Dilla Time

Dan Charnas

‘This book is a must for everyone interested in illuminating the idea of unexplainable genius’ – QUESTLOVE

Equal parts biography, musicology, and cultural history, Dilla Time chronicles the life and legacy of J Dilla, a musical genius who transformed the sound of popular music for the twenty-first century.

He wasn’t known to mainstream audiences, and when he died at age thirty-two, he had never had a pop hit. Yet since his death, J Dilla has become a demigod, revered as one of the most important musical figures of the past hundred years. At the core of this adulation is innovation: as the producer behind some of the most influential rap and R&B acts of his day, Dilla created a new kind of musical time-feel, an accomplishment on a par with the revolutions wrought by Louis Armstrong and James Brown. Dilla and his drum machine reinvented the way musicians play.

In Dilla Time, Dan Charnas chronicles the life of James DeWitt Yancey, from his gifted Detroit childhood to his rise as a sought-after hip-hop producer to the rare blood disease that caused his premature death. He follows the people who kept Dilla and his ideas alive. And he rewinds the histories of American rhythms: from the birth of Motown soul to funk, techno, and disco. Here, music is a story of what happens when human and machine times are synthesized into something new.

This is the story of a complicated man and his machines; his family, friends, partners, and celebrity collaborators; and his undeniable legacy. Based on nearly two hundred original interviews, and filled with graphics that teach us to feel and “see” the rhythm of Dilla’s beats, Dilla Time is a book as defining and unique as J Dilla’s music itself.

Financial Times Music Book of the Year 2022


ISBN: 9781800751743

Published: April 7, 2022


ISBN: 9781800751767

Published: February 2, 2023


ISBN: 9781800751750

Published: April 7, 2022


Reviews for Dilla Time

‘Does what good music books should: send you back to the source material … Dilla Time is an important piece of music writing, affording its African-American subject the respect that the rock establishment has long accorded its white heroes’ – The Economist

A portrait of a complex genius taken too young, as well as a glorious study of the music and culture he created’ – Spin

Incisive and sometimes brilliant biography‘ – Mosi Reeves, The Wire

J Dilla turned what one generation deemed musical error into what the next knew to be musical innovation. In this splendid book, Dan Charnas offers an uncanny mix of research and vision, documentation and interpretation, plenitude and momentum. Dilla Time is definitive. And exhilarating’ – Margo Jefferson, author of Negroland

‘The greatest hip-hop producer of all time is getting the love and care his legacy deserves. Dilla Time is a master class’ – Dream Hampton

‘I look at J Dilla as a man who redefined the word ‘innovative’. This book makes you feel like you traveled his journey every single step’ – DJ Premier

‘A remarkable feat’ – Tola Ositelu

Stunning portrait of the short life and fast times of James Dewitt Yancey … sad, funny and unfailingly humane, it’s not only one of the best books this writer has ever read about hip-hop but also sets a new gold standard for writing about music full stop’ – Ben Johnson, Mojo Magazine

Shines a well-deserved light on Dilla’s life and musical career’ – Esquire

Exceptional … Charnas has done well to untangle the ever-evolving skein of art and money and family and friends [Dilla’s] legend encompasses … A rich read … Deeply and vividly reported’ – Robert Christgau, Observer

‘One of the most extraordinary music books I’ve ever read … If you care about music and want to experience it more deeply … this book is full of revelations’ – Craig Morgan Teicher, The Paris Review

‘Charnas’s book isn’t only, or even chiefly, about the complexities of the man, though it makes room for them. It is mostly about the complexities of his music’ – Francis Gooding, London Review of Books

‘Charnas adeptly recounts his life’ – Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, Best Books of 2022 Financial Times


Dan Charnas

Dan Charnas is the author of the definitive history of the hip-hop business, The Big Payback. He’s also the author of Work Clean, a book detailing applying chefs’ techniques to almost any life situation. He was also the co-creator and executive producer of the VH1 movie and TV series, The Breaks. He lives in Manhattan, and is an associate professor at NYU/Tisch’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.