Elaine L. Jacob Gallery exhibition at Wayne State University celebrates J Dilla, Detroit and Houston hip-hop connection

James Yancey (J Dilla), 2003, photograph by B+.

Wayne State University’s Elaine L. Jacob Gallery and the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts is pleased to present “I Got Beats in These Fingertips.” 

This thoughtfully curated exhibition coincides with the J Dilla Music Tech Teaching Workshop — a multi-day experience for Michigan public school teachers — hosted by WSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Save The Music Foundation, and CFPCA’s Department of Music. The workshop introduces K-12 teachers to modern music production led by Wayne State music faculty, using software and equipment in the J Dilla Music Tech Grant.

An opening reception for “I Got Beats in These Fingertips” exhibition will be held on Friday, July 12, from 5 to 7:30 p.m., with a performance by Detroit Poet Laureate jessica Care moore and King Moore at 6:30 p.m. The exhibition, which runs until Sept. 20, celebrates two uncompromising innovators of contemporary hip-hop music — James Yancey (J Dilla) of Detroit and Robert Earl Davis, Jr. (DJ Screw) of Houston. 

Despite their profound influence on popular culture, these regional hip-hop scenes are frequently marginalized in both mainstream and academic narratives of hip-hop history. Through music, artwork, equipment and ephemera, “I Got Beats in These Fingertips" uncovers the distinctive traits and often overlooked connections between Detroit and Houston hip-hop. 

Exhibition highlights include original paintings by founding father of funk George Clinton, a 10-foot optical print celebrating the legacy of J Dilla created by influential photographer and filmmaker Brian “B+” Cross, and music equipment owned by DJ Screw (Houston) and ESHAM (Detroit) that was used to create some of their most iconic recordings.

Detroit and Houston are geographically large cities that invented unique slang, dress, dance, and music sensibilities. Along with these notable nuanced differences, cultural bonds and musical lineages are explored, such as Motown recording artist Clinton's Parliament and Funkadelic groups of which beloved Detroit musician Amp Fiddler was a member (’85-’96) and who was in turn an empowering mentor and champion of a young J Dilla.  

DJ Screw, "The Legend" album cover, 2001, Pen & Pixel Graphics Inc.

Pen & Pixel, a Houston-based family-owned graphic design studio, arguably pioneered one of the most distinctive visual styles of recent decades with their heavily layered surreal album covers, reminiscent of the altered atmosphere found in DJ Screw's music. This visual influence extended across hip-hop, comedy, and popular music genres worldwide.

Sonic pioneers J Dilla and DJ Screw used original and unconventional approaches to altering time in their musical compositions.

J Dilla’s work can be characterized by obscure loops, and non-standard or irregular quantization through loose or swung rhythms, while DJ Screw invented the infamous “chopped & screwed” technique where music was pitched down and audio fragments were chopped and repeated. 

And while both producers used different tools and processes to warp time in their music, each was known for bringing a “human touch” to their use of digital and analog machinery defining and embodying a soundscape of place. 

At the height of an international career, J Dilla worked with some of hip-hop's biggest names but preferred his home studio in Michigan and his autonomy as a creator. Today, in the era of streaming where big business and cultural gatekeepers still restrict artist exposure and sales, it’s important to appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit and independence of many artists in this exhibition. From the legendary tales of ESHAM and DJ Screw selling thousands of tapes directly to fans from their cars or homes to the community building efforts of artist and Detroit Poet Laureate jessica Care moore. 

In the 1990s, when many radio stations refused to play hip-hop (especially from Detroit and Houston), you could hear the music broadcast in the streets thanks to a rich underground car culture and the music in the hands of the people. Through two legendary producers and their peers, this exhibition is a timestamp for an influential era of contemporary music which highlights the important combination of self-determination and community. 

About the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery

The Elaine L. Jacob Gallery serves as a forum for the display of nationally and internationally significant contemporary art, featuring exhibitions that include works created by emerging and established contemporary artists.

About the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts

The College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts is home to today’s aspiring artists, performers, technicians, scholars, dancers, debaters, entrepreneurs, and communication professionals who all represent the college’s legacy of excellence in our respective fields.

The college serves students majoring in 17 undergraduate programs, 10 graduate programs and three graduate certificates through its departments: the James Pearson Duffy Department of Art, Art History and Design, the Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance, and the departments of communication and music. From debate to dance, jazz to journalism, and fashion design to center stage, our students create captivating performances, inspire artistic and academic excellence, and conduct innovative research on behalf of our Detroit community.

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