If one were to mention J Dilla to a casual rap fan, they may not immediately recognize the name, but they most certainly heard his production and influences in some shape or form over the past decade. The Grammy-winning producer created a sound that many have attempted to emulate, falling short of the intricate compositions and soulful samples he manipulated with ease.
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James Dewitt Yancey was born today, February 7th, in 1974 in the working class city of Detroit. Born into a musical family, his mother was an opera singer, while his father was a jazz bassist. Young James was always drawn to music, which is something Dilla’s mother, Maureen Yancey (affectionately known as “Ma Dukes”) shared in an MTV interview.
“His older brother, Earl, was a regular boy — the toys, the trucks — but with James, if it wasn’t music or someone playing music or talking about music, then he didn’t associate much with it,” said Jay’s mom. “We did everything together, but the crux of what we did as a family always involved music. Everybody was in choirs and the children learned to play instruments.”
According to the interview, Dilla learned how to play 20 instruments, including the drums and cello. A reclusive young man, Dilla was drawn to vinyl and began collecting records that numbered in to the thousands. Yancey listened to music with such laser focus, that his mother remarked that he knew every record he owned down to the date and artist.
Dilla graduated into beat making and rapping, meeting with fellow rappers T3 and the late Baatin, and after an impromptu freestyle high school cipher, the trio would shortly join forces as Slum Village in 1991. In past interviews of rappers and friends that have collaborated with Dilla, a common thread was that he moved comfortably in the group setting. In 1994, Dilla formed a duo with longtime friend Phat Kat and signed a deal that went afoul in 1995.
Taking the rap game seriously, Slum Village continued to hone their art while Dilla went on to join the production collective The Ummah with A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) members Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, after being introduced to the crew by local music hero Amp Fiddler.
Featured heavily on ATCQ’s fourth LP, “Beats Rhymes & Life,” and Busta Rhymes’ solo debut, “The Coming,” Dilla was just starting to see the fruits of his work spread.
Dilla went on to work with Janet Jackson, the late Heavy D, Brand New Heavies, Erykah Badu, Common, and countless others before his Slum Village crew released their classic “Fantastic Vol. 2” in 2000. By then, hip-hop fans were accustomed to the Motor City funk and groove Dilla commanded at will.
Mos Def, De La Soul, Talib Kweli, and even his earlier mentor Amp Fiddler would all benefit from J Dilla production later on.
J Dilla and L.A.-based producer Madlib would form a union that eventually led Yancey to relocate out west to work on the new JayLib project with his new partner in 2004. Shortly after, rumors arose that Dilla had an undisclosed illness. The news finally came to light during a performance in November 2005, when Dilla rhymed seated in a wheelchair. Dilla suffered from a rare blood disease and other symptoms related to lupus.
Tragedy struck the hip-hop world on February 10, 2006, just three days after his 32nd birthday and the release of his critically acclaimed instrumental album “Donuts.” Dilla, according to friends and family, recorded 29 of the album’s 31 tracks while in a hospital on extended rest. Using just a sampler and a portable record player, Dilla created what many considered his most-moving work.
Dilla’s legacy lives on in a series of tribute songs and mixtapes. There are also several concerts happening in Detroit and nationwide that will celebrate the life of J Dilla, such as the sixth annual Donuts Are Forever fundraising event in New York.
Ma Dukes Yancey has also started the J Dilla Foundation in honor of her son. The foundation’s aims are to provide a platform for impoverished youth to gain exposure and access to music and various related programs.
Happy Birthday, J Dilla. Your music and legacy shall certainly carry on.