Congratulations to Dan Charnas for his recent win at the 2023 PEN America Literary Awards. Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm won the 2023 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.
Since 1963, the PEN America Literary Awards Program has honoured outstanding voices in fiction, poetry, science writing, essays, biography, children’s literature, translation, drama, and more.
The PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography is awarded to a biography of exceptional literary, narrative, and artistic merit, based on scrupulous research.
The judges Manu Bhagavan and Silvana Paternostro said: ‘J Dilla was a hip hop producer who achieved renown for his shockingly original sound, which defied expectations in such dramatic ways as literally to transform our understanding of rhythm, of music itself. He got us to listen differently. In telling this story, Dan Charnas has accomplished something remarkable, channeling Dilla here to surprise and delight us in words, upending our preconceived notions of biography and calling on us to read differently. Dilla Time is well-researched, nuanced, and paints a vivid portrait of its subject, all hallmarks of top-quality non-fiction. But it takes a revolutionary turn when it blends together the life of Dilla, the story of a city, and the development of hip hop.
This is a book about a young Black man with a stutter who grew up in the grim and derelict Detroit of the 80s, the burning city forging the trailblazing icon he would become. As we come to see things from his perspective, we learn how to count music and tap and clap in new ways, all while Charnas simultaneously teaches us why Black people came to Detroit, and why there’s bebop in Motown and hip hop in New York.
In its staggered layout, Dilla Time produces a polyrhythmic beat of its own, where the words don’t simply sing, they stretch, warp, stomp right through the page. Charnas gets his readers to see, think, and hear at the same time. In this, Charnas has created perhaps the truest tribute to Dilla and his legacy: a work of funky artistic achievement.
At the same time, we have a most human portrait of J Dilla, an honor student who dropped out because the ROTC cap “fucked with his hair,” and who worked for a time building planes on an assembly line. There are cameos from music greats like George Clinton and Erykah Badu, who pass through as we breathe in bittersweet moments of solitude and inspiration and come to understand the relationship between mother and son, the hip hop star and women.
Dilla Time is a beautiful and daring rendering of a brilliant young man with all too human qualities and frailties, who died tragically young. We finish the book yearning to go to the many tributes his family, DJ friends, and fans are still organizing, 17 years after his premature death at age 32. We are left wanting to hear more of J Dilla, even as the music time he innovated echoes through the beats of today.’