Remembering J Dilla: a hip-hop icon

James "J Dilla" Dewitt Yancey was known by a lot of names. Jay Dee. J Deezy. Dilla Dawg or just Jay. Some even call him “Your Favorite Producer’s Favorite Producer.”

J Dilla was the quiet Detroit native who let his beats speak for him while keeping his fame to the side for the sake of the music. Those who follow hip-hop, religiously or slightly, have a sure bet of knowing who he was. If you know Common, you know that “The Light” was crafted by Dilla. If you’ve heard of The Pharcyde, you know that the group's album, “Labcabincalifornia,” was produced almost entirely by him. His legacy continues to be remembered to this day, especially on the month of his death.

Yancey was born Feb. 7, 1974, in Detroit. His mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, was a classical opera singer, and his father, Beverly, was a vocalist with a career spanning 25 years. As he became older, his connection to music grew. According to his biography on j-dilla.com, Yancey would spin records in the park at the age of two, and wouldn’t go to sleep without hearing his father sing jazz as an infant.

In 1996 Yancey, then known as Jay Dee, teamed up with R.L. Altman (T3) and Titus Glover (Baatin) to form the hip-hop group, Slum Village. The group's first album, “Fan-tas-tic, Vol. 1” was crafted in the same year, but was leaked afterward and sought by underground hip-hop purveyors, according to j-dilla.com. After “Fan-tas-tic, Vol. 1,” Yancey slowly moved into a solo career under the direction of fellow Detroit rapper Q-Tip.

Through Q-Tip, Yancey met and worked with artists such as singers Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, D’Angelo, hip-hop band The Roots, and rapper Talib Kweli. Now known as J Dilla, he produced tracks for Chicago rapper Common’s 2000 album, “Like Water for Chocolate.” The album’s popular single, “The Light,” would net the two a Grammy award for “Best Solo Hip-Hop Performance” in 2001. He also gained a “Best R&B Performance” nomination for Badu’s single, “Didn’t Cha Know?” that same year. 2002 saw the release of his first solo effort, “F**k The Police,” which chronicled his negative encounters with law enforcement.

Yancey’s influences were self-described as soulful and he was widely considered to be a master of drum machines used to make beats. His range of sampling was vast – artists such as Stan Getz and Gene Chandler were fair game. Though he would often borrow from jazz and R&B records, he at one point crafted an album of remixed Beach Boys tracks called “The Beach Boys vs J Dilla.” Other artists and producers alike often referenced his talent as “indescribable” or “original” when talking about his abilities with building drums for beats.

But one of the bigger things to notice about Yancey was his lack of interest of the fame came attached to his productions. On the 2014 DJ Rashad Hayes-helmed mixtape, “Tribute to J Dilla,” Yancey’s brother, rapper John “Illa J” Yancey, is heard in an unsourced interview talking about his sibling. “He don’t got to be in the video like, ‘Hey, I made it, I produced it.’ He didn’t want that. He just wanted to love music – he just wanted people to feel it.”

On Feb. 10, 2006, Yancey died in Los Angeles from the blood disease lupus, and is survived by his two daughters, Ja’Mya Yancey and Ty-Monae Whitlow. In the wake of his death, his mother Maureen has been a stalwart promoter of the legacy he left behind, making sure that his music and life are not forgotten.

Additionally, posthumous works by Yancey are still trickling out. A box set, “The King of Beats,” was recently made available and features four discs of unreleased material. Concerts and shows dedicated to Yancey’s work are easily found from the east and west coasts during the month of February and beyond, and are often tagged with the moniker “Dilla Day.”

James “J Dilla” Yancey left a legacy of music and selflessness that is still remembered by hip-hop today. His talent and creative range can be heard by past fans and new followers discovering his music. As heard speaking of her son in the “Tribute to J Dilla” mix tape, Maureen Yancey said, “Music is love. And love is everything.” And J Dilla loved what he did.

 

Reach the reporter at djulienr@asu.edu or follow @legendpenguin on Twitter.

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