“When radio was a freer space and played music that people liked instead of what people paid for, the music that we heard was created by somebody in their basement being a mad scientist. Jay is a throwback to that time. He’s the guy in the basement.” -DJ Jazzy Jeff.
James Dewitt Yancey. The name ignites many emotions surrounding the power of music. The producer’s producer of hip-hop one of the last great architects preferring to be in his element and not the limelight. Jay Dee as he was known early in his career was born in Detroit, Michigan on February 7, 1974 to a musical household, his mother had a love for classical music and opera and his father was a singer and bass player. The cards were laid early on in Dilla’s life. His mother affectionately known as Ma Dukes has stated that as a child he wouldn’t go to sleep unless jazz was playing, Dilla received his foundation in music while playing the piano and cello and along the way he would learn the flute, drums and guitar. The piano and cello are important because that’s where he mastered the skill of reading notes.
Dilla met his future Slum Village partners while in high school and by this time he was making beats in the basement of his mother’s house where he spent much of his time alone. In 1992 he met Detroit based musician Amp Fiddler who played a crucial creative part in his life by allowing him to use his MPC player, unknown to the future that moment changed the soul of hip-hop & r&b forever. Three years later Dilla formed 1st Down, the duo would sign to Payday Records and make them the first hip-hop group from Detroit to sign to a major label. Dilla undoubtedly paved the way for D-12 and Eminem along with solidifying a path for his music and hip-hop in a city famously known for Motown and its great soul. Unfortunately the deal didn’t last long but in 1994 Fiddler introduced him to Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and things began to look up for the budding producer. The connection with Q-Tip afforded networking the early years of his production goes uncredited working with such artists from Janet Jackson to Busta Rhymes.
The 90s in essence was the golden start to Dilla’s road but the work he was apart of in the 90s is the bread and butter of his legacy. The Soulquarians formed in the late 90s, Dilla being a founding member. The music created from that time period is anything short of incredible from Things Fall Apart, Voodoo, Like Water for Chocolate to Mama’s Gun just to name a few. The music Dilla produced for Like Water for Chocolate has much to with the breakthrough Common received in 2000 along with securing a major label deal for Slum Village which would set up Dilla in his own right as a producer and emcee. The album Fantastic Vol. 2 was the result. In 2001 he released his debut single Fuck the Police and the album Welcome to Detroit followed, it’s around this time he professionally began using the name J. Dilla and at the same time he left Slum Village.
During 2002 he was still producing and newly signed MCA Records. The records made during that era weren’t released due to internal changes at the label. Dilla’s solo album that was shelved featured producers from Pete Rock to Kanye West, the venture was to introduce the world to Dilla the rapper, during this time period Ruff Draft was also recorded a true testament to Dilla’s work ethic that even in the eye of opposition the love of music was never distorted. It was also during 2002 that he joined forces with Madlib forming the duo Jaylib and began recording the album Champion Sound released in 2003. It’s around this time Dilla began dramatically losing weight and no longer being able to downplay the situation he came forward publicly and confirmed he was ailing from health related issues. Sadly in 2004 to the mainstream he was still a relatively unknown figure, he always maintained a cult following but it wasn’t until his death he found a broader success mainly with his image and the bootlegging that followed. It’s also around this time his health seriously began to decline and it was revealed he had an incurable blood disease as well as suffering from Lupus. The disease slowed him down in comparison to earlier years but he continued to make music and the most notable from 2004 on was the 2005 release of Common’s Be album. Dilla continued to tour and a picture surfaced of him on stage in a wheelchair.
The disease continued to take its toll but he managed to maintain his musical output by releasing Donuts on his birthday February 7, 2006. The album is a definitive and a milestone in Dilla’s career. The first time I heard this album my eyes watered with tears of discovery for a man that in his final days told his story through his gift of music, each sample carefully constructed to convey his love, gratitude and existence. The tears had much more meaning that day as I lay in my bed and imagined what it must have felt like to know your days are numbered but still have the love and maybe not the energy to give everything inside knowing it very well could be the last chance to do so. Dilla was special we all heard it the revelation didn’t need words because the music spoke to us. Since his death on February 10, 2006 The Shining has been released and many bootlegs via file sharing have surfaced. The music community and most notably Ahmir Thompson aka Questlove and the rest of his peers have kept his name alive from speaking of him to continuing to use his beats for projects. Those outside the hip-hop community does not understand the importance of Dilla’s music WITHIN the community, there are not many left with the pedigree of James Yancey, he lived, breathed and studied the art of producing. It is a rarity to find a producer that knows records from the beginning to end seconds to minutes. That’s the beauty of James Yancey, the student and genius collided while his physical being borrowed time on this earth. The amount of quality music he gave us can never be repaid and the love he had for his music; our music cannot be bought or taught. LoopThatBish pays respect to a true architect.