You might come across a gem like Macy Gray’s I Try 12” in your store’s bargain bin.
The dollar bin is a wondrous and welcoming place populated by record store overstock, one-hit-wonder throwaways, novelty LPs, classical concert performances, Christmas records and other such miscellany. Depending on the store’s customer base and the proprietor’s mindset, another mainstay of the section might be 12” singles. Many retailers see little value in singles, so when they come in as part of collections or donations, they’re sometimes moved wholesale to the dollar bins, rather than being inspected and valuated on an individual basis. That’s why, if you’re lucky and attentive enough, you might come across a gem like Macy Gray’s I Try 12” in your store’s bargain bin even though it sells for $5 or more online. One day in Amityville, I was so fortunate.
Anyone who listened to the radio in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s should remember Macy Gray’s “I Try.” The second single off her debut album, the Epic-released On How Life Is, “I Try” reached #5 on the U.S. charts, was featured on the 2000 compilation Now That’s What I Call Music! 4 and won the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance Grammy in 2001. Much less well known, however, are the single’s remixes, several of which were issued not on Epic but on independent New York label Giant Step Records. One that remains particularly fresh to this day, not so surprisingly, is the “Jaydee remix.” (For thoroughness’ sake, it should be noted that this remix also appears on the official Epic-released I Try 12”, but its instrumental and a cappella versions, which we’ll be covering here, can only be found on the Giant Step Records promo maxi-single.)
By now, J. Dilla’s legacy has been etched into enough stones that the importance of his contributions to hip-hop and music in general do not require reiteration; suffice it to say that he changed the game. As a member of the Ummah collective alongside A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Dilla worked on remixes for everyone from Keith Murray and Busta Rhymes to Janet and Michael Jackson. Still, you could listen to all of these and perhaps never find one that knocks as hard as Dilla’s take on “I Try.” Stripping away the lush David Axelrod sample of the original piece to its stringy skeleton, Dilla gives the smoky whisper of Macy Gray’s Billie Holiday-inspired inflection room to breathe and complements its nuances by adding just a couple Fender Rhodes chords, some extremely subtle guitar playing (like the sound the instrument makes when you change chord positions) and, of course, the trademark “Dilla snare.” It’s in the syncopation of these elements, though, that Dilla’s genius truly stands out, and I’m not just talking about the “Dilla pause” we know and love. With each unique phrase, Jay Dee demonstrates a jazz maestro’s understanding of timing and attack, as well as his own sense of harmonic dissonance, which here serves as the perfect counterpoint to Gray’s love-sick legato.
On the instrumental version of the track, you can hear how Dilla clearly constructed the remix around the singer’s strengths. The beat is strong enough on its own—with those drums, how could it not be?—but the vast areas of open space show that something is definitely missing, and that something is, of course, Macy Gray’s voice. On the a cappella version, we hear what could be some of the funkiest female vocal ad libs of the neo soul era, and we’re forced to wonder why Macy never again reached the heights she achieved with this single.
Side B’s Grand Style mix of “I Try” is another worthwhile remix, one that’s actually more conventionally hip-hop-sounding than Jay Dee’s version, but history teaches that Dilla’s is a shadow few can escape. Thus, despite all its boom-bap goodness, the Grand Style mix will never be more than an afterthought. The instrumental and a cappella versions of Dilla’s remix, however, make this promo single the one to have if you’re looking for the pinnacle rendition of what is undoubtedly one of the best and catchiest R&B tunes from the turn of the millennium.