THE BIOGRAPHY OF J DILLA
WHO WAS JAMES DEWITT YANCEY?
In just over 10 years, James Dewitt Yancey aka Jay
Dee aka J Dilla accomplished more in terms of recorded output than most
artists do in a lifetime. From producing GRAMMY award-winning songs
to earning the adulation of his peers and creating a signature sound
that altered hip hop and soul music forever, Jay did it all while being
the most influential "unknown" producer in the business. At a time when
hip hop producers were more recognizable than the artists they worked
with, Jay shunned the limelight and humbly revolutionized the sound
of hip hop with his meticulous, soulful productions.
HIS UNIQUE STYLE & SOUND
Jay's music mirrored his fastidious nature. Nothing
ever sounded out of place in his beats. This quality along with a mathematical
sense of order was reflected in his personal life and appearance: clothing
and records kept in plastic, shoes neatly stacked in boxes, crisply
pressed jeans, and the ever-present feather duster never far from hand.
Yet it was the imperfect, the mistakes in music that excited him. His
signature sloppy, off-beat drum programming gave his tracks a feeling
of freshness and spontaneity, standing in stark contrast to the mechanical,
perfectly-quantized beats which characterized much of hip hop at the
Jay was a stylistic innovator who was never content
to stay in the same pocket. From the airy fender rhodes and handclaps
that defined his early sound with Slum Village and Tribe, to the eclectic
genre-melding of Welcome to Detroit and the back-to-the-breaks style
ofDonuts, his music continually evolved at a dizzying pace. Once a particular
style was mastered, he felt little need to repeat himself, preferring
to push boundaries beyond what was expected or easy for him. Unlike
so many innovators who wouldn't recover from their work being co-opted
and commercialized, Jay never ceased to experiment and push his music
to new heights.
Combined with his sheer wizardry on the sampler, this
artistic restlessness placed Jay at the vanguard of hip hop production
where he was viewed as the "producers producer," someone who fellow
musicians looked to for inspiration. Pharrell declared him his favorite
producer. Kanye called him a drum god. Questlove stated that Jay's music
was the only thing to give him goosebumps in the last ten years. His
sound distilled the best qualities of hip hop into a potent mixture
that encapsulated where hip hop production had been and pointed to where
it would head in the future. Along the way, Jay stood at the forefront
reminding everybody to "Turn It Up!
THE EARLY YEARS
Jay Dee was born James Dewitt Yancey on February 7,
1974 in Detroit, Michigan to Maureen and Beverly Yancey. From the onset,
music was intrinsic to Jay's life. His mother Maureen was an accomplished
singer and lover of classical music and opera. His father Beverly was
a gifted vocalist and bass player fond of vocal harmonies and jazz,
who played professionally for 25 years before taking a job at Ford.
A two-year-old Jay would gurgle along in perfect pitch to the sound
of his father practicing on his upright bass until it lulled him to
Especially aware of the dangers that faced unoccupied
youths growing up in their Detroit neighborhood of Conant Gardens, the
Yancey's set out to keep their children as busy as possible between
cub scouts, music lessons, youth choir, and any other church activities.
Nuturing their son's early passion for music, Jay was always enrolled
in some kind of music class, excelling on the piano, violin and cello,
before moving on to the drums. But it was the lure of the boom-bap which
ultimately moved him from the church pews to the studio.
"When I heard Run DMC's 'Sucker MCs' and Whodini's
'Big Mouth', it made me curious to how the beats were made. Those songs
were the first time I heard the beats that weren't melodic - just drums.
Being someone who was taking drum lessons at the time, that made me
real curious. That led me into deejaying, which slowly led to me deejsying
parties and that eventually led me into production."
JAY DEE: ON PURSUING HIS DREAMS
A fortuitous meeting with another talented Conant Gardens
resident provided Jay with the direction necessary to pursue his dream.
"Fortunately I ran into this cat just walking in the street, literally.
This guy named Amp Fiddler. He just called us out and from that first
day he actually showed all of us how a studio works and things like
that. He had a little pre-production studio in his crib. He was like,
'Whenever you want to, come by the crib.' I started going over there
messing with beats."Building on the experience he received at Amp's
studio, Jay was determined to form a group which reflected the eclectic
nature of his influences. "I heard about T3 and Baatin, and they were
supposed to be the illest emcees at the time. And I thought I was, so
I wanted to challenge them. To make a long story short, we just hooked
up after that. The chemistry was right." Their group Slum Village gave
Jay the platform to create a sound which was uniquely mid- western in
its melding of jazzy, east coast influences with the glossy, bounce
of west coast hip hop.
JAY DEE: THE PRODUCER
Via another timely assist from Amp Fiddler, Slum's
demo found it's way into the hands of Q-Tip, who immediately recognized
a kindred musical spirit in Jay and offered the young producer a management
and production contract. "It was like a dream come true, if you could
ever, ever hear anybody say that. I just couldn't believe it. I love
Tribe and De La and then this guy Tip called my crib! Matter of fact,
the first time he called, I wasn't home. I missed the call! I was hurt.
I thought that was it! But, he called me the next day. Next thing you
know, I'm in New York." within months, Jay found himself producing tracks
for a who's who of underground hip hop: Pharcyde, Busta Rhymes, De La
Soul, Keith Murray, Mad Skillz, and of course A Tribe Called Quest.
"I was just riding the wave. It was still part of the
dream to even be there. They even asked me creative questions about
the album [Beats, Rhymes, and Life]. It's just unbelievable, man! These
are the three ultimate niggas to me. They sat me down and invited me
to these meetings and I felt like I was a part of that shit. Whether
the album did good or not, it was to me one of the best experiences
of my life."
Upon returning to Detroit, Jay found himself as the
star of the city's burgeoning hip hop scene. His beats were the conduit
for a diverse crop of MC's who gathered around the famed Hip Hop Shop,
including Phat Kat, 5 Ela, Proof, Eminem, and a young Elzhi. His extended
periods away from home had been difficult on Slum Village, but with
Jay back in the fold and a renewed focus they set out to record their
"We decided to do that Fantastic album, and we did
it in like two weeks. Everything was done. We were selling that shit
out of boxes within a couple of weeks." Fan-tas-tic Vol.1 became an
underground classic, relentlessly dubbed and traded by fans in the days
prior to file sharing. Innovative and playful, the album featured a
string of hip hop classics including "Players","Look Of Love," and the
brilliant James Brown adlib mash-up of "I Don't Know."
While his growing number of imitators were content
to pick up the scraps of the fledgling neo-soul movement, Jay soon became
the nucleus around which a group of like-minded, progressive artists
would form, creating some of the best music to emerge from the post
Golden-Age of early-nineties hip hop in the process. Dubbed the Soulquarians,
Jay's beats would provide the key inspiration for this eclectic group's
best work: The Roots' Things Fall Apart, D'Angelo's Voodoo, Badu's Mamma's
Gun, Q Tip's Amplified, and Common's Like Water for Chocolate.
J DILLA'S SOLO CAREER
Originally intended as a breakbeat record, Jay's first
solo album "Welcome to Detroit" provided the first opportunity to display
his full range as a producer, mc, and vocalist. Seamlessly blending
live instrumentation with programmed beats, W2D reflected his numerous
influences and styles- from synth-heavy techno and grimy street anthems
to breezy bossa nova. Stepping to the forefront as an MC for the first
time, Jay introduced his alias J Dilla, and with it a more confident,
street-edge rapper would emerge.
At a professional crossroads after a label deal with
MCA collapsed in 2003, Dilla bypassed the mainstream altogether to unleash
a flurry of new material: a collaborative album with Madlib entitled
Champion Sound, and his own solo project the Ruff Draft EP, a muddy,
lo-fi epic of uncompromising rawness. "I did it in four or five days,
turned it in and had wax in ten days. If I'm not doing beats for somebody,
I make stuff for me to drive around and listen to, and that was one
of those projects. I was just doing me. That's why it was called the
Ruff Draft EP". "There'd be days when I wouldn't eat at all because
I'd be in the basement working all day. Even after being in the hospital
so long, I had to fight with the doctors [to go home] because being
away from music was starting to get to me."
Dilla relocated to Los Angeles in 2004 to re-energize
himself and focus on his career. But by the end of the year, he would
again be hospitalized. Undergoing debilitating dialysis treatments 3-4
times a week, Dilla was bedridden for long periods of time causing his
hands and legs to swell dramatically, making walking difficult without
assistance. He lost 50% of his body weight. During this time he was
diagnosed with Lupus, a debilitating blood disease which causes the
immune system to attack healthy tissue and for which there is no cure.
He was released from the hospital in March 2005, only to be readmitted
later that summer. Using equipment set up in his hospital room, Dilla
began work on what would become his masterpiece, Donuts, a sprawling,
back-to-basics instrumental album filled with emotional, heartfelt testaments
to life and mortality that brought him full-circle to his beginnings
as young producer chopping up breakbeats.
That Fall, Dilla embarked on a European tour alongside
his mother and friends, rapping to sold-out audiences from a wheelchair.
It would be his final farewell to the fans who had shown their love
and support for so long. Upon completion of the tour and another stay
in the hospital, Dilla returned home. He handed off the masters for
his still-unfinished solo lp The Shining in time for his upcoming birthday.
On Tuesday, February 7, 2006- his 32nd birthday- Donuts
was released. He spent the day at home with friends and family. Three
days later on February 10, James Dewitt Yancey passed away in the arms
of his loving mother Maureen. He was put to rest the following week,
on Valentine's Day. As mourners gathered around his final resting place
high in the hills of Los Angeles to say their goodbyes, a lone heart
appeared in the cloudless sky above, fitting tribute for the man who
above all else lived life to do what he loved. And what he loved, he
did better than anybody else. For that, we will be forever thankful.
Thank you Jay Dee.