Flashback Fridays: The Life of J Dilla

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Dilla Changed My Life“:

…is the claim which just about every fan, young and old, makes who’s come into contact with him. There’s a reason t shirts bear the motto- and it’s probably the same reason a tribute song was created with same name.  The legendary hip hop producer, also known as Jay Dee didn’t just make great music, he moved people. So much so that he’s shaped artists both in and out of the hip hop community.

Just this week in an interview with Rolling Stones Magazine, Andrew Wyatt,of the Swedish Electro Pop group, Miike Snow, revealed J Dilla to be one his favourite people to make music in the last 10 years. Recalling some beats they’d stumbled across for their forthcoming album, iii,Wyatt explained “Christian [also of Miiike Snow] recently brought in this J Dilla sample because they recently made all the stems available from Donuts and The Shining. We found this instrumental that was so inspirational. Once that was a piece of news that these instrumentals were out there, we just explored it like we always kind of do and it turned out to be a successful experiment”. Miike Snow certainly aren’t the first non- hip hop act to be cast under Dilla’s spell. 

Prior to his untimely passing in 2006, the producer  worked closely with British Trip Hop trio, Crustation, famously remixing their downtempo gem, Purple (below).  Since then, he’s influenced the works of artists and bands as diverse as, The Horrors, The xx, The Mystery Jets and Joy Orbison. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. For a better sense of what the Dilla story is all about, lets start from the beginning……..

J Dilla, born James Dewitt Yancey,  is American Record Producer and Rapper, who first emerged from the mid 90’s underground rap scene in Detroit, Michigan. With a jazz bassist for a father and mother who was a former opera singer, Yancey was always destined for greatness in  music. As a child growing up, he could match pitch perfect harmony by two months old. By the age of two he’d already started collecting vinyls and spinning them in the local park.  Among his many early music tastes he developed a passion for hip hop.

After transferring from Davis Aerospace  Technical High School to Detroit Pershing High School, he became closely acquainted with classmates T3 and Baatin. The three of them would go on to form the rap group, Slum Village. During this time, Yancey took up beat making, and for most part, spent the majority of teenage years in a  basement perfecting his craft on a tape deck. Turns out he was trying become the next Pete Rock, as he later revealed to the producer in person.

In 1992 he started working with Detroit musician, Amp Fiddler, who was highly impressed with what Jay Dee was able to accomplish with such limited equipment. To harness the young producer’s skills, Fiddler let Jay Dee use his MPC.  3 years (and plenty of practice) later, Jay Dee went on to form 1st Down with co rapper, MC Phat Kat. Despite being the first ever Detroit hip hop group to sign with a major label, 1st Down’s time was short lived. As a result Slum Village formed a year later in 1996. Their debut album, Fan-tas-tic, proved a popular release in the Detroit community, as well catching the attention of ATCQ member Q Tip. Jay Dee would later co-produce two of group’s albums- Beats Rhymes and Life and The Love Movement– under the production collective, The Ummah – which also included Q Tip and fellow Tribe member, Al Shaheed . Muhammad.

As Jay Dee’s attention grew, so too did his portfolio. By the mid 90’s, he’d already made tracks for Janet Jackson, The Pharcyde, De La Soul and Busta Rhymes. The majority of these productions, however, were released  without his name recognition. Instead they  were credited  to The Ummah- under which Dilla did most of his big name hip hop and rnb joints. All that was set to change with the arrival of millennium though.

2000 marked the major label breakthrough of Slum Village,  with their album Fantastic, Volume 2. It also kick started a brand new following for Jay Dee. As well as being the group’s producer, he was the now the founding member of neo soul/ alternative hip hop music collective, The Soulquarians. Previous members included, Erykah Badu, Common,  Mos Def and Questlove (The Roots).

In the years that followed Jay Dee left Slum Village to pursue a solo career with MCA records. He released the solo single, Fuck The Police, accompanied by the album, Welcome to Detroit.  In an effort to differentiate himself from Jermaine Dupri (who also went by the moniker J.D), he also changed his name to J Dilla. Under this name he achieved new headway. In addition to producing the entirety of Frank n Danks debut studio release, 48 hours, he teamed up LA Producer and MC Madlib. Together the duo formed the group, Jaylib, releasing the album Champion Sound in 2003.

From 2003 onwards however, Dilla’s health began to rapidly deteriorate. As well as releasing less music, he started losing loads of weight. In 2005 the severity of his condition became public knowledge. After touring Europe in wheelchair,  it was reveled to fans that Dilla was suffering from  thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood disease, and possibly lupus. His tragic death to cardiac arrest came less than 6 months later on February 10th 2006- 3 days after his 32nd birthday. Dilla’s legacy didn’t end there though. Upon his death, the producer had numerous projects in the pipeline for future completion and release- most notably, Donuts. Rather than enter into a state mourning, the hip hop world now eagerly awaited his posthumous music.

Following his death, as many as 9 albums have been released in Dilla’s name, not a mention a whole host of tribute tracks. As a testament to his great influence, just about every rapper from Black Milk to Rick Ross have paid there support to Dilla at some point in time. Comedian Dave Chappelle gave his own special dedication in the form Dave Chapelle’s Block Party: a documentary film which celebrates the life and memory Dilla through interviews with members of The Soulquarians collective. As a result of his death, the Dilla Foundation was also created. The charity body works to ensure other Lupus suffers like Dilla have a better quality of life.

Dilla is survived by two daughters and a body of work which apparently includes up to 150 unreleased beats. Still making music in the family name is brother John Derek Yancey- better known as Illa J-  who boasts both solo and collaborative albums, as well a singles and mixtapes.

The ethereal, soul stirring soundscapes that came to characterise Dilla’s art may have lulled him to sleep too early, but for those of us that know and love his music, the lullaby continues to play-on unperturbed. Keeping his spirit alive, here is the beautifully  crafted Wont Do from his second official solo album, The Shining. R.I.P Yancey!


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