On February 22, 2009 a 60-piece orchestral band was assembled with the help of Carlos Nino and classically trained virtuoso Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to commemorate J Dilla’s legacy and contribution to music. The event took place in an arts centre in LA with Dilla’s mother Maureen ‘Ma Dukes’ Yancey named special guest and the night, “Suite For Ma Dukes”, was named in her honour. That night showed the world that Dilla’s music can be, by turns, fantastically complex and head-noddingly simple, while Atwood-Ferguson’s orchestrations are overpoweringly alive with the possibilities of where this brilliant musician could have gone next.
“Dilla is a modern genius. Everyone has genius within them, but not everyone, for whatever reason, manifests it. But Dilla did. He stood for taking a great risk on different levels, for continuous hard work and for courage. He is a modern genius because he captured and represented the spirit of a particular time. What he did was so deep that he has influenced a huge amount of modern music. In an age when many of his peers are still more interested in vanity, Dilla was more interested in exploration through music. And that is why he is a modern genius.” – Miguel Atwood-Ferguson
Born February 7th 1974, James Dewitt Yancey grew up on the east side of Detroit, Conant Gardens to be precise, where music was ever present in his life from an early age. His father played bass in a Jazz quintet for most of his life. Dilla, as young as age four, could be found eavesdropping in on his father practising in the basement (would later be Dilla’s studio) and trying to mimic the deep bass cords with gargles and other bellows coming from his throat according to his mother. His grandparents where also involved in music playing piano for silent films dating back to the 1930’s. Although surrounded by musical nuances all of his life it wasn’t until 1992 that an eighteen year old Jay Dee would first lay his hands upon the instrument he would change so many people’s lives with.
Fellow Detroit musician Amp Fiddler would be the person to unleash the uncomprehensive genius locked within the unbeknown J Dilla. Amp Fiddler would allow Jay Dee to ‘mess around’ with his Akai MPC (music production centre) which he eventually gave to him. He learned the basics quick and began experimenting, creating beat tapes and forming several groups, getting his name known on the Detroit scene almost instantaneously. By 1995 Jay Dee would form the duo 1st Down with Phat Kat. They were the first Detroit Hip-Hop artists signed to a major label (Payday Records) however they only released one 12” single before the label disbanded. This would not be the last time these two artists worked together, not by a long shot. Later that year he would work on the b-side of One Little Indian’s debut single with a remix, he also recorded the Yester Years EP with group 5 Elementz who consisted of Thyme, Mudd and the late Proof. It wasn’t until the latter half of ’95 until the Dilla anthem “Runnin’” by west coast group The Pharcyde would be masterfully manipulated. He would also produce “Bullshit”, “Somethin’ That Means Somethin’”, “Splatittorium”, “Y?” and “Drop” from the classic Labcabincaliforina LP. This was definitely a pivotal moment in the career of the young aspiring producer.
Prior to the recording of Labcabincalifornia lifelong friend Wajeed recalls a discussion he had. In Jay Dee’s basement, now studio, the pair were listening to the break of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” for about one hour, getting up and placing the needle back where the break started once finished. All the time Dilla was discussing the theory about music and the idea of how it’s made not quantising the drums which means making the drum pattern exactly regular. He mastered the drum machine with this philosophy, making his kicks and snares sound somewhat sloppy but at the same time it would make you nod your head that much harder with his stuttering patterns. ?uestlove of The Roots remembers hearing this drum sound for the first time outside a Pharcyde concert. “What I heard was this loud drum beat getting played with hand claps. It naturally sounded like Q-Tip’s drums because they were crispy and bright. So I stood outside the car and I was listening and the next thing I knew I heard a discrepancy within the kick drum pattern, it sounded ill programmed like a drunk had programmed it or something, it sounded like it was off rhythm. So the next day I was like who did that track and they (The Roots band) said Jay Dee so they said sit down and we’ll play you some music. Literally changed my full approach to music.”
By this point Dilla had made a name for himself but only within Detroit, he was ready to conquer the world. He had caught wind that childhood idols of his De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest were in town scheduled to perform. The stars must have been aligned that night because at a stroke of sheer luck he had noticed Trugoy & Q-Tip when they were at the mall earlier that evening. He ran up and gave them his cassette tape with overwhelming admiration, however, at the time they did not think much of it. It wasn’t until on the way back to the hotel when Trugoy popped the cassette in the car’s tapedeck that Q-Tip when crazy for it, to the point that he called him the next day. “I was drawn to him so much so that I just wanted to work with him and get his shit out. He was amazing, he taught me craziness and he said I inspired him but he inspires me and continues to do that.” Q-Tip says. Ma Dukes was always worried that her son, not discrediting him, might not find the niche within the music business to make a career out of it, the phone call she received from Q-Tip changed her opinion. He phoned stating his interest in bringing Jay Dee up to New York to shop for attorneys as he wanted him working on the next A Tribe Called Quest album, Beats, Rhymes & Life.
Jay Dee already seemed to have a reputation for intuitive beat making in New York no thanks to Q-Tip. He was telling everyone, “you’ve got to hear this kid” passing his cassette around like wildfire. It eventually made it into the hands of Pete Rock. “I’d like to thank Q-Tip for introducing him to me, when he first brought me his beat tape I was floored. I mean absolutely floored like who is this!? To the point that I had bought a ticket to go to Detroit just to meet homie.” Pete Rock recalls. Upon arrival Dilla said to Pete when he first started “I was trying to be you”. His lifelong idol had given him the seal of approval and in turn gave him the confidence to tackle New York.
By 1996 Slum Village appeared on the scene and this was the winning combination without a doubt. The trio originally consisted of Jay Dee, T3 and the late Baatin although the line up has changed over the years. He recorded the groups debut Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1) in his home studio which was released in 1997. The album became a great success but by this time Dilla had already worked with several artists including A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes and even Janet Jackson with the Grammy winning single “Got ’til It’s Gone”. He was never credited under his name instead as The Ummah who were Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad & J Dilla.
He had established himself within the music industry by 1999 but was not getting the recognition he deserved as he hadn’t had many full length projects with his name attached, instead an impressive back catalogue with a plethora of artists upon it. He was ready to evolve and joined a group of musicians dubbed Soulquarians (Erykah Badu, Bilal, Common, D’Angelo, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Pino Palladino, James Poyser & ?uestlove). They were a collective a people who were born in the first quarter of the year except Badu, she was a Pisces. At the heart of this movement was Dilla’s unique drum sound. During a five year period six or seven incredible albums were released such as Common’s Like Water For Chocolate & Electric Circus, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Bilal’s 1st Born Second and The Roots Things Fall Apart & Phrenology.
Early 2000 after a European tour Dilla returned home and wasn’t feeling too great. Ma Dukes took her son to hospital thinking at worst he might have a mild form of arthritis due to complaints of pain in his hands. It was much worse… He was diagnosed with a rare form of Lupus (a blood disorder that attacks blood cells and affects your immune system) called TTP (thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura). He couldn’t go home and had to start dialysis immediately to boost his immune system. After this he had to visit the hospital frequently and stayed close to home. This was around the time he self released Ruff Draft.
Jay Dee always played down his health issues whenever questioned in an attempt to keep focus off of him and on the music, this was evident throughout his career. None more so than at the 1996 Grammys. Beats, Rhymes & Life was nominated for a Grammy and was essentially produced by the man himself. He hated the spotlight and tried to stay away from media. He was all about the music and I have the upmost respect for that. Towards the end of 1996 he flew over to New York to make the finishing touches to the album and took it upon himself not to take anything formal to wear in a bid to avoid attending. He had already discussed with the group his perplexing situation but they thought he was just being modest. Q-Tip had a stylist bring a selection of clothes over to the studio where Dilla was busy working. After several heated discussions he eventually dawned a suit, got in the limo and travelled to the Grammys. He refused to get out of the car. Ma Dukes remembers getting a call from her son as if he was ready for crying with annoyance. He was adamant not matter what Q-Tip and the other guys said he was not going in. This caused him to miss out on an after party hosted by Prince and meeting one of his heroes. This goes to prove that he was true to himself and was not willing to compromise who he was as an individual.
His health had stabilised for a while but it was not to last. The wake up call literally occurred when Ma Dukes received a phone call from her son. He called his mum from his cell phone to say that he was in trouble. He went on to say that he had pulled his truck into the garage, he was getting out and his legs just gave way and was unable to make it to the house. He was on the floor of the garage and could not move his legs. This is when friend Common thought Jay Dee needed a change of scenery to help lift spirits.
He relocated from Detroit to LA in 2004 the same time as Common. They in fact became roommates for some time, sharing each others company, trying to keep an enthusiastic and optimistic view on life despite his crippling illness. This was around the same time Dilla started performing publicly with Madlib under their pseudonym Jaylib. Beat Junkie member and fellow crate digger J Rocc passed on a few of Dilla’s beat tapes to Madlib in early 2000 which he instantly admired. He subsequently began to rap over the beats without Dilla’s knowledge with a few bootlegs managing to get passed about which resulted in a phone call to Peanut Butter Wolf from a bewildered Jay Dee asking for an explanation. He in fact loved the tape and wanted to create an official project between himself and Madlib. The abstract duo formed to become Jaylib with the release of Champion Sound in 2003. One half of the album is produced by Dilla with Madlib rapping and the other half produced by Madlib with Dilla rapping.
Jay’s illness unfortunately began to take it’s toll resulting in him being confined to a hospital bed in the spring of 2005, although this was not reason enough in his mind to cease his passion for creating music. He continued on with MPC at bedside crafting masterful beats up which would penultimately produce his masterpiece instrumental LP Donuts. If you have listened to this album and I mean listened not just heard it, broke it down, studied it and listened to the original samples, felt the music, this man created it on his death bed… Words cannot do that justice. Thinking upon this if he was unable to do what he loved doing in life it would have probably made his afflicting situation that much worse. He was truly a genius to be able to cut full albums from his hospital bed. With his continued bravery Dilla went through a period of improvement and confronted his illness by setting out on a European tour knowing that it might be his last. The show would be emotional for both Jay Dee and his fans with most of the shows having him perform from a wheelchair. Tears poured from the eyes of the watching knowing this was his farewell and thank you for the many fans who supported him throughout the years. To know that death was pretty much impending, it yet again proves his true nature and relentless dedication towards music.
He made it back to hospital after the tour and put the finishing touches to Donuts. It was released on his 32nd birthday, February 7th 2006. Three days later James Dewitt Yancey passed away. In his lifetime just like John Coltrane surmounted the saxophone, Jimi Hendrix conquered the guitar, J Dilla mastered the MPC. Although he is no longer with us in the physical form, J Dilla’s undying love and dedication to music will be eternal. Rest in peace J Dilla. You changed my life.
“In the beginning that was always the case for me, all day, I tell people all day I’m in the studio from the time I get up until the time I go to sleep, I go out to get something to eat but that’s it, I can’t do anything else…” – J Dilla