Steve Reich, J Dilla, Ronnie Spector: Two New Books and One Golden Oldie

You would be forgiven if you listened to “It’s Gonna Rain,” an early work by the American composer Steve Reich, and came to the conclusion that it was not music as you understood it to be. The song was created in 1965 and features the spoken words of a Pentecostal preacher delivering a passionate sermon about Noah’s ark in San Francisco’s Union Square. Two recorded loops of the preacher’s voice start off in unison before one of the loops creeps slowly ahead, putting the preacher’s voice out of sync as the title words disintegrate into a series of defiant patterns and phases.

The music sounds broken, elliptical, confusing. Reich heard endless possibilities.

“It’s Gonna Rain” is “not a fun piece,” as the artist and musician Brian Eno puts it in CONVERSATIONS (Hanover Square, 347 pp., $27.99), a lively new book from Reich that has the composer romping through his career by way of casual Q. and A.s with various contemporaries, acolytes, friends and colleagues. But the song was a “life-changing” experience for Eno and so many others in the book who credit Reich with breaking the rules of classical composition and offering a new way of thinking about music and how we listen to it.

“Everything I thought I understood about music needed to be revised,” Eno says, referring to the first time he listened to Reich’s early music. “It really set me thinking again about what music could be, and what the act of listening consisted of, because it made me realize that listening was a very creative activity.”

Reich would later ditch the tape recorder and apply the phasing techniques from “It’s Gonna Rain” to live instruments and vocals, experimenting with polyrhythms inspired by African drumming and Balinese gamelan. In pieces like “Music for 18 Musicians” and “Piano Phase,” time seems to rush forward while standing still, the notes never quite exactly where your ears expect them to be. The joy of the book is to hear artists from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds — including the guitarist Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead and Richard Serra, the sculptor — rhapsodizing about their relationship to Reich’s music and how it influenced their own creative processes. The composer Nico Muhly likens it to a spiritual pursuit.

A similar devotion can be found in DILLA TIME: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm (MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 458 pp., $30). It is an exhaustive study of the life and legacy of the Detroit producer James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla, by the journalist Dan Charnas. Dilla died of complications from a rare blood disease in 2006 at age 32. In his short life, he had an outsize influence on hip-hop and neo-soul, genres for which he became known as an indispensable collaborator with acts such as A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots and Common.

He is perhaps best known for his album “Donuts,” which was released by Stones Throw Records shortly before his death. But, as Charnas points out, that album was mostly edited by Jeff Jank, who worked at the label and was put in charge of extending tracks from a tape of unreleased Dilla beats while the artist was sick. Fans poured hidden meanings into the songs, many of them untrue, contributing to Dilla’s almost mythical reputation.

For Charnas — who teaches a class focused on Dilla’s music at New York University and relies on musical analysis by an N.Y.U. colleague, Jeff Peretz — Dilla’s almost messianic following among artists and fans is based on his technical skills as a producer. Dilla also experimented with time signatures, machines and polyrhythms. “Before J Dilla, our popular music essentially had two common ‘time-feels’ — straight time and swing time — meaning that musicians felt and expressed time as either even or uneven pulses,” Charnas writes. “What Dilla created was a third path of rhythm, juxtaposing those two time-feels, even and uneven simultaneously, creating a new, pleasurable, disorienting rhythmic friction and a new time-feel: Dilla Time.”

Charnas uses diagrams throughout the book to help illustrate his thesis and the ways in which Dilla created his unusual, distinctive hip-hop beats. He draws a line connecting Dilla’s innovations to his ever-present influence among artists who ascended long after his death, from the rapper Kendrick Lamar to the jazz pianist Robert Glasper, with his music becoming the subject of lectures, festivals and fund-raisers.

But, unlike the many artists whose music he helped inspire, Dilla never rose to fame. His brushes with major-label success always ended in disappointment, because of either contract disagreements, bad luck or creative differences. Despite the many artists who acknowledge him as one of the all-time greatest hip-hop producers, he never became a household name like Kanye West, a producer to whom he has been compared.

Having other artists worship your work while your career languishes on the sidelines is one of the hard truths in BE MY BABY (Holt, 353 pp., $27.99), Ronnie Spector’s 1990 memoir, written with Vince Waldron. In the new introduction to this revised and updated hardcover edition, Keith Richards calls Spector “one of the greatest female rock ’n’ roll voices of all time.” As the lead singer of the Ronettes, the beehived girl group that released the 1963 classic “Be My Baby,” Spector was an icon before she was 30 years old. “Every record they made was a No. 1. Or if it wasn’t, it should have been,” Richards writes. In fact, Spector never had a No. 1 song on Billboard. “Be My Baby” reached only No. 2.

Spector, who died in January at 78, spent most of her career chasing another hit record. It never came. The closest she got was “Take Me Home Tonight,” a hit single from Eddie Money in 1986 that featured her vocals in the chorus. Instead, her marriage to Phil Spector, who produced “Be My Baby” and was later convicted of murder, derailed her recording career and her personal life. The abuse she endured in the marriage has been well documented, but is no less shocking on subsequent readings of the memoir: He threw a grilled cheese sandwich at her face for snooping around in his office. He wouldn’t let her tour with the Beatles out of jealousy. He was secretly married at the time he started dating her, and when they were eventually married, he forced her to live like a recluse in a California mansion, demanding obedience and controlling her to the point that she felt she was suffering from mind control.

His dangerous obsession with his wife, captured here in stomach-churning detail, was so complete that he ordered a life-size, custom-made inflatable plastic mannequin of himself to sit in the passenger seat of her Camaro, so she would never be seen driving alone in Los Angeles.

Alcohol nearly destroyed her career, leading her to seizures, car crashes and failed live performances. But the memoir remains one of redemption. Though Spector vividly describes the way she was brainwashed by Phil Spector, who died last year, her hardscrabble Spanish Harlem toughness touches every page of the book. Her struggle with infertility and her strong desire to become a mother ultimately leads to a triumphant moment of self-discovery and happiness.

In a new postscript for the book, written during the pandemic, Spector, whose life will be the subject of an upcoming biopic, sounds confident. She aligns herself with other women in the entertainment business who have survived exploitation and calls out the industry for failing to hold more abusive men accountable. For too long, bad behavior has been chalked up to eccentricity, she says. Cruelty becomes “the price you pay for brilliance” as powerful people inflict pain on others in the name of creative genius.

But “the world has shifted,” she writes, “and I don’t see it going back.”

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