J Dilla was a musical genius. His contribution both as a producer and rapper pioneered the musical platform that so many current artists have built on. His influence and collaboration with artists such as Kanye West, Erykah Badu, and Common remains relevant to this day, years after his untimely death in 2006. If your musical taste resides on planet Hip-Hop, there is no way you don't have a Dilla favorite. Heck, you probably can't decide on which one you like best. From his early collaboration in Slum Village to the classic "The Light" by Common, his unique production on tracks is quintessential not only past tense, but to its preservation and of the culture for generations to come.
J Dilla (aka James Dewitt Yancey, Jay Dee) was born in 1974 in Detroit, Michigan. Raised by musical parents, James began singing in the church choir at an early age. His early musical career began with childhood friends when they formed the group Slum Village. Perfecting his craft for hours in his basement, Dilla was inspired by other producers such as Pete Rock and Jazzy Jeff. He continued to make hits over the years, even after he was diagnosed with and hospitalization for lupus. Even then, he requested his beat-making machine, which was by his death bed.Recently, his mother Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey was contacted by the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (which will open in 2015) to donate his legacy to the museum. Among the artifacts will be her late son's Akai MIDI Production Center 3000 Limited Edition (MPC) and his custom-made Minamoog Voyager synthesizer. The decision followed several conversations she had with Smithsonian's popular-music historian, Timothy Burnside, who said:
J Dilla's body of work is a testament to creativity and innovation, the very elements on which hip-hop was founded. He was fearlessly dedicated to music, following in the footsteps of many musical greats. As a child, he first danced to James Brown, and like Duke Ellington, he was uncannily versatile. It is in the company of the greats that he belongs. Ma Dukes has demonstrated incredible generosity by donating these items to the museum. Through this donation, she has trusted us not just to preserve her son's legacy, but to share it with the world.
When I spoke with Dilla's mother, I could see why her nickname is "Ma Dukes." Her sweet musical voice and genuine laugh made me feel like I was talking to a family member on the porch, drinking sweet tea. I felt like she was giving me a big warm hug while she spoke about her son's life and legacy:
Karim Orange: What was Dilla's childhood like musically?
Ma Dukes: He grew up listening to all genres of music. His dad and I were both in the gospel choir at church. Everyone in the house sang. He was exposed to country music by his grandmother, and we entertained a lot. His dad sang Doo Wop professionally for a few years. James learned piano early, but didn't like it much. He would have preferred to play guitar and drums. By the time he was 9, we got him his first snare drums, which he taught himself. And he played drums in the church. He also knew how to play the cello.
KO: What was his personality like growing up?
MD: He was very introverted.
KO: What was his first piece of equipment to make beats?
MD: We bought him a drum machine from RadioShack.
KO: How did you feel about him pursuing music professionally?
MD: I was encouraging but nervous. His dad was in the music industry, so I knew firsthand that talent does not always equal success.
KO: What is your favorite memory of your son and his music?
MD: I was driving down the street, and a song came on the radio and I loved it so much. I started shouting "That's Dilla! That's Dilla!" My husband and I started blasting the song so loud that the people in the car next to us looked at us like, are they insane, these two old people blasting that Hip-Hop music. I know his signature sound within the first two bars.
KO: Your son passed at such a young age, from a rare blood disorder. What was it, and when was he diagnosed?
MD: James was diagnosed with Thrombotic Thrombocytopenic Purpura (TTP). They found out later it was actually lupus in 2005, the last year of his life.
KO: What made you decide to donate to the Smithsonian as opposed to other institutions? Cornell University also has a Hip-Hop collection a lot of artists are donating to.
MD: I've been approached by a lot of institutions, but the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is very accessible to all.
KO: What was the process of getting your son's music equipment included into the museum?
MD: Timothy Burnside, a curator, contacted me about 5 years ago, and came to my house to visit. She saw some of the equipment, and I took her to the studio. She knew I wasn't ready so soon after my son's death, but we stayed in touch over the years. Finally, when I was ready, we started the process.
KO: What do you hope your son's contribution to the Smithsonian will say to the next generation?
MD: I want young people to understand that no matter where you come from, you should always pursue your dreams.Maureen Yancey on her son's death and the process of donating his legacy, as told to The Smithsonian Magazine:
I've mourned Dilla and really have just come out of mourning last year... My whole life, everything about me just got shattered. I feel like if I've ever done anything right in this world, one thing was having Dilla, and the next thing is giving these things to the Smithsonian. Right now, my sun is shining every day.
"I'm so proud that my good friend is being recognized for his greatness. James 'Dilla' Yancey has not only influenced me but a unimaginable amount of music makers & music lovers with his genius. As much as I miss my friend I'm so happy that this music & legacy will live on in the Smithsonian!"
Photo Credit: Asato Lida "I am supremely happy and excited for my brother's legacy and its continued success. It results from the great work ethic, heart and soul that he put into his craft. He was a true hip hop pioneer and made history by becoming one of the greatest record producers of all time. His music shall continue to inspire many generations to come."
"Dilla was one of the greatest producers ever to grace us with music. He is without a doubt deserving. I think it's a big win for hip hop that his equipment is being enshrined at the Smithsonian. It blazes a path for the lesser celebrated artist to be recognized in such a prestigious institution."
“I Loved J Dilla, when we met it felt like we’d known each other for years. We both admired each other’s work. I made sure that I had a bunch of beats to play him, he had a bunch of beats to play me too. We really enjoyed each others company." "I think him being enshrined into the Smithsonian as a national treasure: “It was a given… Because of his exceptional talent, its like when your as talented as he is good things happen and to me that's well deserved. And its great for hip hop.”
"James Dewitt Yancey aka J Dilla was not only my rap partner, but my long time friend and truly my soul brother. His legacy came a long way from the inner city streets of Detroit. It to shines to the rest of the world,and it continues even with his passing. I'm excited that we are able to still finds jewels that Dilla left. The box set is a great example of Dilla's vision of funk and soulful beats.'
"As a huge fan of Dilla and someone who had the honor of working with him, I am incredibly proud and ecstatic that his genius is being honored. To have his legacy recognized by the Smithsonian assures that generations to come will be aware of his contribution to hip hop, music as a whole and American culture. This is incredible!"
"Dilla was a really humble cat when we worked with him. When we first started on our second album (Labcabincalifornia) we linked up with Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest) to produce some music for us and he agreed, but then he got busy with some other projects he had to finish, so he had us come over his crib to listen too this beat tape and it was a beat tape from Jay Dee. Then we heard “Runnin,” “Bullshit” and “Drop” on that beat tape and we were sold! We were very anxious to meet him, because for a long time we thought that Q-Tip was using an alias to do beats under another name; but he wasn't pulling our leg, Dilla was indeed a real person. We all meet up with Jay Dee for the first time in the SoHo area of NYC and of course he was a sharp cat; with his Kangol on and fresh gear." " Fast forward, we (Dilla as well) are all out in LA putting in work on Labcabincalifornia and we are working on “Runnin” and Fatlip decides he wants to change Dilla’s beat pattern—and I (Slimkid3) was not having it! It was Jay Dee's feel that was SO KILLER and I couldn't let Fatlip kill it. The track was so fresh and alive, so Fatlip and I got into a huge fight about it and Jay Dee got really sad. He saw us fighting and stopped us to say, "you guys are one of my favorite bands, I don't want to see you fight”; and that made us upset too because Dilla was just too cool and humble. Long story short, it all worked out. “Runnin” was released with its original beat pattern and Dilla’s Classic Drum Programming signature and the rest is history. We miss you Dilla!"
"J Dilla was not only the greatest, but he was the most original of his time and being mentored by him was truly one of the greatest gifts a young aspiring producer could have. He clearly mastered his craft, as his music is timeless and he will always be truly missed."
Steve Spacek- Eve (J Dilla Remix) Slum Village- Climax J-Dilla- Won't Do J-Dilla Micheal Jackson- Never Can Say Goodbye Jamiroquai - Black Capricorn Day (J. Dilla Remix) Mary J Blige - Ooh (J Dilla Remix) Me And Those Dreamin' Eyes Of Mine(Jay Dee Remix) D'Angelo - J Dilla- African Rhythms Common- Nag Champa (Aphrodisiac For The World) Suite For Ma Dukes - Stakes Is High feat Posdnuos (De La Soul) and Talib Kweli Pharcyde - Runnin Common - The Light Fall In Love - J. Dilla Tribute GET ON YOUR GRIND F.A.R. EXP J Dilla's Vinyl Collection - Crate Diggers
I would like to give a special thanks to the following people who collaborated on this article: Tony Smith - Executive Producer J'Dilla Foundation Matt Conaway/MAC Media Tasha Mitchell/ Analog Lady Maureen Yancey- God bless you!
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