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J Dilla's ghost finds new life

Methuzulah builds hip-hop unity with Beat Battle

When legends die their ghosts typically rest in the dusty corners of history, populating greatest hits compilations — the artists remembered as brief visionaries of bygone eras. The specter of legendary hip-hop producer J Dilla is more alive than ever. Thanks to the relentless efforts of his mother, Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey, and Tony Smith, Dilla has transformed from a singular tour-de-force to a movement with roots around the globe. In partnership with the J Dilla Foundation, headed up by Smith and Ma Dukes, local MC Methuzulah brings that unstoppable force of positivity and inspiration to Atlanta with the J Dilla Beat Battle.

When Methuzulah talks about hip-hop, he's not talking about a genre, he's talking about a rich, intricate, and endlessly vibrant culture populated by B-boys, vegan chefs, MCs, producers, graffiti artists, and others — all the way down to the lone fans in the back of the crowd, bobbing their heads in silence. "I believe that we should continuously promote our culture of hip-hop as a whole," Methuzulah says. "Even though it says Beat Battle, when you come you'll see B-boys, you'll see rappers, you'll see graffiti artists, you'll see DJ's for the cause of platforming the culture."

The seasoned rapper was invited to judge another Beat Battle the Dilla Foundation was hosting in Virginia when Ma Dukes proposed an Atlanta edition. Naturally, Methuzulah jumped at the opportunity. After returning home, he tapped California rapper Planet Asia, vegan chef Zulu Chef Cat, Phife Dawg collaborator DJ Rasta Root, artist Zulu Yeroc, and eight producers selected by Smith and Ma Dukes.

The concept is simple: Eight producers from around the country, with one wild card spot, showcase their beat mastery for a panel of judges, including Smith and Ma Dukes, for a "J Dilla Prize Package." But for an event so concerned with uplifting the whole and not the parts of hip-hop culture, how does one ensure that competition doesn't give rise to a battle of egos? This is where Dilla's specter hangs heavy.

"Everyone who listens to Dilla knows that his sound was a peaceful, soulful sound," Methuzulah says. "You don't want to come and be disrespectful, because you're dealing with Dilla's family, and those who follow the movement understand."

The mystical nuances of Dilla's production are well documented. From underground circles to the highest echelons of hip-hop stardom, the purity of his production is universally agreed upon. Hip-hop heads know of his masterly ability to combine the exhumed voices of dusty soul singles, celestial string arrangements, and staggered drum patterns into a rich palette of head-bobbing brilliance. But after his passing in 2006, his music transcended the realm of sound and became an ideal.

There are few people more qualified to explain Dilla's idolization than Smith, whom Methuzulah calls "the heartbeat" of the Dilla Foundation. "Nearly 10 years ... after Dilla died, it's like you're listening to his songs for the first time and you remember what you were doing when you first heard those songs," Smith says.

"To put it in even simpler terms," he adds, "Dilla's music is timeless, and there is no expiration for timeless music."

Dilla's legacy is indeed central to the Beat Battle. But Methuzulah wants to ensure that Dilla's memory exists not only to commemorate, but to unify. Hip-hop is forever a part Atlanta's cultural fabric. But nascent hip-hop scenes in outlying Southeastern cities, such as Birmingham, Ala., and Asheville, N.C., struggle to coalesce. "It's important for Atlanta to stand up," Methuzulah says. "Alabama, Florida, Savannah, Augusta, all of these surrounding areas look up to Atlanta. If we set the example, then the neighboring states and areas will want to follow."

The vast majority of rappers and producers, even ones in Atlanta, struggle without the assistance of blog buzz, image consultants, and the major label money machines that transformed such artists as Young Thug and iLoveMakonnen from nobodies to superstars, seemingly overnight. Methuzulah wants the Dilla Beat Battle to be an alternative route to fame for unsung talent. "Tons of artists, even myself, know that playing this show puts us on a platform so that certain producers who are following the Dilla movement may start looking for us now," he says.

As pervasive and universally respected as J Dilla may be, his ghost will only be that if fans don't tap his inspiration as a springboard for solidarity and "a web of possibilities and opportunities," Methuzulah says. "In that room, for that one night, people will be able to see what hip-hop is."