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Hip-hop historian and ‘Dilla Time’ author Dan Charnas comes to CitySpace

Influential hip-hop producer J Dilla, who died in 2006, is the subject of Dan Charnas's best-selling biography, “Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm."Associated Press

Dan Charnas graduated from Boston University in the late 1980s. He wrote for the Boston Phoenix, then moved on to become one of the first writers for the Source, the groundbreaking hip-hop magazine that got its start at Harvard.

Charnas is the author of “The Big Payback,” the most comprehensive account of the business of rap music to date. He worked for several years for the music producer Rick Rubin, and he teaches at New York University. He’s eminently qualified.

But when he first proposed the subject of his latest book, the hip-hop producer J Dilla, some were skeptical.

“If you were my client, I would have told you not to do it,” a friend who happens to be a high-powered agent recently told Charnas. How many ordinary people who aren’t hip-hop fanatics know who J Dilla was?


But Charnas is having the last laugh. Published in February, “Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm” has risen as high as No. 4 on the New York Times Best Sellers list. It’s already in its fourth printing.

Charnas returns to Boston Monday for an event at WBUR CitySpace. For him, Commonwealth Ave. will feel like Memory Lane.

“I know I’m gonna cry when I get there,” he says.

“Dilla Time” traces the influence of James Yancey from his early work with A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and Erykah Badu to his premature death in 2006 of complications from lupus, and beyond.

Dan Charnas, a BU graduate and author of 'Dilla Time," returns to Boston Monday for a book event at WBUR CitySpace.Noah Stephens

During his short life, Dilla knew he was changing the game, Charnas says. But he didn’t quite have the words for it.

“He didn’t articulate a grand theory or an M.O. I don’t think he grasped how big an innovation it was. I just think he knew he had a sound, it was unique, and he had influence.”


Charnas’s book charts the curious history of Detroit (his wife’s family is from the area) and how Dilla was a product of the city as surely as Motown.

Even some of Dilla’s biggest fans called his style of beatmaking “sloppy,” Charnas says.

“That always drove me nuts. What he did on the drum machine, he actually did very scientifically. I’ve seen his notebooks. He was a list maker, and he was an Aquarius. I thought Virgos are supposed to make the lists!”

As Charnas describes in the book, Dilla’s sound has been everywhere in pop music over the past quarter-century, from the Roots and Michael Jackson’s last album to Robert Glasper and Kendrick Lamar. Boston, Charnas notes, was the first city to celebrate Dilla’s work in a conservatory setting, when Berklee professor Brian “Raydar” Ellis established the J Dilla Ensemble.

“He’s your favorite artist’s favorite artist,” Charnas says. “Or as Questlove would say, ‘He’s the musician’s musician’s musician.’ ”

“Dilla Time” author Dan Charnas appears at WBUR CitySpace, 890 Commonwealth Ave., June 6 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets $5-$25. www.wbur.org/events

Email James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.