Since 2006 (if not before), February has been Dilla month
for some music fans. Sadly, it's mostly due to the fact James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla
, was both born and died in February (Feb. 7, 1974 to Feb. 10, 2006). Looking at the mere timespan of his musical career, from his first release in 1992
] to his death 14 years later
, you might think the story and impact wouldn't be too large or lasting, but you'd be mistaken. For example, Giovanni Russonello wrote a piece for NPR last year, titled "Why J Dilla may be jazz's latest great innovator
," and in their recently released long-time-coming mixtape, Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip included a couple nods
to "one of the godfathers of this boom-bap shit
". Where did Dilla come from, where did he go, and why is his legacy still so strong?
As told by Maureen Yancey, aka Ma Dukes, little James was grooving to music when he was barely able to stand, singing harmony before he could really talk, collecting records when he was two, and spinning his records in the park in the years after
. His first formal instrument training came on piano and cello
, then he took up drums, flute, and guitar, and and he sang in the church choir to keep out of trouble. Later, he got into making beats with a tape deck as the "center" of his studio. As a teen, he spent time with a local musician, Joseph Anthony "Amp" Fiddler
, who had a home studio where he taught neighborhood kids about studio work. He also spent time with Frank Bush and Derrick Harvey (Frank-N-Dank
) , Ronnie Watts (Phat Kat
), and Humberto Andres Hernandez (DJ Dez
James produced for those guys and other local rappers and groups starting in 1994
, gaining recognition in Detroit scene and beyond under the name Jay Dee and as part of The Ummah
, a production collective with Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and later Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné!. In the mid-1990s, they was producing singles and remixes for big names, including Mariah Carey
, De La Soul
, Busta Rhymes
, A Tribe Called Quest
, and others.
Yancey's first real group collaboration was as Slum Village
, which he formed with two high school class-mates who shared a love of rapping, RL Altman III (T3) and Titus Glover (Baatin). In 1996, they produced an album
, Fantastic Vol. 1
], and sold it at shows and in some local shops. It was also passed around to labels as a demo, but didn't get wide distribution at that time (it was "formally" released in 2006 as Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1
). In 2000, the group made good on their dreams
, touring the US and Europe, and they released their album Fantastic, Vol. 2
]. One review said the album was anticipated by the hip-hop community "with the same fervor Christians await the availability of a newly discovered gospel"
, in part because the album was delayed by label-shuffling. Also noted in that review, Yancey's "production style has been subtly influencing better-recognized producers for years," dulling some of the sense that it was ever ahead of its time. Soon after this album dropped, Jay Dee went off on his own, but Slum Village lived on, and actually released an album, Evolution
, last year to mixed reviews
Fantastic Vol. 2
came out in Jay Dee's Soulquarian era
, when he was hanging out and making soulful (neo-soul) hip-hop with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Michael Eugene Archer (D'Angelo), and James Poyser, all four who were born under the sign of Aquarius, and Erykah Badu was born three days late (Common, Bilal, Mos Def and Talib Kweil and Q-Tip were adopted to the sign, as told by Questlove
- Google books preview; copy of the VIBE magazine article that named the group
Yancey also left that scene, releasing something explicitly conscious/political with the single "Fuck The Police
," bringing the message of N.W.A. of the underground
. The single was left off his first solo album, Welcome 2 Detroit
], where he was credited on the cover as Jay Dee aka J Dilla, in an attempt to differentiate himself from Jermaine Dupri who also goes by "J.D.". His solo work gave him the chance to use weird, wonky beats that were too much for other groups. For example, Yancey made the beat for The Pharcyde's track "Runnin'
," but the drum pattern was too complex for them, so they just looped one bar of his drum pattern and called it good.
The next major project was a collaboration with Otis Jackson Jr.
, known as Madlib
, a fellow multi-instrumentalist/ producer/ rapper of the oddbeat variety. The collaboration came about because Madlib got a CD of unused Dilla beats from DJ J Rocc
of the Beat Junkies, and Madlib rapped over the tracks for fun, burning those tracks to CD and labeled it simply as "Jaylib." The Stones Throw label put one of those tracks on a white-label single
, labeling the track "The Message
" and crediting it to Jaylib. Dilla heard the track, and started formally collaborating with Madlib. They released Champion Sound
] in 2003, the same year J Dilla released Ruff Draft EP
], a limited edition record on the German label Mummy Records.
That move to work with an indie label was in part a response to his troubles releasing music on MCA, which signed him in 2002. They had shelved an album he produced for Frank-N-Dank
, 48 Hours
(which was finally released last year
), and Dilla's "who's-who" solo album, which is rumored to be called Pay Jay
, but is hard to clear due to sheer number of artists involved [Grooveshark has an 11 track leaked version
Jay and Madlib toured in 2004 in support of Champion Sound
, but Dilla's illness (TTP
, and possibly lupus) and related medication caused dramatic weight starting in 2003, and limited his ability to tour and be as active as he used to be. Still, he wasn't idle by any stretch of the imagination, and his final solo album was ready for release in 2006. Donuts
was originally a really short beat tape, possibly made while in the hospital in 2005, thanks to a Boss SP-303 sampler and a small 45 record player brought in by friends
. As noted by Eothen 'Egon' Alapatt in this Dilla docu
, the original version was around 20 minutes long, so someone from Stones Throw had to repeat the beats a few times to extend the album, but the core is pure Dilla [final version on Grooveshark
The album was released on his birthday, February 7, 2006. He died three days later. According to his mother, Maureen Yancey, the cause was cardiac arrest. Many friends and fans hear Donuts as a personal good-bye, from a musician who knew his days were few, but not yet gone.
In the days following, friends and family put together a very personal documentary, J. Dilla: Still Shining
, a 40 minute film that includes some archival footage of Yancey. Stones Throw also put together a written record of the stories behind some of J Dilla's greatest productions
, again with help of family and friends.
But the story doesn't end there. There was an outpouring of emotions, memories, and tributes to James Dewitt Yancey in the days, weeks and months following his passing. Now years later, musicians and artists still pay their tribute to Dilla. Where Still Shining
is a clearly a tribute to someone who was so fresh in people's memories, capturing veneration for a close friend and mentor, Stussy put together a 28 minute documentary
a few years later that provides an overview of Yancey's career, interviewing friends and fellow producers and musicians. And this past summer, the relatively young, new UK-based electronic music duo Disclosure
paid tribute to J Dilla, and Detroit hip-hop more broadly
in their Essential Mix from August 2013
(BBC-free version; BBC radio rip
There's also the J Dilla Changed My Life annual fund-raiser
, to support the J-Dilla foundation
& Lupus UK. See also: the JDCML archives for more images and music
, plus videos from last year's fundraiser
If you're daunted by the Jay Dee/J Dilla discography, Pitchfork has a short article and a 15 track overview
, noting that the "most high-profile remixing job was of Janet Jackson's "Got 'Til It's Gone"
) came out in 1997, early in his short career. Or you can search around for Dilla tribute mixes, such as Questlove's mix from 2012
, House Shoes tribute mix, The King James Version
, and the SPR_SVN_CLB mix
), to name just three of the hundreds that are out there.
But if you want more
Jay Dee, you can search for his beat tapes that float around the 'net rather freely, or look for recently uncovered beats to get released