After nearly 15 years of label troubles, legal battles, file rescuing and sample clearing, J Dilla’s lost 2002 vocal album The Diary is finally seeing release on April 15th. Originally recorded for MCA, the iconic beatmaker, who passed away in 2006, had recruited a slew of producers to help create the 14-track LP — its beats are by Pete Rock, Madlib, Hi-Tek, Supa Dave West, Bink!, House Shoes, Nottz, Karriem Riggins and, of course, Dilla himself.
Though it follows a decade of posthumous releases of varying quality, Dilla estate creative director and former Stones Throw general manager Eothen “Egon” Alapatt tells Rolling Stone that The Diary is “the last record that he actually wanted out — i.e., he said, in his own words, this record should come out during his lifetime. The last one.” To get it out, Alapatt and Dilla’s estate have relaunched the PayJay Records imprint, who will be releasing it in conjunction with Mass Appeal.
Although the album features Dilla 12-inch classics like “Fuck the Police,” tracks like opener “The Introduction” — which you can hear below — have never been released. Rolling Stone talked to Alapatt about what should be a chapter-closing landmark for one of our generation’s most beloved and influential producers.
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Six of these tracks have already surfaced as PayJay singles…
Yeah, basically what happened was I needed to try to come up with funds to assemble this album and Dilla, as many people know, died with a tremendous debt to the IRS, a debt which still hasn’t been paid. So I was put in the awkward position of finally being able to assemble this record, but I had to come up with the funds to do it.
Why didn’t this come out originally?
He was in a really difficult place when he was dropped from MCA. Largely because he had taken such a risk in assembling and producing this record the way that he had. He did the entire record on his own, almost exclusively in Detroit, at studios of his choosing, with no involvement from anybody, with the exception of, what I can tell, Wendy Goldstein, who signed him. … It was probably pretty heartbreaking for him to see this record shelved and it was completely out of his control. He was dropped. When majors drop artists, they largely do so unceremoniously and there’s usually a lot of blood on the floor. But with Dilla it became really obvious that it had to been at least a bit of a trauma to him, because his reaction to it was, of course, the Ruff Draft record, Jaylib and ultimately a move to California, where he attempted to recalibrate his career. And actually, many would argue he did with the release of Donuts.
Do you think MCA balked at the record because he was known primarily as a beatmaker and he delivered this vocal record with a bunch of other producers?
I think it was completely unexpected. Think about this, you’re going to sign J Dilla, right? Not many people knew who J Dilla was in the late Nineties and early 2000s. … There were people like ?uestlove and D’Angelo and all of the people who worked with him behind the scenes, who knew how special he was. Most people who are thinking about Dilla in the music industry were thinking about the guy who made hits like “The Light” for Common, you know? … But the fact that Dilla was going to bring Madlib out to Detroit and pay him the same thing he was going to pay, say Bink! or Supa Dave West, who at that point were getting paid a shit-ton of money to make beats. Unheard of. I mean. Who wants that? Who wants Madlib? We want the guy that made “The Light.” We need some radio records. Here’s Dilla rapping about making his chain swing over a Madlib loop. To me, it was genius. When I heard that track, I couldn’t believe that Dilla was going to do that. It was mind-blowing to me. … Imagine that, right? J Dilla does a song called “Fuck the Police” over a killer library loop, but a loop nonetheless. He puts that out as a 12-inch single. So when we heard “Fuck the Police,” it came out of nowhere. But it turns out this was actually part of this process.
I’m sure MCA loved that song.
Exactly, right? That’s the kind of stuff I grappled with when I was trying to put this record together. What did Dilla actually want this record to sound like? Because the narrative doesn’t include “Fuck the Police” as part of the record, but “Fuck the Police” was part of this album’s files; and we went through these files empirically. We had to figure out exactly what records he nearly certainly wanted to include on this album and he did many revisions of tracks in the eight-month period of creating this record.
How did you guys wrestle control of this record from MCA? Usually when a rapper gets dropped the album is shelved and lost.
Dilla produced, recorded and oversaw this album himself, in Detroit, at his chosen studio, which was Studio A, and in his own home studio. The files, after he left Detroit, remained there. This wasn’t the type of record that was recorded for a major label … with master tapes being ferried back and forth to the A&R, to be put into a vault somewhere. Dilla did all this himself. So when we started talking about the record in the hospital, the first thing that we talked about was, where are the tapes? He knew exactly where the tapes were.
We got the tapes after he died and we started the process of piecing the album together. Now, as regards to legality of all of this, when he passed away, he had signed a will that had put into affect his executor, his old accountant, Arthur Erk. Now, Arthur hired his own attorney, Micheline Levine, to act as the transactional attorney for the estate. Micheline, when the documents were ratified by the state of California and Artie’s executorship was approved, contacted me and asked me to act as the creative director of the estate. This was in early 2007. Of course, the first set of questions I asked were about this album. He had been Dilla’s long time attorney and he told me immediately that there were release paperwork releasing Dilla and the ownership of his album.
So there was paperwork that he was legally free of MCA?
Yeah, legally free of any obligations, whatever the terms of the release were. To be 100 percent honest, I had never seen the release paperwork. I mean, at a certain point, a lot of that stuff is outside of my pay grade. My role is quite simple: Make sure that any project that comes out officially through the estate is done as creatively in line with Dilla’s vision as possible.
Why did it take nine years to come out from that moment?
Just unpacking the files, finding the software that he used, getting it again, because at that point it was already archaic, unpacking the files so that we can actually look at them, took years. Literally years. Bear in mind, we were able to get some low-hanging fruit earlier than we were able to get others, that’s how the Ruff Draft record with the instrumentals and unreleased tracks were able to come out. That was easy to find. It was really well labeled. The record had already come out, so we had a reference point, you know what I’m saying? It was quite simple. This record was a pain in the fucking ass.
Now, over the course of unpacking these files … Artie, meaning the executor, really got into it with Dilla’s mother, who is one of his four heirs. Dilla’s mother, had been the person that not only myself, running Stones Throw Records at the time, but many others assumed was the executor of his estate. So we were doing all of our deals with her and we were paying her. So for instance, during this first year of the Donuts record coming out, we just paid all the royalty checks to her. When Micheline got in touch, the first thing she said was, Maureen is not the executor, Artie is the executor. No checks can go to his mother or any other family members, unless you want them to be gifts. Any checks that are due to be paid come to the estate of James Yancey. So what are you going to do at that point? You’re being legally directed to pay money to his estate. Well, my solution was actually rather simple and I told Peanut Butter Wolf this and, you know, he had no choice but to capitulate because I was running his company for him and I was the one who brought the Donuts record together. And the Donuts record was the reason Stones Throw’s lights were on. I said, straight up and down, we’re going to continue to pay Maureen, because she’s broke, and we’re just going to pay her as a gift and it’s that simple. When we can afford to, we’re just going to cut her checks, period, full stop. And we’re not going to think too much about it.
Dilla was the provider for that family. In his absence, there was a tremendous void created. Detroit ain’t pretty. It’s fucking hard to make money there. We started basically paying Maureen a stipend, if you will, just to keep things going. … At some point, it became really obvious that Maureen and Artie, the relationship wasn’t getting any better, in fact, it was getting worse. … One of the other heirs, Joylette Hunter, who was the mother of one of Dilla’s two daughters, she hired her own attorney. There came about about six or seven months in where I was having conversations with Artie and Micheline about creative work that I was doing. … We’re on the phone and I said, Have you figured out a way, where you as the estate, can start funneling some money to Maureen and the other heirs? … Within three days, they contacted me and told me that Dilla’s old manager was going to take over as creative director of the estate.
They [wanted me to] turn over all the work that I had done to his old manager. … And I said, no, I’m not going to do that. What do you mean? It’s the estates’ property. Yeah, but you guys aren’t paying any of the heirs. And I’m running Stones Throw and I’m able to pay the heirs, because I make money selling Dilla records. … They said, well, you have to. It’s the estate’s property. I said, we can work out a deal then. There’s a record that Dilla really wanted out. It’s this vocal album. You know that he wanted it out. I know that he wanted it out. I want to put it out for Stones Throw. You let me put that record out, I’ll turn over all the work that I did and you guys can go your way and I’ll go mine. But this is the one last record I want to put out. I want to oversee it and I want to use the proceeds to help pay the heirs, ’cause you guys aren’t doing it. They said no.
The next thing they did was file a motion against me in court, an ex parte hearing. It was a very long filing. … It never actually got to court. It just was the estate filing motion after motion after motion against me. I paid for that defense myself, personally. And it cost a shit-ton of money. … I didn’t think we had a snowball’s chance in hell of doing anything, let alone getting this record out. I hired my own attorney, but I hired an attorney for Maureen, John [Yancey, Dilla’s brother] and Monica Witlow, who is the mother of his other daughter. That attorney, along with my attorney and the attorney that was working pro bono for me and the attorney that was working for Joylette, were able to piece together a paper trail and show the state of California what Artie and Micheline and their litigation council, etc. … were paying themselves, and it was hundreds of thousands of dollars without court approval. The court suspended all further payments. At that point, Artie was really quick to vacate his seat as executor. … About a year later, the state of California, appointed an impartial executor that all of the attorneys agreed on and about eight months after that, that man, Alex Borden, who is the current executor, hired me back and I was able to start this process again.
Long story short though, it took a long time to get this record made and it wasn’t just because we were trying to figure out whether or not we could get all the files to give justice to Dilla’s vision. … When I was able to convince Alex Bordon to give me my job back, one of the first things I said is, I want to use everything that I’ve learned in the music industry to set up [PayJay] as a functioning imprint, so when probate closes, this album is one of many assets delivered to his heirs on his own imprint. Ownership rests with the estate, a distribution deal will have been worked out and you can leave it where it is. You can move it somewhere else, but the legwork has been done and that’s exactly what we’ve done.
Since this is going to be part of this functioning record label, is there anything else that can get put on this record label?…
I don’t think I can, let’s say, sign other artists and develop them as part of this label. I don’t think that’s my right or my space. What I think I can do, however, during the course of probate, until it closes, until I’m no longer the creative director of the estate, is find ways to keep the imprint going, by continuously releasing music that he wanted out. So far I only have two other things that I’d consider putting out. They’re things that I knew he wanted to put out. One of them is his original mix of Ruff Draft. The expanded issue was done in remix form, kind of the way the third Velvet Underground record was remixed in the Eighties when CDs first came out. Then later, they’re like, oh shit, we found the Lou Reed mixes. Well, I found Dilla’s mixes of Ruff Draft. It would be really nice to have his version out.
The other thing that I have and I’ve been kind of batting around the idea of how to do it. I have the version of Donuts that he gave me in the hospital. He turned in two CDs to me when the album was completed. One, I turned into our mastering engineer and one, I kept. And I forgot until very far after the fact that the version of the album that he turned in was very different than what came out. Different sequences, different edits of the beats, different transitions. It was a very short record, it was very jarring. He put it together exactly as he would put together a beat tape and he gave zero direction after the fact. So Jeff Jank, who was Stones Throw’s art director at the time, was like, “I think I should go in and edit this.” I was working on the record with Dilla in the hospital and very cautious of angering him because he could be a very fiery sort. And Peanut Butter Wolf, who had been screamed on by Dilla numerous times, we were both like, well, no. Dilla said he wanted the record out like it is, it should come out like it is. Jeff said, “I’m going to go talk to him” And for whatever reason, Dilla allowed him to edit the project and put together what is finally been looked as Donuts. But his version is quite different.
What did you think of the Dr. Dre song, “Satisfiction,” that sounded like it was heavily influenced by Dilla?
I didn’t hear it. The weird thing is, the thing that’s happened in the last few years and I can’t really explain how it’s happening, other than just say that Dilla had become part of the public discussion, more than I ever thought that he would. It’s like everybody is paying homage to Dilla in their own way now. It’s hard to watch it happen. I was in the studio with Madlib during the course of this last Kanye record and it was really interesting to watch. To hear Kanye West talk about Dilla.
It’s weird for me to hear you say something like that about Dre. Dilla was a different thing when I was working with him. He was a man, I knew him. We hung out, we talked about stuff, we watched Napolean Dynamite together and now he’s a legend and he means something different. I’m still having a difficult time wrapping my head around that, ’cause I worked so fucking hard during his lifetime to get people to see how great he was, because we all believed him. And now, in death, I continue working with him and it’s bizarre for me to watch that struggle. But the struggle is over, it’s been won. Everyone realizes how great he is.
Are there unexpected ways that you’ve seen Dilla change the world?
Let me put it to you this way, when Flying Lotus got nominated for a Grammy, I thought to myself, “Dilla made that possible.” I mean it literally and allegorically. When I met Flying Lotus in the club where I was DJ’ing and he came up and said he wanted to be my intern. He wanted to be my intern because I was working with Dilla and Madlib, that’s why he asked me if he could be my intern. When he started interning for Stones Throw, he wanted to be as close to Dilla as possible. Flying Lotus is now nominated for a Grammy. That happened in the wake of Dilla’s passing and the release of Donuts and everything that followed. That’s like one little thing that I was able to see happen and be like, wow, I never would have thought that would happen in a million years. Thanks, Dilla.