When discussing the life and times of the late J Dilla, it’s difficult to avoid dipping into hagiography. But the producer born James Dewett Yancey was truly a king among men.
J Dilla’s name is synonymous with beat-making, his music and contributions to hip-hop arguably without peer. Fifteen years ago this week, merely three days after his 32nd birthday, Yancey was tragically taken from this earth by a rare blood disorder. In the interim, Dilla has been posthumously deified, his legacy celebrated by myriad artists, friends, contemporaries, and countless aspiring producer-rappers and musicians making sound art in his image. J Dilla is universally regarded as one of the most gifted musical forces of nature ever to put a beat on wax, and the reverberations of his innovations continue to make waves today.
Representing Detroit, Michigan, Jay Dee/J Dilla was best known for his work with archetypal touchstone acts like A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, De La Soul, Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, Common, and The Pharcyde, among others, but the producer was also keen to lace up local underground emcees and crews in the D with his prodigious sonic creations. Dilla’s iconoclastic beats are continually put to work by a wide swath of rappers and vocalists from coast to coast, and various stateside and international points between.
Dilla’s soundtracks are their own universe, clinics on the endless possibilities of sample-based music. Elements are broken down to their core and then rebuilt into elaborate suites, bits of breaks and snippets of songs materializing into tracks that permeate and embed themselves in the listener’s consciousness. His sounds and styles leap between inspiration and influence, the creations imbued with a scattershot feel and subliminal urgency that embody both his restless artistic brilliance and his brief time on earth.
[J Dilla portrait by Dan Lish, 2016]
Every time you hear a producer throw down “drunken” (non-quantized) drums, that’s the house that Jay Dee built. Same goes for uncorking unconventional kick and snare patterns with the swing carried primarily by the hi-hats or percussive elements—that’s a patented J Dilla feel. In the mid-to-late 1990’s, Jay Dee introduced his wonky-ness to the world, writing the book on warm, filtered basslines beneath snapping, aggressive snares. These textures and techniques have been steadily incorporated into hip-hop and R&B compositions ever since.
Yet that was merely phase one of (at least) four, and countless tributaries continue to be revealed each and every day. From Flying Lotus to Knxwledge, Kareem Riggins to K, Le Maestro, Oddissee to Otis McDonald, Robert Glasper to Adam Deitch, J Dilla lives on, forever woven within the music and mindsets of producers and musicians around the world.
Born in Detroit’s Harmonie Park in 1973, James Dewett Yancey was raised in Conant Gardens, a small, tree-lined area located on the north side of Seven Mile Road. His mother, Maureen, was a singer; his father, Beverly, played both bass and piano. Together, they led an a cappella jazz group, and there would always be singing in the home. Somewhat serendipitously, legend has it his father might have ghost-written The Spinners’ “It’s A Shame”, a song later immortalized in sample form by Native Tongue Monie Love.
Legend has it Beverly started James with a Fisher Price turntable, and the boy was hooked, playing impromptu DJ sets in the park for his father’s friends and total strangers alike. Eager with a gifted ear, James studied cello as a youngster, and he first tried his hands making rap beats at just 11 years old.
A wide-eared, teenage Jay Dee was initially inspired to start producing after falling in love with Whodini’s 1984 classic, “Big Mouth”. He swiftly dove into hip-hop music and the culture that surrounds. When the adolescent Yancey absorbed the limitless sonic possibilities buried within the drum breaks, basslines, synths, and samples, a flame within him was sparked ablaze—a fire that burned with a focus and fury for the rest of his days.
Yancey attended Detroit’s Davis Aerospace Technical High School for three years before transferring to Pershing High School, where he first linked up with T3 and Baatin, his future Slum Village partners. It was in this teenage period that they formed the embryonic squad Ssenepod (“Dopeness” spelled backwards) with hometown homies Wajeed and Que D. Official Detroit player John Salley of Bad Boy Pistons fame briefly signed on to manage a different Dilla project at the time before a few twists and turns thinned the proverbial herd and Slum Village officially rose from Ssenepod’s ashes.
A crucial early relationship for Jay was with one Amp Fiddler, a Detroit-based keyboardist/producer who performed with the 1990s incarnation of Parliament-Funkadelic. Amp Fiddler mentored a green Jay Dee about the processes and mindset of a music producer. Sessions at “Camp Amp,” Fiddler’s studio, allowed Yancey to find his way around the technology associated with digital programming and drum machines, techniques and equipment that would define what would become Yancey’s first phase of production. Multi-layered, heavy-chopped samples atop warm, filtered basslines and intoxicating, stutter-step kick drums and snares were what illustrated the early Jay Dee sound.
Amp Fiddler ft. George Clinton – “Waltz of a Ghetto Fly” (Prod. by J Dilla)
[Audio: Baile da Brum]
Before introducing him to an Akai MPC60 and E-mu SP-12, Amp Fiddler implored Jay Dee to adopt his “no books” discipline of learning production skills, eschewing the machines’ instruction manuals to encourage Jay Dee to be an entirely self-taught producer. A large part of Dilla’s peculiar approach to sampling, programming, and creating music was no doubt deeply informed by this particular methodology.
Yancey contributed to random projects in the D during his formative years under the tutelage of Amp Fiddler, making his name at rap battles at Detroit’s Rhythm Kitchen. Jay Dee also linked up with the late rapper Proof—later of D12 fame—and T3 for a recording in 1994, then signed to the Pay Day label as 1st Down the following year, inking a single deal with local emcee Phat Kat. Soon, though, Jay Dee refocused on Slum Village full-time, and eventually their demo began to penetrate some hip-hop circles, as did his now-legendary homemade beat tapes.
Fiddler was also responsible for a major connection at the dawn of Jay Dee’s artistic journey when he introduced the Detroit upstart to Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest backstage at a Michigan stop on 1994’s Lollapalooza summer tour. This would prove to be a cosmic convergence of historic proportions, as Q-Tip was instantly and passionately taken with Jay Dee’s quirky, thumping creations and felt like he’d discovered a diamond in the rough. Indeed, he had.
“I met Tip in ‘94…I had a group that [former Detroit Piston] John Salley was managing – so I gave Tip a tape, and the same day he called back. He was like ‘who did these beats?’ After that, s— just took off.” –J Dilla
Around this time, LA’s red-hot crew The Pharcyde hit up Q-Tip for some beats, but Tribe’s busy leader instead said to check for his man in Detroit. With that monumental co-sign, The Pharcyde enlisted the unproven producer to helm their critically-acclaimed, avant-garde sophomore opus, LaCabinCalifornia. The beloved “Runnin’” remains a permanent anthem in the annals, looping Stan Getz’s bossa nova track “Saudade Vem Correndo” within the then-revolutionary drum programming that even threw famously-zany emcee Fatlip for a loop in the studio. “Drop” is another fantastically filtered, subsonic evolution; a banger complete with a choice Beastie Boys sample in the form of Ad Rock’s nasally ”DROP” plucked from “The New Style”. With LaCabinCalifornia, Jay Dee was now firmly placed on hip-hop’s national radar. A shining star was officially born.
The Pharcyde – “Runnin'” (Prod. by J Dilla)
The recording of Slum Village’s first album, Fantastic Vol. 1, quasi-coincided with Yancey’s involvement with production squad The Ummah, a collective made up of Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed from A Tribe Called Quest, with the occasional contributions from Raphael Saadiq or D’Angelo. The sonic blueprint for the next two Tribe albums was created among them, a sharp left turn from the established styles Q-Tip had provided for beats on the first trifecta of Tribe LPs. The Ummah also worked on the classic Janet Jackson cut “Got til it’s Gone”, which samples Joni Mitchell‘s “Big Yellow Taxi”. While he wasn’t officially credited, Jay Dee claimed responsibility for both the OG and the remix. As he once explained in an interview, “This is what happened, this is coming from me. Me, Tip and Ali all collaborated on the track. I’m not going to say any names, but we all collaborated on this track, made it happen… When it came out, it said produced by someone else. Check those credits, you won’t see a Jay Dee, or a Q-Tip or anyone else.”
Janet Jackson ft. Q-Tip, Joni Mitchell – “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” (Prod. by The Ummah)
[Video: Janet Jackson World]
Due to the kind of label shenanigans that give credence to ATCQ’s “Industry Rule #4080”, the debut Slum Village album bounced around a couple of ill-fated record deals, eventually getting shelved for a few years. This discouraging situation came in spite of the huge buzz that was emanating out of Detroit due to the rumors of Q-Tip’s new cat bringing the heat. This situation was compounded by the fact that a bootlegged version of the album was circulating among the hip-hop cognoscenti, and a number of established artists and young bucks were lining up to get laced with the Jay Dee magic.
“I mean… ‘The ‘tape of all tapes’ NEVER left my side. I loved this tape so much I copped a high end walkman for it… I loved this tape so much I did my first ‘stage walk off faking a piss break’ during Hub’s bass solo just to sneak a peek at a song or two. I loved this tape so much I swear I was gonna break The Roots up when I discovered Black Thought took my tape without my permission.” –Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
A few listens to the Fantastic Vol. 1 holy grail illuminate the light years-ahead-of-his-time brilliance of its sonic architect, and lay bare the disappointment that was this album’s aborted unveiling. Vol. 1 delivers one banger after the next, a stunning expedition into boom-bap arenas previously established by Tribe or Pete Rock, yet elevated in ways that we are still unpacking over twenty years down the road. Jay Dee tunnels further into the endless possibilities available to him through his trusty MPC; his abrupt jump-stops, drop-outs, and tweaked samples gradually settling into a herky-jerky rhythmic pulse all their own.
Slum Village – Fantastic Vol. 1 Promo (Original Tape)
[Audio: Jordan Henderson]
For the earliest examples of this new frontier, peep his impossibly-precise cut-and-pastes of James Brown material on “I Don’t Know”, the masterful manipulation of Herbie Hancock’s “Come Running to Me” on “Get Dis Money”, and the astounding interpolation of The Singers Unlimited’s a cappella “Clair”, which manifests in the orgasmic “Players”. Gap Mangione’s “Diana In the Autumn Wind” was reborn in sublime fashion on what’s likely the song with the most staying power, “Fall in Love.” The LP’s long-delayed release gave way to its mythic reputation, one that was sustained once the record was made widely available in the late 1990s.
Meanwhile, Native Tongues champions De La Soul were waiting in the wings, and the 1996 comeback classic Stakes is High boasted several seminal contributions from Jay Dee. The titanic title track, which samples Ahmad Jamal’s “Swahililand”, remains regularly celebrated for its emotive genius. It’s a triumphant, sonically-euphoric joint that stands as among his finest creations to this day, and has been interpolated by jazz ensembles and orchestras around the globe for years. Yancey shot the Strong Island veterans full of swaggering adrenaline, catalyzing a major resurgence in their storied career.
Q-Tip took that bar and raised it up on ATCQ’s The Ummah-laced “Hold Tight” from their 1998 “retirement” album, The Love Movement. Forever immortalized in the lyrics “I’mma leave it in the hands of the Slum now”, Dilla’s team was getting hyped as the Native Tongues’ next chapter to follow in the wake of the mighty Tribe legacy, with a coronation by Q-Tip himself.
De La Soul – “Stakes Is High” (Prod. by J Dilla)
[Audio: J DILLA – Archive of the Genius]
Even though Slum Village’s debut had been shelved, The Source, then a veritable hip-hop bible, ran a review of Fantastic Vol.1 to capitalize on the momentum that had been created in the wake of Jay Dee’s prime placements. Unfortunately, the magazine’s short-sighted critic was underwhelmed by the obtuse, unorthodox productions and found the hyper-sexualized, materialistic subject matter decidedly un-Tribe-like. As such, The Source gave the unreleased album only three-and-a-half mics (out of a possible five, the gold standard at the time).
This subpar reception (by Jay’s own assessment) left a bad taste in the producer’s craw, and he began to plot his eventual departure from Slum Village, a career move made possible by his steadily-increasing profile among several of the most popular artists in Black music. After the success of Labcabincalifornia, Stakes is High, ATCQ, the Janet Jackson hit, and a D’Angelo remix of “Me and Those Dreamin Eyes of Mine”, requests for production work continued to flow in Jay Dee’s direction—opportunities from hot rappers like Keith Murray and overseas acid-jazz sensations like Jamiroquai, Brand New Heavies and N’Dea Davenport alike. This substantial success contributed to Yancey’s distancing from Slum Village, and though he would continue to produce for the group, he officially moved on right around the release of their follow-up LP Fantastic Vol.2, in the summer of 2000.
The next era for Jay Dee, soon to adopt the J Dilla moniker moving forward, drifted away from sampling and focused on the live performance of his compositions, taking it back to the organic essence—be it on a dilapidated, dusty drum kit or the trusty MPC pads. Yancey went into the lab and got on his instrumental grind, still adhering to his self-taught modus operandi. This prolific period is most often referred to as the Soulquarians phase due to his involvement with the superhero musical collective of the same name.
Holed up in NYC’s Electric Lady Studios recording a number of landmark albums over nearly half a decade, this posse included (but was not limited to) Questlove, D’Angelo, Common, Erykah Badu, James Poyser, Bilal, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli, among other studio cats and collaborators.
Dilla’s closest allies in this period became Common, Questlove, D’Angelo, and master engineer Russell Elevado, partnerships and friendships that he maintained, in one way or another, for his few remaining years among us. These luminaries have all gone on to even greater professional heights, and each of them often publicly reflect on the gigantic influence that Yancey’s Soulquarians-era had on their respective crafts.
Jay Dee proved a major cog in the wheel of the blossoming neo-soul movement. He injected hazy, smooth grooves and melodic explorations into his dynamic, exhilarating beats. For a pristine example of this evolution in sound, see “Didn’t Cha Know” from Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, a beloved cut born of a perfect sample Badu selected from Tarika Blue’s “Dreamflower”. Dilla also had a crucial, if undefined/unofficial, role on D’Angelo’s timeless opus, Voodoo, and his Motor City fingerprints are all over Philadelphia’s The Roots’ 1998 LP Things Fall Apart.
Erykah Badu – “Didn’t Cha Know” (Prod. by J Dilla)
[Video: Erykah Badu]
Dilla took the reins for the whole of Q-Tip’s solo debut, Amplified, which featured certified club banger “Vivrant Thing” and the funky “Let’s Ride”, the latter a choice rework of Joe Pass‘s take on John Coltrane‘s “Giant Steps.” Mos Def also got blessed with Dilla tracks, and the producer baked heat for his partner Talib Kweli too; twenty years later, the seminal “Little Brother”—with its Gil Scott-Heron sample and dreamy Rhodes flip—still liberates the mind and soothes the soul. In 2000, Dilla stepped outside the confines of Electric Lady to once again bless Busta Rhymes with the stirring “Show Me What You Got”, interpolating a Stereolab sample to propel Bussa Bus to a new emotional plateau.
That same year, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate benefitted from Jay Dee’s preoccupation with Afro-funk and Fela Kuti, plus a murderous George Duke sample and ferocious verse on “Thelonius”. The Badu-inspired “The Light” was nominated for a Grammy; the album is regarded as the emcee’s artistic apex and remains cherished across generations of hip-hop heads.
Common ft. Slum Village – “Thelonius” (Prod. by J Dilla)
Common’s much-maligned, though ahead-of-its-time, 2002 follow-up Electric Circus found the producer neck deep in his next phase: electro soundscapes. As Dilla famously told Questlove in 2002, “I’m putting the drums away. I’m putting all that African sound away, and I’m going straight Kraftwerk; you coming with me?” He was prepared to leave neo-soul and the Soulquarians in the rearview and step into yet another new realm.
Dilla was always fascinated working with obscure sounds, from ancient tribal recordings to ’70s disco-funk, all the way to his hometown’s pride and joy, Detroit techno. For his third phase, Dilla returned to his passion of sampling and dug deep into his city’s rich musical legacy, making records rooted in electro elements. The producer began to incorporate spaced-out trippy soundscapes, futuristic bleeps and bloops, ’70s funk/rock-inspired vocal layers and effects. Kaleidoscopic colorways replaced the stark, sparse, filtered style he left behind on Slum’s Vol.2 and the funk-jam aesthetic of the Soulquarian period.
In the aftershock of the neo-soul revolution, solo records like Welcome 2 Detroit and Ruff Draft revealed that Dilla’s production game had mutated from smoked-out and soulful to psychedelic, synthetic, and spooky, shrouded in sirens and smackin’ snares. Posthumous releases like the minimalist Dillatronic are a window into his artistic headspace in this third phase of evolution. As do the 2003 tracks crafted for German rap duo ASD as Dilla continued to blow up across the pond, revered as a revolutionary sound architect in the thriving underground hip-hop culture in Europe.
J Dilla – “Won’t Do”
[Audio: J Dilla – Topic]
The source material and inspiration for this electro/techno steez was mined from the soundsystems, nightclubs, and danceterias that had long populated the D. Kraftwerk, Alexander Robotnik, and Giorgio Moroder were all distilled into primordial elements and stirred up into Dilla’s new Detroit stew. Afro-rock, Vangelis, Moet and weed; no wax off-limits and no holds barred.
A number of Dilla’s collaborators in this era had been “conscious” rappers, activist-rhymers who often waxed philosophic about Black communities, spoke to history and its lessons. As a rapper, J Dilla was quite the opposite, his rhymes consistently brimming with brazen braggadocio. His productions may have been warm, fuzzy, and inviting, but on the mic he was misogynist, materialistic, his lyrics brash and his vibe somewhat confrontational. To be blunt, when he stepped in the booth, J Dilla held his nuts and talked a lot of s—; he and his friends called this rappin’ alter-ego “N**** Man.”
Dilla liked to boast about his trucks, rims, diamonds, blunts and partyin’, which ran counter to much of the subject matter of his contemporaries. If he was spittin’, Jay rarely let a song get by him without mentioning his wealth, the Range, threatening violence, or marginalizing women. It’s remembered fondly and with humor, but these attitudes were certainly not something to celebrate. Yet it must be acknowledged, as that was the kind of emcee he always was, even if it didn’t align with his personality or his real-life treatment of others.
J Dilla ft. Guilty Simpson – “Take Notice”
[Video: Stones Throw]
What made his sonic creations so revolutionary, regardless of the rap group, artistic phase or hip-hop genre? It begins with an unwavering originality and his unicorn process, the ingenuity in his compositions. He studied how Pete Rock made the timeless “T.R.O.Y.”, lived inside of Low End Theory for a while, and then stepped into the arena on his own Motor City twos. Within Dilla’s cultural DNA were Detroit’s race riots, factory assembly lines, union strikes and the violence that accompanies that world, mixed with Motown, funk, punk, and techno. Yancey soaked up all that jazz plus so much more, and those elements consistently informed his craft in fashions both tangible and abstract.
J Dilla occupied low-end frequencies, and he used unorthodox methods to concoct unconventional soundscapes. His artistic experiments fill the listener with inexplicable sensation, an intoxicating feeling derived from a euphoric state of sensory disorientation.
From a musical perspective, Dilla’s patented “non-quantized” pentameters were omnipresent, and toyed with the off-kilter genius of Thelonious Monk. To get that trademark thump, he EQ’d all heavy lows and a just a little mids, occasionally distorted for extra impact. Dilla often incorporated the perverted fidelity of a Kingston dub soundsystem a la King Tubby or Prince Jammy, playing mind tricks on the ears and brain with diabolical manipulations. Dilla beats are full of unrepentant joy, abundant hilarity, a serious intensity, and at times a mournful nostalgia—occasionally all within the same composition.
Jay was fond of loop-upending false starts and jump cuts, off-beat meter-shifting, subversively patient dynamics, inverting or tweaking a dusted organ lick, dramatic double doses of modulated bass or guitars. De-tuned Moog Voyager basslines gurgle beneath odd melodic passages culled from an archaic soul record. He liked to circumvent the verse/bridge/chorus template of the traditional hip-hop track; a trademark technique of his was doubling back at the end of a song with a particularly sweet sample or saccharine surprise to really drive the concept or theme home.
Dilla had an encyclopedic knowledge of walls of vinyl, and his sample-sourcing scope was arguably unrivaled. He possessed an incredible knack for hearing the scents, then flipping the most subtle sounds until they were unrecognizable. Yancey could snip a sample, stitch in some wobbly, meticulously-crafted drums, inject it with a bassline brimming with his idiosyncratic griminess, and then roll up an L while one of the world’s greatest emcees caught wreck to his handiwork. And while that verse was being spit, Dilla would go ahead and unlearn everything he just did and start on a whole new style or sound from scratch.
J Dilla – “Love Jones” (Extended Version)
Then, there was his work ethic. Contemporaries and collaborators from Q-Tip to Karriem Riggins, Bilal, D’Angelo, J-Rocc, Houseshoes, Phat Kat, Peanut Butter Wolf and Egon have all marveled at how quickly he worked his magic behind the boards. Many of his most revered tracks were crafted in less than half an hour; his production process worked most efficiently at warp speed. Blunt in hand, he was always in the lab working, listening, creating ’til the wee hours.
Eventually, J Dilla became frustrated by the confines and limitations of Detroit and relocated to Los Angeles full-time, often sharing an apartment with Common as he spread his wings in the nascent yet vibrant L.A. beat scene. Dating back to Lacabincalifornia, plus random early demo tapes that circulated in its aftermath, there was already a burgeoning group of hardcore Dilla stans in L.A., first sprouting by the mid- to late ’90s. By the time Jay took up residence in the city of angels, the natives were ready and restless; thanks to the efforts of the Beat Junkies, Egon, and Peanut Butter Wolf at Stones Throw, each tastemaker having doggedly spread the Detroit Dilla gospel long before he arrived.
Upon returning from a European tour with a serious flu in 2002, Dilla’s illness was first discovered when his mom took him straight to a Detroit hospital. A blood test showed he had both lupus, an auto-immune disease that causes inflammation and organ damage, as well as thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), a blood disorder that causes microscopic thromboses to form in the blood vessels. Over the next four years, his health fluctuated like his kick drums, but eventually it became clear that the situation was trending in a troubling direction.
It was Stones Throw and Wolf who would coordinate Dilla’s now-legendary collaboration with Madlib, in what was a brother-from-another situation from jumpstreet. Madlib crowned Dilla “the Coltrane of hip-hop”, because he felt everybody making music in that genre owed Jay an artistic debt of gratitude. The two brilliant producers decided to join forces and rap on each other’s beats, with the result coming in the form of 2003’s Champion Sound, the only record ever released by Jaylib. Champion Sound was a series of mostly long-distance collabs without any actual studio sessions; what we hear is merely a raw, two-track recording overdubbed and volleyed back and forth between the two visionaries, over the course of a year or so. Yet in spite of this then-unfamiliar process, the sound art that they created digitally reflects a tactile human experience, one that continues to resonate nearly two decades later.
Jaylib (Madlib & J Dilla) – Champion Sound – Full Album
[Audio: Black Hole Of Hip Hop]
Even as his health deteriorated, Dilla remained prolific. Despite his illness, the producer still managed to lace up a breadth of different rappers, vocalists, and musicians with his arsenal of sounds. His production credits towards the end of his life included everyone from his mentor Amp Fiddler to percolating underground cats like Moka Only, Lawless Element, M.E.D., Copywrite, Madlib’s younger brother Oh No, trusty Detroit homeboys Frank-n-Dank, Dwele, and Elzhi, fellow D representatives Proof and Royce da’ 5’9, French trip-hop OG DJ Cam, British future-R&B cat Spacek, Talib Kweli, A.G., De La Soul’s The Grind Date, and Ann Arbor IDM producer Dabyre. Even veteran Blue Note organist Brother Jack McDuff got the Filthy McNasty treatment.
One of the more otherworldly late-period Dilla creations was his remix of Four Tet’s “As Serious As Your Life”, featuring then-unknown Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson. The original source material is rendered unrecognizable by this sizzlin’ thunderclap, an amphibious guitar loop is absconded by a rubber band bassline that reverberates in rotund sound design. Four Tet was quoted years later as still being in complete awe of Dilla’s innovations—yet another in a seemingly bottomless well of reimaginations from the mind of the maestro.
Four Tet – “As Serious As Your Life” (Jay Dee Remix ft. Guilty Simpson)
[Audio: Pablo Ángel Zárate Pérez]
As the lupus and associated blood disorder continued to wreak havoc on his health, there was a flood in the basement of his mother’s Detroit home, and he lost much of the gear that was housed there. Maureen Yancey, known to fans as Ma Dukes, moved to L.A. to be with her son as his health worsened. Jay spent much of 2005 in and out of Cedar Sinai Hospital, the same facility where both The Notorious B.I.G and Eazy E died. Still, Dilla circulated beat tapes throughout the culture, continually drumming up collaborations and connections around the world in spite of his predicament.
Although he had a moderate health insurance policy, bills for his lengthy, repeated hospital stays were in excess of $200,000. Specialists were more than $6,000 a week. Dilla sometimes required dialysis three times a week at nearly $2,000 per session. Prescriptions could run close to the same. He started to drown in debt, bills with which his mother was saddled not long after he passed.
Still, Dilla didn’t complain—he just worked, read the bible, rested, then worked some more. Whenever he could stay conscious and stand the pain, he stayed workin’ on it. For a final hurrah, he took brief tour of Europe in the Fall of 2005, performing in a wheelchair alongside longtime Detroit homies Frank-N-Dank and Phat Kat. Getting love from the fans in the live element, one mo ‘gin.
J Dilla Carried Onstage In Europe
Meanwhile, blood clots wore down his kidneys, his body was losing the ability to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy tissues, his hands swelled to where he sometimes couldn’t program the drum machine, and his mother would massage his fingers. Eventually, Ma Dukes learned to roll his blunts bedside so that her son could have his “medicine” ready on deck. She even lugged crates of 45s into his hospital room so her baby boy could hunt samples for what became Donuts, his last testament and artistic swan song.
At just over a half-hour spread over 31 tracks, Donuts is an album about death, a chance for Dilla to say one final goodbye through his music. It’s named for Dilla’s penchant for grubbing down the pastry after a blunt session or while hovering over his MPC getting busy. The producer was intensely private about this project; he was unwilling to share unfinished versions of tracks with his friends as he worked from his hospital bed on the last album of his lifetime. Questlove has called this his “MacGuyver” period. Other’s refer to it as Dill Withers.
J Dilla – “Workinonit”
[Audio: Stones Throw]
In his 33 & 1/3 book, which focuses on the album, author/musicologist Jordan Ferguson posits that the record reveals J Dilla coming to terms with his own mortality through song, facing down and even welcoming his own transition to the other side with poetry, grace, and humility. By the end, he couldn’t communicate verbally, but rather only through sampling and his music, so Donuts was the vessel for him to say his piece and get his propers.
“When I heard all of [Donuts] together, as he actually wanted it to come out, I was like ‘F— me man,’ the last couple of years he’s completely flipped music on it’s head again. Nobody’s gonna know what to do with this. It was just so astronomically different from everything that everybody tried to do with that source material.” –Egon, Stones Throw Records
On J Dilla’s 32th birthday, February 6th, 2006, Donuts was released on Stones Throw, and the hip-hop world briefly rejoiced, reveling in the cleverness and excellence that this Herculean effort beheld. Before fans could decode exactly what Donuts was saying to the world, just 72 hours after the album was released, James Yancey succumbed to his debilitating illnesses and mercifully transitioned to the other side.
Long preceding his death, the producer’s beat tapes were nothing short of the holy grail. Traded around internet message boards via Sendspace links, the (former) cassette tapes began to give birth to a proliferation of bootlegs, most of them unauthorized uses of his productions. This is a phenomenon that, for better or worse, continues to this day.
One of the more bizarre situations that has arisen in the aftermath of his death is the circus that has engulfed Dilla’s estate and the legal rights to use his name and likeness. It’s a disturbing and demoralizing story that is better left alone in this report, other than to acknowledge that like Jerry Garcia, Frank Zappa, and Tupac Shakur before him, the court battles and infighting that characterize the situation, negotiations, and unofficial/unfinished posthumous releases do a disservice to the legacy of the departed luminaries. After a confounding, frustrating time, it seems like Ma Dukes has now gotten it sorted out, for the most part.
In death, J Dilla’s sizable imprint in the culture was instantly apparent and universally recognized, and his voluminous works became the gold standard, not only for the young bucks making music in his wake but for even his own idols; shortly after Dilla’s death, Pete Rock glossed the dearly-departed Detroit bad boy as the greatest to ever do it. Trust, he’s not alone—among producers and rappers alike, Yancey continues to be celebrated as a pioneer without peer. Dilla’s humanized drums and nuanced sonic colorscapes are alive and well within the works of modern-day beatsmiths like Kaytranada, Knxwledge, K, Le Maestro, The Kount, among hundreds (if not thousands) of other unknown bedroom producers that populate the lo-fi diaspora.
The influence is certainly not limited to just hip-hop production, either. Just ask Flea, bassist and co-founder of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who gets choked up when discussing his passion for all things J Dilla. Grammy-winning jazz pianist Robert Glasper is among the more well-known Dilla-philes in the game today. His Robert Glasper Experiment has repeatedly performed various homages to the producer, most recently as part of his 2019 Blue Note NYC residency. Longtime Glasper collaborator and drum cyborg Chris Dave is another prodigal son of Dilla; his styles and techniques performing with both D’Angelo & the Vanguard and his own Chris Dave & Drumhedz incorporate familiar rhythmic concepts and textures native to the Detroit deli.
Robert Glasper Experiement ft. T3 – J Dilla Tribute – Boiler Room
[Video: Boiler Room]
Glasper was recently quoted pointing out how J Dilla was the first hip-hop producer to motivate musicians to head back to the lab, to shed their instrument specifically to sound like him. Not merely drummers, either; the pianist himself does it, as did James Poyser, D’Angelo, Raphael Saddiq, Questlove, Adam Deitch, Nikki Glaspie and Nate Edgar, Pino Palladino, Eric Krasno, DJ Harrison, Tom Misch, Khris Royal, Borahm Lee—and the list goes on. Dilla’s unique approach to rhythms, patterns, ghost-notes, chordal relationships, sampling, programming, basslines, tones and textures continues to inform the skillsets of today’s most vibrant instrumental virtuosos.
As far as outer-spatial adventuring goes, look no further than Deitch-powered, future-funk cosmonauts Lettuce and their decade plus of psychedelic Dilla tributes like “Mr. Yancey”, “Phyllis” or “Purple Cabbage”. The six-piece virtuoso ensemble is wont to delve into passages from “Workinonit”, “Stakes is High” or “Thelonious” whilst improvising thirty-thousand leagues deep beneath the D.
Lettuce – “Mr. Yancey” – 8/23/13
The “Dilla factor” permeates the early-career performances from gospel-tinged funksters The Nth Power via their fantastic rhythm section of Edgar and Glaspie. The producer’s ethos and aesthetic are clearly at the conceptual root of Portland, Maine’s JAW GEMS. It oozes from within the crunk-jazz of Richmond, Virginia’s bombastic Butcher Brown. As far away as Australia, Dilla’s influence is felt in the minimalist boom-bap excursions of Melbourne’s Surprise Chef, a four-piece band that loosely extrapolates on Yancey’s wonky, cacophonous third phase.
Related: Stream 33+ Hours of JAY DEE / J.DILLA On This 711-Track Career Anthology
Ma Dukes still hustles hard. She does her best to filter and disseminate the official rights to Dilla’s remaining unreleased creations, inspired by his conviction that the most talented cats are those yet to be discovered. She tirelessly keeps her son’s legacy alive with The J Dilla Foundation. The organization in his memory was established to “help fund inner-city music programs, and provide scholarships to students attending schools that have progressive music curricula”.
In the fifteen years since his devastating passing, dozens of unreleased cuts, albums, and collabs of varying quality and validity have risen to the surface. Yet peers and fans remain united behind the notion that the visionary artist was never able to fully reach the peak of his potential or powers. The true heights of his genius will tragically never be realized. But while he was here, J Dilla did the damn thing like nobody’s business.
Yancey taught me.