But when he first proposed the subject of his latest book to hip-hop producer J Dilla, some were skeptical.
“If you were my client, I would have told you not to,” a friend who happens to be a top agent recently told Charnas. How many regular people who aren’t hip-hop fanatics know who J Dilla was?
But it is Charnas who will have the last laugh. Released in February, “Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm” rose to No. 4 on the New York Times Bestseller list. This is already its fourth impression.
Charnas returns to Boston on Monday for an event at WBUR CitySpace. For him, Commonwealth Ave. will look like Memory Lane.
“I know I’m going to cry when I get there,” he says.
“Dilla Time” traces James Yancey’s influence from his early work with A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Erykah Badu to his untimely death in 2006 from complications from lupus, and beyond.
During his short life, Dilla knew he was changing the game, Charnas says. But he didn’t quite have the words.
“He didn’t articulate a big theory or an MO. I don’t think he understood what an innovation it was. I just think he knew he had a sound, that he was unique and that he had influence.
Charnas’ book traces 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 her style of beatmaking “sloppy,” Charnas says.
“It always drove me crazy. What he did on the drum machine, he did it in a very scientific way. I saw his notebooks. He was a list maker and he was a Aquarius: I thought Virgos were supposed to be on the lists!
As Charnas describes in the book, Dilla’s sound has been all over pop music for the past quarter century, from the Roots and Michael Jackson’s latest album to Robert Glasper and Kendrick Lamar. Boston, Charnas notes, was the first city to celebrate Dilla’s work at a conservatory, when Berklee teacher Brian “Raydar” Ellis established the J Dilla Ensemble.
“It’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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.