Toro Y Moi: Our Finest J. Dilla Disciple


by Brandon Soderberg
Chaz Bundick / Photo by Patrick Jeffords
Chaz Bundick / Photo by Patrick Jeffords

Chillwave O.G. channels James Yancey better than those pencil-necked, mad-reverent, MPC-pounding geeks

When will the picking of J. Dilla's bones stop? The number of legacy violations — from cheapo compilations with hip-hop Ed Hardy graphic design to well, damn near everything that Dilla ever committed to tape popping up somewhere (usually with hard spittin' Detroit no-names mucking up the soul-glow beauty) — that we've had to endure since 2006 just isn't right.

Currently, Dilla's record collection is being prepped for Ebay sales, let loose one by one for $30 each by his mother. Collectors do not know what record they will receive or its condition, just the guarantee that it once belonged to the late, great producer. And for a lot of people that's enough. Just as unfortunate, though, is Stones Throw Records' newly-released Donuts “45 box set,” which spreads the producer's deathbed beat-tape masterpiece across eight seven-inches. This makes no sense. Donuts is a record to be heard as a whole. It is not to be chopped up into short, little songs and slapped onto slabs of vinyl.

Frankly, the idea of releasing Donuts on vinyl back in 2006 didn't even work. It was designed with the compact-disc format in mind. Like Sleep's Dopesmoker or those delightfully long-assed Cash Money and No Limit albums. The point of Donuts is its circular nature; that it begins and ends with the same sound and can loop forever. The first sound is the last sound. And it's like that because it is an album in which a dying musician is trying to keep time from stopping with music. Why would you even think about messing with that? So, here's Dilla's label, dividing and conquering his masterpiece for some reissue points. That, coupled with his mother selling off his collection piece by piece is disheartening.

All of this makes the arrival of Anything in Return, the new album from producer Chaz Bundick, better known as Toro Y Moi, something to celebrate. He doesn't wear Dilla bonafides on his sleeve like plenty of real hip-hop MPC pushers, but Bundick is the most inspired Dilla disciple around. When Causers of This arrived in 2010, it was categorized as chillwave, and though it deserved that sunbaked subgenre tag, there was something more adventurous and wide-eyed inside of his laptop compositions. Namely, an undeniable ear for arranging samples and sound so that it didn't just flop around eliciting good vibes. I preferred to call Causers of This a "Dillwave" record. You can smack me for that one, but it's also accurate.

Bundick, because he's adventurous, moved away from chillwave and “dillwave” following Causers. There was the baroque Jim O'Rourke stoner Bacharach-ness of Underneath the Pine; the broken-apart '80s boogie of Freaking Out, and as Les Sins, some of the most delightful and pandering house for non-house heads since Daft Punk. The embrace of lots of moving parts — weird samples, hot riffs, ridiculous rhythms — still seem hip hop-inspired, though. And what's more Dilla-like than stretching the limits of your sound?

Anything in Return's success hinges on a stringy, though tangible hip-hop influence. The first track, "Harm in Change" pretty much lifts Just Blaze's piano house filters from the outro of Jay Electronica's "Exhibit C." Dare I say Bundick hits a Mike Will Made It-level of gorgeously sad synthesizer resonance at the start of "Never Matter"? Interestingly, it is the most Dilla-like track on the album, built on a ghostly loop of someone asking, "Don't you know why?" On "Rose Quartz," a sample of "I feel weak" pops up and Bundick repeats the phrase, guided by the sample, not unlike a rapper riffing on a sampled hook. And don't forget the scratchy, wobbly RZA-like Stax guitar skronk on "Studies."

After an indulgent Late Registration-like synth-fart noodle on "Day One," Bundick walks back into the song and delivers these sweetheart lines, "I want to make my life yours / I'll wake up with you and I'll give you rides / It don't no matter if it's cold outside / Doesn't matter if it's day or night." On "Say That," there's a sample of someone saying "yeah" with some rap swagger, and I'm pretty sure there's a Nicki Minaj "huh" on "So Many Details" (a song remixed by Odd Future's Hodgy Beats). Anything in Return bears not only the influence of Dilla, but Bundick internalizing the tricks of a generation of Dilla peers and students. It's a better tribute to the producer than the cash-outs we're witnessing right now.   

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