James Dewitt Yancey, who is better known by his fans and those in the music industry as J Dilla, Dilla, or Jay Dee, is without a doubt one of the most important and influential individuals in the history of hip-hop. The Detroit native, who is widely considered to be the best producer of all time, has had an impact on the music industry that cannot be measured and will certainly never be equaled. His specific style of production and work with groups and artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Common, The Roots, Mos Def, Busta Rhymes, Slum Village, MF Doom, Erykah Badu, along with endless amounts of other iconic artists, is what has separated him from any other producer in hip-hop and placed him in a tier all by himself.
With Dilla passing away on February 10th, of 2006, at the young age of thirty-two, due to a complicated and rare blood disease, and his birthday falling on February 7th, that specific four day span on the calendar each year has become a designated stretch of days for the hip-hop community and his fans worldwide to celebrate the life and legacy of the beloved hip-hop icon. With this year being the year that he would have turned forty years old, the tributes and memorials that were being held for Dilla across the globe, carried a little more significance than in recent years.
As his legacy and the awareness of his impact and music grows, so do the festivities being held around honoring his life. His mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, who was also Dilla’s closest friend and by his side throughout his sickest days and all the way until the last moments of his life, has become the face and soul of Dilla’s resonating legacy. She is well-known throughout the hip-hop community, and has been the main contributor and ambassador in continuing the awareness of her son’s life and his music. With the main Dilla Day event being held by Ma Dukes, his family, foundation and closest friends at The Fillmore in Detroit this year, we made our way out to the motor city to show our respects to Dilla Dawg. With a monumental line-up of hip-hop legends to perform at the event, including De La Soul, Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, Dilla’s original group, Slum Village, along with countless other artists who were in the Dilla tree of music, there was no better place to be this past weekend for Dilla fans, than Detroit. The afternoon before the event, we got to catch up with Ma Dukes, as we spent an hour talking with her in detail about Dilla’s legacy, his childhood, lasting impact on hip-hop, the Dilla foundation, and the final days before his death.
While most of our readers are familiar with J Dilla and all of his work, for those out there that were never introduced to him and may be hearing his name for the first time, can you explain in your own words how important Dilla is to hip-hop and music in general? I think it’s tough for people who are just now finding out about his impact, to really grasp how significant it was. Everyone has their opinions as to what makes his music so special, but in your eyes, what are those characteristics that put him in a class all by himself?
My son was so special because he had such a deep appreciation for so many genres of music that came before him, and he was able to express that in his own music. He wasn’t just hip-hop. He respected so many different sounds and styles of music, and that helped him create a sound of his own. He was raised in a household where so many kinds of genres were being played at all times, and that was an advantage to him that might not necessarily be orthodox in most households. He had such an ability to really genuinely embrace all of those genres of music, and then make it so people could grasp and love those same genres through listening to his own creations.
You mentioned how music was always present in the household. I know you were involved in some Opera, and Dilla’s father was a Jazz bassist. Does that love for music in the family tree go even deeper than that?
Yes! This family has been based around music from the beginning and has had musical artists throughout it. Music is actually how his grandfather and grandmother met. They both played the piano in silent movies, and met while working in that same field. The love for music throughout the family just went on from there. His grandfather was working in coal mines but still always maintained his love for music on the side. As you mentioned, his dad played music for almost twenty-five years. He played the upright bass and sang some doo-wop and acapella jazz. I personally studied and performed both opera and classical music. So for all of us to have that love and appreciation for music allowed us the ability to be more patient with our children and how music touched and affected them.
What were some of those specific sounds and musicians that Dilla was being introduced to back when he was a child, that he inevitably carried with him and eventually incorporated into his own style of music?
He had such a deep desire and love for soul music, and his first influence was James Brown. And of course music like that will initially bridge the gap for a young boy, when it comes to tying in the blues, rock, funk, jazz and classical type of sound all in one. My mother listened to so many different kinds of music, and because she worked downtown where our restaurant was, whether it was there or at our home, she was around almost every day, and she would always have some kind of music playing for us. I was also doing a lot of rehearsals back then and was always around other musicians. Sometimes we would end up back at our apartment, and I would have my babies there and of course they would be right there listening to and experiencing all these different kinds of music along with us. So there was really no limit to the exposure of music for Dilla as a young child. Our whole family was just all about the love of music. It was always present, and you can tell that Dilla’s music really crossed all of those sounds together. Any time you can take a hip-hop song and turn the exact same notes into a whole different soulful sound just based on knowledge of the strings and brass, it’s really a special gift.
Can you paint a picture of what the musical atmosphere was like during Dilla’s childhood as he was growing up in Detroit?
The musical atmosphere of Detroit during his childhood as a young boy and then teenager, was very much a lively one. Break-dancing was huge at that time. A lot of people don’t know that about Dilla. He was actually a really great break-dancer. Kids from the neighborhood would come and knock on the door and get him, and they would go to certain areas to have competitions. Initially he was very seldom allowed to go out there because as parents, that is just something we didn’t allow our children to do, you know just run around the neighborhood. We were very protective, but pretty soon after we realized how much he loved being a part of that culture and how much he loved to dance, we broke down and let him experience all of that. He danced like he had no bones in his body. It was scary as a mother, you know just letting him explore that and have no inhibitions, but he was quite proficient at it and he loved it. Generally, any time they would have break-dance battles around the neighborhood, he would win.
So before getting into high school and meeting Baatin and T3 (original members of Slum Village) which took him down the path of hip-hop music, what kind of musical endeavors was he getting involved in that started shaping his musical talents?
Dilla sang in church choir and began playing instruments very early on. One of the things that ended up making his music so special is that he would infuse all of those instruments he was familiar with into his music. He was first a cello player, he also had formal piano instruction around five years old, but the cello was something he mastered right away. Not that he had an intense desire to play the cello as he got into high school, because he certainly didn’t (laughs). He wanted to play drums, but there was no position in the school band for him to do that. So since he had training in the cello, his teacher convinced him to do that so he could be in the band. Other than that, he was always on the turntables. He just constantly stayed on them. He started on the fisher-price turntables at two years old, and never looked back. He was never as interested in anything else like he was in turntables. The art of spinning records was so calming to him, and it’s not like he was a rambunctious child or anything, but he just had a keen interest in only music and not much else that was going on around him. The turntables were his way of escaping everything else. It was his passion from a very early age.
So there was never really any doubt in your mind that in some fashion, music was going to be his calling in life?
That’s very true. There was just no doubt in my mind. He was so extremely dedicated to it. He never spent time doing anything else. If we could take him to sit down and eat a dinner, or to sit down and watch a movie, it was a miracle (laughs)! He was just always on the turntables, and that’s no exaggeration. He never rested. He never delved into anything else. He never went out and partied. He wasn’t doing anything unless it was related to music. Although, I did try to make a difference and encourage him to do other things and activities at school, because my greatest fear was the idea that if he didn’t knock the door down and eventually be in a position to live out his dream and be successful in music, that there wasn’t going to be anything else to fall back on. A lot of people are so gifted in things they are passionate about, but they never get the opportunity to display it to the world. And his passion for music was so deep, that it would have been crushing had he not been able to live it.
I think about that a lot, and you’re so right. It’s hard to wrap the mind around the percentage of individuals that are truly skilled in certain arts, and never get the chance to showcase it because of circumstances that for the most part are out of their hands.
They never get the opportunity to shine their light, and it’s very frustrating. I mean we have so many great people in this world that have perfected certain arts, that have grown older, and never got the opportunity to display that talent as a young adult. So now the best option for them to share it with the world is to teach it to younger children in any way they can. But yes, there are a lot of great artists who the world has never seen or heard of. So I’m beyond grateful that Dilla was able to share his passion with the world.
With you having roots in a certain generation of music, and being so familiar with a style that was much more reserved and structured, were there times that you were initially concerned about the rawness and message of some of the lyrics, style and culture of rap and hip-hop at that time? Or did you have confidence in Dilla and understand that it was just a different form of expression?
I definitely took it as a form of expression. I love the arts, period. So anything that has a note to it, you have my ear, (laughs) you know? I’m madly in love with music. I think most parents are so used to their generation of music and the sound of it, that they can get easily irritated with these new sounds when hearing them in excess. But you have to think about music and the generations before you, and how much it changed back then, too. There’s nothing new under the sun, just as they say. So I try to understand and appreciate all forms of it. I’ll tell you what, early on in life I learned that music has healing power. Music embraced me. There was always a special place reserved in my heart for it, and it was always there for me. There were a lot of lonely moments in my childhood, but music is what got me through those moments. It made me feel like that no matter what happened throughout a day, at the end of it, I was better off because I had that music. There was comfort in knowing I could feel that same feeling over and over again in hearing the same songs as much as I wanted to.
That’s really the power of music isn’t it? It’s an amplifier for your emotions and can truly give you a clearer perspective in certain situations throughout your life.
Exactly. And that’s something money can’t buy. Music can really help in healing, It can help you focus, and it gives you the ability to dream. And I think that’s exactly where Dilla’s music is so successful. It truly guides the listener in feeling all of those emotions.
So as Slum Village evolved, Dilla was creating a huge buzz for himself around Detroit based off this new soulful innovative sound he was constructing. When I talked to Phife Dawg a few weeks ago, he talked about the first time he met Dilla around 1994 on the Lollapalooza tour when it came to Detroit, and how Amp Fiddler introduced Dilla to Tribe Called Quest. Was it around that same time that you guys could sense that his music was transforming into something much bigger than just a regional/local reach?
Oh yes, absolutely. It was right around that time when we realized this was something special. But, it was so seldom that anyone from where we lived would get the opportunity of the magnitude that he did. So I don’t think the initial vision was there, it was simply just exciting for him to be entertained in that audience and be a part of an atmosphere like that, period. I honestly don’t think his dreams were that grand at that time, because he was a very humble person. He really operated on the love of the music, and he never dreamed of being rich or famous. Fame was not something that he cared about. He just cared about people enjoying what he was creating.
Can you touch on that a little bit? I know that he was genuinely uncomfortable with being a public figure and having the spotlight on him. Can you explain how tough that was for him to balance his love for music along with all of the hype that comes along with being successful in it?
He was just so modest. He appreciated and loved his fans, but he had a very tough time with the spotlight. I mean, anytime you back out of going to the Grammy’s at the last minute (laughs).
That’s right, Q-Tip took him to the Grammy’s one year and it didn’t go so well. What happened?
(laughs) Yes! He wouldn’t get out of the car! He called me and he said he wasn’t going in. He had told me earlier in the day that he didn’t want to go, but I didn’t think he was really going to refuse to go in. He ended up telling me that he didn’t bring anything to wear on purpose (laughs). So Q-Tip was running around trying to find him some clothes, and eventually convinced him to ride along hoping that Dilla would feel different once they arrived. But Dilla called me in tears once they got there saying that he still wasn’t going in and that him and Q-Tip had gotten into it because of it. I mean, he was really in tears, and I think he was more upset because Q-Tip didn’t understand why he was feeling that way.
So he was truly just more at ease being on his own, with his music, and not having to deal with that side of the business?
Absolutely. He was an introvert and just terribly bashful. I explain it by saying, you know how there are scholastic nerds? Well, he was a nerd with his music (laughs), you know? He was incredibly introverted.
It seems almost as if he spent so much time alone with his instruments growing up, that that’s really the only place he felt comfortable?
Yes, for sure. He became one with his instruments. They talked to him and were his closest friends. He didn’t care about any of that other stuff. That’s why you see so few pictures of him floating around, and really, you’re lucky if you ever got caught in a picture with him. I don’t even have pictures of him at home from after the time he was fourteen years old (laughs)! He wouldn’t take pictures or participate in our annual church photos, because he didn’t want to wear a suit anymore. He was just done with anything that wasn’t related to music, and he straight up told me, “No mom, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to just keep doing my music, and I will suffer the consequences.”
Being his mother, but also someone that had such a deep love for music, there had to have been a significant part of you that really appreciated and respected that passion at such a young age, right?
Yeah, I really did. I was just looking at him like, what am I going to say? For a while though, it did hurt me a lot, because I felt it was my fault that he was missing out on all of the other stuff that kids his age should be experiencing. I felt that maybe I wasn’t pushing him enough to pursue and open other doors. I mean, we would present him with so many different ideas and introduce him to certain activities, but he was never interested. If it wasn’t music, he had no time for it.
The legacy Dilla has created and left entrenched within hip-hop is something truly unparalleled. When it comes to worldwide influence on the genre, there isn’t one individual within the industry that has had the magnitude of impact that he has. Whether it be his influence on world-renowned musicians and producers, up and coming artists, or just fans in general. You have now become the main ambassador of that music and message that has touched so many people. Can you try to articulate how much that means to you? To travel the world and be able to see on such a personal level the mass amounts of love that is constantly exchanged because of Dilla and his body of work.
Oh my God, yes. I’m just so grateful for the love that the World has shown Dilla. There is no words that I could ever say to express how much I love the world and all of its people for what they do. There is no higher honor on this earth than to serve, and any serving I do beyond the service for my God, is dedicated to Dilla’s work. He gave his life and blood for this music. He has touched so many young people and helped them to see a better vision for what they have to offer the world, and help them find their place in it. Most importantly though, to just let them know that someone cares. It’s beautiful that all of that can be done through his music, which is universal of course. We don’t have to speak the same language or come from the same place to enjoy the beauty of music. Just like we can all appreciate great art. It doesn’t matter where the painter comes from, or what he thought in his mind while creating it. It touches everyone in a different way, and it’s a beautiful thing. That’s part of love and life. We just share these things across the board around this universe, you know? His music has an ability to touch people just like Beethoven’s did. Dilla’s music really has that impact on people. It’s obvious that the people who feel that way about his music just truly appreciate it so much. For the most part, those people are younger, and maybe not as cultured as those who embrace the arts of classical music, but they are just as deep in emotion. So I’m just really grateful for that. So very grateful.
It all begins with the integrity of the music, but as you get to see on a first-hand basis, at some point it can reach levels where it becomes so much bigger than the music itself, right?
Absolutely. It’s more than music. It’s about humanity. It’s about love. It’s about embracing one another across the world. We don’t have to be near each other, or even be able to see one another. Music is light, and that light becomes love.
When looking at Dilla’s discography it’s almost impossible for me to select just one project as my favorite. I have a special place in my heart for Fantastic Vol. 2, but if I was forced to pick just one, I would have to choose Donuts. It is just such a special piece of art, and I know a lot of his fans feel the same way. He was at his sickest in his battle with his health while working on that album, and passed away just three days after the release of it. He was literally working on the album on his hospital bed as he was coming to terms with the fact that he was dying. Can you talk about the significance behind that project, and being there with him during that whole process?
He absolutely did know that he could pass away at any time during that whole process. He knew for about a year previous when he went into a semi-comatose state. We were always talking about it together. I mean, there were so many times that neither of us knew if he would be there the next day. Sometimes they would tell me it may be three hours, so do what I needed to do and say my goodbyes. I would just pray a whole lot. I mean I tore the door off of that chapel there (laughs). Anytime they came in the room to do anything serious, I would race down to the chapel and pray. I never left his side unless they made me step out of the room for something. But he knew his time was coming, and he was prepared. We began to study the bible every day, and when he was strong enough he would read a part of the scripture and I would follow and then we would switch. I tell you though, it’s amazing to watch someone find peace in that kind of situation. He found a lot of his peace within scripture. I’ve always studied the Bible and went to church, as early as I can remember, and like I told you, I had that childhood where I felt empty a lot, I would embrace it quite hard. I taught Sunday school when Dilla was a young man, and even though he was so involved in his work that he couldn’t find many Sundays to attend, he always believed in God. So it was refreshing for him to have me sit there next to his bedside and re-read the scriptures to him when he was at his worst. When we would get to the end of a chapter, he would ask me to break it down for him. We would talk about what it meant, not necessarily what it meant at the time it was written, but more what it meant to him and his life.
A lot of his closest friends have said that when listening to Donuts, they can sense that Dilla had found peace in using that album specifically as his way to say goodbye to his loved ones. Can you explain what you think they mean by that? Were there specific messages laced throughout Donuts, that were directed to his family, closest friends and fans?
He definitely knew Donuts was going to be the last music he ever made, and he used it to say goodbye to all of his loved ones. The messages were absolutely there. Some were obvious, and I’m sure there were some that only he could comprehend. It was a very personal album. Even if you look at the titles of the songs on there, “Don’t Cry” and “Last Donut Of The Night”, you can tell that he knew his time was coming. It’s such an emotional album, and it’s hard for me to listen to at times, because it reminds me of that time that I was with him in the hospital room as he was working on it.
Can you talk a little bit about how physically challenging it was for him to make that album in the condition that he was in?
Yes, I remember sitting not three feet from the side of the bed, and usually I’m six inches from it. I was always on the side of the bed, because he wasn’t able to even sit properly without help from someone. He was truly in so much pain. Twice he had to learn how to walk again. He learned several times to swallow again. He had to learn how to write again. He had medicine available to alleviate some of that pain, but it made him sleepy. So he would choose to only take a limited amount of the pain medication, just so he could stay awake and keep working. It was truly remarkable how much strength music gave him in those moments. When it would become too much for him, I would try to encourage him. Never enough to push him, but I knew the spirit of my child, and it was just a different kind of spirit. He was so very special.
Dilla is in a very unique group of artists that continue to impact culture and music well beyond their death. Strictly from a music standpoint, there are whispers about the amount of Dilla’s work that never saw the light of day. I know you had an absolutely tumultuous battle over his estate, that has just recently been worked out. I’m sure that is such a weight off of your shoulders. Can you talk about that and elaborate on if there are any plans for his unreleased music, and the process behind releasing it post-death?
Yes, finally having a solution to that mess is such a relief and I’m so thankful for that. There are a lot of Dilla’s friends that feel he would be best honored if I didn’t release any of his music, but I understand differently how my son really felt about it. I was sitting with him for those two years while he was at his sickest. Even during the times that we didn’t know if we was going to make it another day, he would literally say, “I just want to give my gift back to the world.” Those kind of statements, I knew were specifically about his music because that is what he gave his whole life for. He didn’t make music just for selfish reasons, he made it for people to listen to. He found great joy in people enjoying what he had created. When he saw someone smile or appreciate his music, it meant more to him than money ever could.
So there is definitely some never before heard Dilla music, sitting like gold in a treasure chest somewhere, that us fans can look forward to hearing in the near future?
(laughs) Oh yes! You can expect tons and tons of material of his that you’ve never heard to be released! There will be Dilla releases every single year for as long as I live, and long after that as well. I’ve taken care of the necessary details to make sure that happens. It’s really serious to me. Dilla put the hard work in to make this beautiful music, and it should be heard by the world, because that’s what he made it for. It wasn’t made for me to sit with and hold in my hand and keep to myself. My son gave his life and blood for it, and God only knows how much it meant to him. But I will be sure that the world will entertain Dilla’s existence. I can’t really get into exact details at this moment (laughs), but I’ll just say that before the Summer, the world and all of Dilla’s fans will know exactly how it’s going to be done.
Can you tell us about the J Dilla foundation, its mission, and how successful it’s been in not only keeping Dilla’s legacy alive, but the success it’s had in helping communities across the country evolve?
I’ll tell you that our outreach around the world, because of the amount of fans that Dilla had, is so very extensive. Although our work in the past two years has been crippled a bit by the economy. While we’ve reached out and helped our communities over that time, it hasn’t been as wide of a reach as we plan on establishing in the future. We have new management in place that will be moving forward to accomplish so many great things at an iconic level. We are working with groups like the Jalen Rose Academy, Urban Stringz in Detroit, and other organizations around the city to continue to build our reach on a grander scale. I now have an amazing board of officers that can progress to new heights without me always being there. We are refreshed and revived, and we’re ready to move forward and help more people.
I wanted to ask you how your health is. I know you have been dealing with Lupus complications and doing some treatments for that recently. Is it helping you get back to feeling great?
My health is tremendously better. I am having Chemotherapy infusions each year, and they do great by me. I’m actually walking around like a normal person most of the time. The actual fact that these treatments have helped me get around and keep going, I’m so grateful.
That is so great to hear. I’m sure everything on your plate keeps you a lot younger than you could have ever imagined.
Don’t you know it (laughs). The love shown from the people that my son’s music has touched, keeps me going. It brings me hope, and I’m so grateful to God for that.
You are such a strong and beautiful woman and your strength throughout the past handful of years as you’ve dealt with so many ups and downs is more than admirable. The hip-hop community appreciates and thanks you for your resiliency and everything you’ve done to keep the Dilla movement in motion. It is something that will carry on eternally.
Thank you so much, and really, I thank the hip-hop community. You know, I’m blessed. And even though I’ve been through so many ups and downs, and went through the whole situation with Dilla at the hospital, I always feel blessed, because I could be in the hospital myself. I also thank God that I was there with him during that time, and nursing him, and helping him through his treatments and therapies, and his illnesses. It really was preparation, which I see as a blessing from God, for me to be able handle myself physically while I do his work. You know, there’s a silver lining in everything that is dark, and I think that was it.
With you being the one person that embodies the spirit of J Dilla the most, can you give anyone out there reading this some words of wisdom or some advice of your own, and also what you think J Dilla would tell his fans, about continuing to approach your goals and staying focused on your dreams while dealing with the inevitable turmoil and lows that life will present you with?
I’ll give you my advice first and then leave you with what Dilla used to say about this. My personal advice to anyone is to just find the beauty in where you’re comfortable. Don’t worry about where everyone else is. Don’t focus on what everyone else thinks is important in the world. Focus on what beauty you feel in your own heart. Focus on the things you want to become, and where you want to be in life. It doesn’t have to be the same as anyone else. It can be something off the wall and you can make it beautiful. Just embrace what you feel beauty in. Look to and follow the light you see, and the light will show you love.
Dilla used to talk about this a lot and he felt it was so very important to follow your dreams. He used to say “Take what you love, and what you have a passion for, and put your spin on it. The most important thing is to do you. Embody what you feel inside. Don’t pattern yourself behind someone else. Just do you and no one else.”
Ma Dukes, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me and giving such personal insight into Dilla’s life and everything that he embodied. The best wishes of health and continued success to you and the Dilla foundation in the near future.
Oh, you too. I so appreciate you and everyone else who continues to share the light that was my son’s life. It means so much to me and I’m forever grateful. God bless.
To stay up to date with Ma Dukes, Dilla’s future music, and the progress of The Dilla Foundation, follow her on twitter HERE.
A special thank you to Yancey Media Group and it’s chief executive, Jonathon Taylor, as he did so much behind the scenes to not only make this interview possible, but seeing that Dilla Day in Detroit was such a success.
Follow writer Michael Blair on Twitter HERE.
A few of my favorite Dilla tracks:
Slum Village– Fall In Love (Fantastic Vol. 2)
J Dilla– One For Ghost (Donuts)
Slum Village– Untitled/Fantastic
J Dilla– Stop! (Donuts)