Who doesn’t love a good battle? After all, sharp encounters can spur critics and artists as they spar over what art is, can and should be. Yet, when an artist passes, this dialogue often ceases because the artist can no longer respond. Without a partner or opponent, many critics succumb to the common fear that the game can no longer continue, that the conversation has hit a brick wall. Hence, eulogizing the late artist frequently falls into fits of incorrigible praise. An artist who was once inconsequential or superficial can become misunderstood and timeless post-mortem. Consider it a safe send-off.
Perhaps it is appropriate then that James Yancey departed so early, prior to any true assessment of his work. The hip-hop artist commonly known as Jay Dee, or more recently J Dilla, crafted music for neither here or there, present or past. Instead, in a world where artists speak of “taking it to the next level” to the point of cliché, Dilla actually embraced the idea. True, he received his share of divided responses: his production—ranging from A Tribe Called Quest’s swan song The Love Movement to Common’s commercial breakout Like Water For Chocolate—earned both scorn from listeners and major sales. However, he remained mostly a “producer’s producer”. Meaning, he exercised the creative extents of his trade without trading in accessibility. This elusive quality may have kept him out of headlines, but also ensured a lasting discussion of his work.
James Yancey was born on 7 February 1974 and raised in the Conant Gardens neighborhood of Detroit. He attended Pershing High School, where he met his future Slum Village band-mates Baatin and T3. Jay Dee attributed his involvement in music to strong parental guidance, playing drums, keyboards, trumpet, cello and violin in a variety of settings, ranging from church to marching band. A chance meeting with Joseph “Amp” Fiddler gave Jay Dee his first concrete exposure to hip-hop production, as Fiddler guided him from tape decks to MPCs. As with many of Jay Dee’s early friends, Fiddler continued to play a significant role in his life. Through him, Jay Dee met Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest and subsequently procured major label production work for rapper Mad Skillz in 1994.
Dilla arrived at a critical time for hip-hop when sampling and its legal restrictions had come to a head, requiring a mandatory shift in music production. His emphasis on heavily syncopated rhythms and affected sampling offered a far more minimal yet equally funky alternative to the Silver Age school of drum loops and layered samples. It didn’t hurt, too, that he also used far fewer samples, which made for a smaller legal headache. Though many of his techniques—such as filtering and compressing samples, and incorporating live instruments—had been innovated by other producers, Dilla arranged them in a new fashion and took them to a logical extreme. Where horns once blared and scratch choruses proclaimed, blowing the listener back, Dilla laid back in the cut and pulled the listener in. He exercised discretion more than boldness, a thump in the chest instead of chest thumping. In a sense, he helped bridge hip-hop’s transition from Pete Rock, Prince Paul and Premier to Pharrell and Timbaland.
In 1995, Jay Dee applied his style to the Pharcyde’s highly anticipated Labcabincalifornia. Though critically divisive, the album led to major work as he soon produced and remixed De la Soul, Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson. He joined with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad to form the Ummah, the production team that revamped A Tribe Called Quest. Though the group only explored this new sound for two records before folding, the opportunity paved the way for Jay Dee’s old group Slum Village to make their own major label debut in 2000 with Fantastic, Vol. 2. Jay Dee left soon after to focus on his own career, but continued to work with his friends on occasion. His solo debut came in 2001 with the single “Fuck the Police”, followed by the album Welcome 2 Detroit. By this time, he added the name J Dilla and expanded his resume still further.
In 2002, Dilla teamed with up-and-coming producer Madlib to form the group Jaylib, releasing the album Champion Sound. While Dilla toured with the group in 2004 and continued to work on high-profile projects, including Common’s Grammy-nominated album Be, his health became a concern. In an interview with Urb in March 2004, he spoke briefly of having trouble with experiencing kidney trouble due to malnutrition. “What happened was that the doctor told me that I’d ruptured my kidney from being too busy and being stressed out and not eating right”, Dilla said. “He told me that if I’d waited another day, I might not have made it.” In January 2005, Roots drummer ?uestlove posted on the Okayplayer website an alarming message that many fans interpreted as saying that Dilla had fallen into a coma. Though the post was removed immediately and the rumor denied, Dilla confirmed an extensive hospitalization in an interview with XXL in June 2005. Nevertheless, family, friends and Dilla maintained an optimistic outlook.
To call his passing on Friday morning, 10 February 2006—just three days after his 32nd birthday and the simultaneous release of his second solo album Donuts—a shock seems an understatement. Dilla kept a packed schedule, having completed two other albums, The Shining and Jay Love Japan, in addition to production work for Madlib, Busta Rhymes, Ghostface Killah, A.G., the Visionaries, Truth Hurts, MF Doom, Skillz, Frank’N Dank and, appropriately, Phat Kat, with whom he had his first production. Even when he was hospitalized, he asked a friend to bring him some records and equipment so he could make music. However, as his manager Timothy Maynor revealed, the struggle had been long and arduous. Dilla had been diagnosed with an incurable blood disease over three years ago. His mother had moved from Detroit to Los Angeles to live with and help care for him. He passed in his sleep due to complications from lupus, a disease of the immune system.
Looking back, Dilla seldom received whole accolades for his work. Although cited by Kanye West and Pharrell as personal favorites, he hardly shared headlines with them. Understandably so considering that his music dealt with an abstract tomorrow, resembling some funk yet to be discovered. However, not to be slighted as sci-fi or alien, he consistently relied on the odd J.B. sample or Mountain break, buried somewhere in the mix, to hook listeners in. This appreciation of hip-hop history and concurrent ability to push forward formed his appeal. And, of course, this gave many listeners, like myself, their share of personal favorites: the Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” and “She Said” (Remix); De la Soul’s “Stakes is High”; Spacek’s “Eve” (Remix); DJ Cam’s “Love Junkee” (Remix); Fourtet’s “As Serious As Your Life” (Remix); Dwight Trible & The Life Force Trio’s “Antiquity”; and Steve Spacek’s “Dollar.” While the obvious loss is in the future of J Dilla the artist, he fortunately crafted work to ‘grow-on-you’, practically ensuring a lasting discussion of his work. So, perhaps I should take a nod from Q-Tip, who himself first thought Slum Village to be too “out there” for him: “I’ma leave it in the hands of the future now.”
From the Stone’s Throw website:
On behalf of Mrs. Yancey we ask that in lieu of flowers, any heartfelt donations be made payable and sent to a fund which has been established in her name:
Made Payable to Mrs. Maureen Yancey
Donations can be mailed to:
132 N. Sycamore Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Bank Wires can be sent to:
Wells Fargo Bank of Los Angeles, CA
Routing Number: 122000247
Account Number: 6043250676
Please note that donations made to Mrs. Yancey are not considered a charitable deduction. This will be considered a gift of help.