that inspired me to go back to my interview notes and share other bits from it. (Note: both Guru and Preem were at D&D that day but I interviewed the two of them separately since I had different questions for each.)

Guru on Gang Starr’s songwriting process:

The formula to the way we do our stuff is…I’ll come up with a list of song titles, Premier will go through them, see what he likes, what he doesn’t like…we’ll narrow it down and then he starts making the tracks to do the song titles. Then he’ll leave me the beat…most of the album, I mostly did on the spot here because I already had concepts in my head. Once I hear the track, all he has to do is leave me alone for a couple of hours and I’m going to be able to knock it out. It’s a method I call freestyle writing – under pressure writing.

Guru on artistic collaborations:

That’s one trend in hip-hop I do like – the whole collabo thing. I would still like to do one with Nas, that would be my first choice and that’s probably going to happen soon. I like Black Rob, I like Busta. I would like to do something with DJ Quik. Erick Sermon. Redman, I want to do something with and Method Man. Anyone in the Wu.

Guru on career highlights and mentorship:

We’ve had a lot of really big highlights, like doing the Apollo with Public Enemy and Eric B. and Rakim. Going on tour with EPMD – that’s why we asked M.O.P. to come on tour with us, we felt they were underrated and now they on the Roc but when we first became tight with them, we were reaching to them the same way EPMD reached to us because we were killing the underground but we weren’t getting the right push.

Premier on learning how to chop up drums and filter samples:

Marley Marl was one of the first to really use the kick and the snare and not just the break and start taking the actual snare to where “Impeach the President” could actually be made into a song. I used to wonder how everybody was getting the same “Impeach” snare and kick and using it to make different songs and then I noticed they were just clipping the pieces so I started doing the same thing.

Large Professor taught me how to filter – I didn’t even know. I used to go this his crib and I started being a filter head for a minute then I got into the chopping…anything to make it less clearable first of all but to also show that I can be more creative and really dice it up and still come up with a hot beat.

Premier on scratching:

I’m always telling people like DJ Riz, Roc Raida, even Q-Bert, any of them, I want to learn this certain style, they’re like, “man, you don’t need to learn nothing. You can do what you been doing and it’s just love because you’re the only one who does it that good in that format, period.” I can do the crab, I’m not an expert and it took me a while to learn it, and they were like, “you ain’t got to learn it. If you can’t do it, we’re not going to be like, ‘oh, Preem can’t do the crab’. You don’t have to because you laid a style down and people started to copy the way that you cut.”

Premier on listening to other people’s music:

You gotta still love the game like as if you just started out. Me and Guru are still like calling each other like, “yo, did you hear that new joint by so and so? Yo, he said so and so in the lyrics!” We still blown away by shit and you got to study the shit even if you’re a veteran, you got to keep up with the younguns and see what they’re doing and see what’s making the crowd jump on them.

Premier on being the “Jerry Rice of hip-hop”:

We’re like Jerry Rice – he’s an OG, still playing, he’s going to the Superbowl. We’re like the Jerry Rice of hip-hop. We really study our craft and he really loves the game of football so he’s still playing. He could retire right now if he wanted to, he’s got paper but he still loves the sport. So if you still love sport and you still have it in you, play it as hard as you did when you started out and I think we do that.

Premier on the mixtape game:

If you buy every mixtape that’s out right now, put 10 of them next to each other, everybody got the same list. Only difference is, #1 might be #8 but everybody got the same list. What the fuck is up with that?

Premier on song selections as a DJ:

I listen to a record for a good 20, 30 seconds and I can tell you if I’m going to play this. And if the beat is banging, banging and the rhymes are horrible, I’m playing the instrumental. I won’t rock the vocal if it’s trash. There are certain records I’ve heard where the beat is incredible and I’m like “goddamn” and then they come on half-assed, I’m like “You’re not getting your voice heard muthafucka.”

Premier on the Fat Boys:

I wish I could work with the Fat Boys, all of them, rest in peace to [Darren Robinson]. They were incredible, they were MCs, they rhymed like MCs, they had the attitude, they were funny, they were the whole package. They’re history in the hip-hop game.

Guru and Premier on their favorite Gang Starr songs:

Ex-Girl to the Next: We kept it rugged and street but that was some real, 10 easy steps on how to be smooth, like a pamphlet. It was rugged though but it was also classy so classy girls liked it to. (G)

Mass Appeal: We got on the Arsenio show with that, I got a video of us doing that shit live and that’s one of my favorite videos to watch of our old shit. (G)

It was real different from anything that was rocking at that time. We were making a joke at radio saying how half the time, songs had to sound happy like that in order for it to get played. I was really making a spoof on how radio accepts hip-hop at the time and it ended up being one of the beats that everybody really really likes. (P)

Robinhood Theory: That’s one of my favorite records. That beat is very abstract and very different and I didn’t know if Guru could mess with it but he did exactly what I wanted. He put the right lyrics to it, right attitude to it, it was all there. (P)

Just to Get a Rep: That dictated what was going on in the streets and what’s still goes on now. That’s timeless in terms of street life. (P)

Guru and Premier on Gang Starr songs they might have liked to have done over:

Suckas Need Bodyguards: I don’t regret making but I got to live that out so I’m always either by myself or with one or two dudes. Even if I do get that big superstar status one day, I’m still going to have to hold that down. It’s good though because I look at those cases with Biggie and Pac and I feel bad about their mothers and none of those cops workin security, none of them shot back. These guys, if they’re not your friends, they’re not going to fucking jump in front of no bullets for you. I’d rather roll with my boys or just by myself, whatever. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. (G)

Mac a Mill: I insisted on Premier letting me put that song on there but then I didn’t like it after we did it. It could have been left off the album and Big Shug and my other friends, they rib me about that. That song wasn’t wack I just didn’t think it went with the album. (G)

As I Read My S.A. – I wish I could redo that. I love it but there are certain things I wish I could have added to it, like basslines, just certain shit. (P)

My random “scene-setting notes”:

A lone snack machine stands in the hallway of New York’s D&D Studios and sandwiched between the candy bars and potato chips is a row of Philly Blunts, preferred brand of the cannabis connoisseur. An open carton of the bargain cigars sits in Studio B as Premier idly splits a Philly with his thumb, a line of weed stretching across the copy of Mr. Lif’s Emergency Rations EP balanced on his lap.


I’ve been derelict in updating folks (here) on my recent Shades of Soul radio shows. On EP 2.15, I invited DJ Rani D (Soul In the Park) to come talk about his favorite summer songs and he laced us with a sweet mix of Angolan records:

Shades of Soul, EP 2.15: Summer Jams with DJ Rani D by Soul-Sides.Com/O. Wang on Mixcloud

And then last Friday, I had on author Amanda Petrusich, whose new book Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records is one of the best books on record collecting ever written. We had a great convo about her book, about the world of collecting, and she prepped four summer 78s for us to listen to.

Shades of Soul, EP 2.16: Summer James feat. author Amanda Petrusich by Soul-Sides.Com/O. Wang on Mixcloud


Shades of Soul EP 2.8: The Cut Chemist Interview by Oliver Wang on Mixcloud

This one had been in the works for a minute but with his touring schedule, it was hard to fit in until now. Me and Cut Chemist sat down and chopped it up for nearly 90 minutes, talking about his life and career, plus the formative songs that go with both. It’s no secret I’m a huge fan of his work, whether within groups like Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli or his solo productions, remixes and mixes. The occasion for this interview is actually pegged to his latest release, a compilation of mid-1980s experimental French music (yeah, you heard that right) called Funk Off. If you know anything about Cut and his love for cut-and-paste, you’ll understand why he’s releasing a comp of songs by a pair of obscure artists who were scratching on reel-to-reel and assembling pastiche songs with a hip-hop sensibilities far earlier than most.


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In going through my old radio aircheck tapes, I found one labelled with my dude Adam Mansbach’s name, from 2003. How old is this? It’s so old that he tells us to “look out for my upcoming book, The Angriest White Boy in the World” (or something like that; I’m paraphrasing). That book, of course, turned out to be entitled Angry Black White Boy but my point is: this was from a ways back.

Adam is now touting his latest book (two novels and one runaway hit “children’s” book later), Rage Is Back. Read his hilarious accounts of what being on book tour is like (spoiler: not anything like you see in movies).

In any case, Adam rolled through with a selection of tunes on that show, along with whatever I was into back in ’03.

September 16, 2003 (download)

Special guest DJ: Adam Mansbach, author of Shackling Water

    Flavornaughts: Asa Quebrada
    Human Race: Human Race
    Oliver Sain: On the Hill
    Alvin Robinson: Down Home Girl
    Phil Upchurch: Spinning Wheel
    Joe Cain: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Mambo Pt. 1
    Flavornaughts: Mexican Rave

    *Adam’s Picks*
    Olympic Runners: Out to Lunch
    Stanley Cowell: Miss Viki
    Gene Russell: Get Down
    Camille Yarbrough: Take Yo Praise
    *Cedar Walton: Road Island Red
    Detroit Emeralds: You’re Getting Too Smart
    Pretty Purdie: Artificialness
    Cleveland Eaton: Keep It Funky
    Cannonball Adderley: The Price You Gotta Pay To Be Free
    Lonnie Smith: Drives
    Son Seals: How Could She Leave Me?
    Dizzy Gillespie: The Matrix

    Don Campbell: Campbell Lock
    The Eddy Jacobs Exchange: Pull My Coat
    Chocolate Star: Got To Get Your Love
    Spirit of Atlanta: Hunter Street
    Calbido’s Three: African Penta Song
    Sunshine Anderson: Heard It All Before (QSO remix)
    Frankie Nieves: Mi Guajira
    J-Love and Ric Nice: King of New York
    Lyrics Born: Callin Out
    Diverse: Build
    Mark Ronson w/ Mos Def and MOP: On the Run
    Beanie Siegel: When You Hear That
    Uptown: Dope On Plastic
    Diverse: Explosive
    DJ Zeph: Underworld
    Family Tree: Push, Move, Build
    Scoopy: Scoopy Rap
    Black Moon: Stay Real
    Lil Kim: Came Back For You
    J-Biz: The Treasure Pt. 2
    Push Button Objects: 360 (Prefuse remix)
    De La Soul: Much More
    DJ Shadow: Right Thing (Z-Trip remix)
    Flavornaughts: If You Know Me

As a bonus, I discovered a second aircheck on the same minidisc (though I didn’t bother to write it on the disc): a show from two weeks later, right after Ahnauld had been elected governor of California following the recall of Gray Davis. It seems not-quite-weird now, looking back, but believe me: that sh– was weird at the time. A real black eye for California. Anyways, I had two guests on that day: DJ Frane and the Feenom Circle.

October 7, 2003 (download)

Special guests DJ Frane & Feenom Circle

    Human Race: Grey Boy
    Southside Movement: Save the World
    The Vigs: The Theme From S.W.A.T.
    The Street People: Booty Butt
    DJ Frane interview
    DJ Frane: In the Bag
    DJ Frane: I Am Dreaming
    South Street Soul Guitars: Poppin Popcorn
    Oliver Sain: St. Louis Breakdown
    Tito Rodriguez: Descarga Cachao
    Samba Soul: Mambo No. 5
    Rakaa: Ends to Means
    Feenom Circle interview
    Feenom Circle: Frisco Disco
    Feenom Circle: A-Train
    Rodger Collins: Foxy Girls in Oakland
    Pat Lundy: Work Song
    Outkast: Hey Ya
    Bernard Wright: Haboglobatribbin
    Kinky Bustop: Deep Fuzz
    Mark Ronson, Mos Def, MOP: On the Run
    Method Man: Uh-Huh remix
    Kool G Rap: Bout That Remix
    Kayne West w/ Consequence: Electric Relaxation 03
    E40 w/ Clipse: Quarterbackin
    Lil Kim: I Came Back For You


My latest piece for ArtBound is on the incredible composer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. He’s right in the middle of two shows dedicated to soul music of the 1960s and ’70s while also on work on his long-awaited debut solo album for next year. I’ve been a fan of MAF ever since I heard his and Carlos Niño’s amazing Suite for Ma Dukes.

Here’s one my favorite song off that project:

To get the history of that and MAF’s other works, read my piece!


Never To Be Forgotten: The Flip Side Of Stax 1968 – 1974

Light in the Attic created this 7″ reissue set for Record Store Day and it’s a very cool way to 1) pay tribute to one of the greatest labels in soul history and 2) break true fanatics off with 10 reissued 7″ singles, ranging from some of their better know hits (“BLind Alley”) to lesser known gems (“Them Hot Pants”). Killer packaging and a really impressive set of liner notes that features testimonials from Jim Stewart, Al Bell and others).1 I recently rapped with Light in the Attic’s Matt Sullivan about the story behind this set:

The Stax catalog is one of the most well-compiled in the history of soul music; why choose it for the focus of a 7″ box set?

No question. Surprisingly though, there’s never been a proper 45s box of the label. In 2010, we spent a month in Memphis and fell in love with the city and the people at Stax. It was also an excuse to once again work with our favorite writer on the planet, Memphis native Andria Lisle.

Given how massive that catalog is too, how did you choose the singles that would finally go in?

It wasn’t easy and felt incredibly daunting trying to limit it to ten 45s. We chose to focus on the later half of Stax and singles that we’re more off the radar. Musician and KEXP DJ Johnny Horn helped narrow it down, picking many of his choice favorites. Patrick Montier at the Stax fan site kindly helped out as well.

Was there every a temptation to deviate from the original A/B-sides? In other words, you could have paired a different set of Emotions songs rather than reproduce the original one.

We must’ve went back and forth on that idea for months, actually well over a year. In the end, deviating from the original 45s felt a little like ‘we’re not worthy.’ Maybe we’re purists and couldn’t stomach altering the past.

Excellent liner notes and testimonials; was it difficult to get folks like Bell and Rauls to contribute?

That was pretty much all Andria. She’s close with many of the Stax alum (and the best damn tour guide in Memphis), having written about the label over the years. As for Phillip Rauls, I reached out to Phillip, who was the Promotions Manager for Stax starting in ’68 till the bankruptcy. He runs a fantastic blog where he shares memories and photos from his days in the business. Initially I contacted Phillip for permission to use his photos for the booklet, but once I spoke with him on the phone I realized that he had great stories to share, so Andria interviewed him for a separate section about the label’s ambition plan to release 27 albums and 30 singles in a 12 month period.

Why a 7″ set? Who do you see as the prime audience for this set?

We love 45s. The audience? Collectors, DJs, indie rock kids, old timers…

Check out sound clips and order the set directly from LITA.

  1. Full disclosure: I was asked to submit a mini-testimonial on the Melvin Van Peebles 7″ in the set.


In honor of the first day of summer (and in acknowledgement that my summer songs series has been folded into The Sidebar but won’t be free-standing this year), please read this excellent interview by the Village Voice‘s Jason Newman with DJ Jazzy Jeff about the enduring beauty of “Summertime.”

By the way, how the hell did I not know about this Jazzy Jeff/Mick Boogie “Summertime” mixtape from last year?


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Last October, right around when the SF Giants were about to take the World Series, I was asked by URB.com to interview DJ Shadow as part of the “Coachella Conversations” series. Over the years, Shadow continues to be my favorite artist to interview. He’s always thoughtful, honest and insightful and I think you’ll find all on display in this convo. Here’s a small snippet:

And here’s the full conversation.