J Dilla

James Dewitt Yancey (February 7, 1974 – February 10, 2006),[5][6] better known by the stage names J Dilla and Jay Dee, was an American record producer and rapper who emerged in the mid-1990s underground hip hop scene in Detroit, Michigan, as one third of the music group Slum Village. He was also a member of the Soulquarians, a musical collective active during the late 1990s and early 2000s.[7]

J Dilla
Yancey in 2004
Yancey in 2004
Background information
Birth nameJames Dewitt Yancey
Also known as
  • Jay Dee
  • Dilla
  • Dilla Dawg
Born(1974-02-07)February 7, 1974
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
DiedFebruary 10, 2006(2006-02-10) (aged 32)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
  • Record producer
  • rapper
  • songwriter
Years active1993–2006
Associated acts

Although his life and career were short, J Dilla is widely considered to be one of the most influential and greatest producers in the hip-hop genre.[according to whom?] It was described in The Guardian that "his affinity for crafting lengthy, melodic loops peppered with breakbeats and vocal samples took instrumental hip-hop into new, more musically complex realms."[8]


Early lifeEdit

James Yancey grew up in Detroit, Michigan. The family lived in a corner house near McDougall and Nevada, on the east side of Detroit.[9] His parents had musical backgrounds; his mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, is a former opera singer and his father, Beverly Dewitt Yancey, was a jazz bassist, and performed Globetrotters half-time shows for several years.[10] His mother said that he could "match pitch perfect harmony" when he was a pre-verbal infant.[11]

Along with a wide range of other musical genres, Yancey developed a passion for hip hop music. After transferring from Davis Aerospace Technical High School to Pershing High School, he met classmates T3 and Baatin, and became friends with them through their mutual interest in rap battles. The three formed the rap group called Slum Village.[12] He also took up beat-making using a simple tape deck as the center of his studio.[5] During these teenage years he "stayed in the basement alone" in order to train himself to produce beats with his growing record collection.

Early careerEdit

In 1992, he met the Detroit musician Amp Fiddler, who let Jay Dee use his Akai MPC, of which he quickly gained mastery. Fiddler, while playing keyboards with Funkadelic on the group's slot on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour, met Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, who were also on the lineup. This is where Fiddler introduced Q-Tip to Jay Dee, who gave Q-Tip a Slum Village demo tape. In 1995, Jay Dee and MC Phat Kat formed 1st Down and became the first Detroit hip hop group to sign with a major label (Payday Records)—a deal that was ended after one single when the label terminated. That same year he recorded 'Yester Years EP' with 5 Elementz (a group consisting of Proof, Thyme and Mudd). In the year 1996, he formed the group Slum Village and recorded what would become their debut album Fantastic, Vol. 1 at RJ Rice Studios. Upon its release in 1997, the album quickly became popular with fans of Detroit hip hop. Many journalists compared Slum Village to A Tribe Called Quest. However, Jay Dee said that he felt uncomfortable with the comparison and often voiced it in several interviews.

It was kinda fucked up [getting that stamp] because people automatically put us in that [Tribe] category. That was actually a category that we didn’t actually wanna be in. I thought the music came off like that, but we didn’t realize that shit then. I mean, you gotta listen to the lyrics of the shit. Niggas was talking about getting head from bitches. It was like a nigga from Native Tongues never woulda said that shit. I don’t know how to say it. It’s kinda fucked up because the audience we were trying to give to were actually people we hung around. Me, myself, I hung around regular ass Detroit cats. Not the backpack shit that people kept putting out there like that. I mean, I ain’t never carried no goddamn backpack. But like I said, I understand to a certain extent. I guess that’s how the beats came off on some smooth type of shit. And at that time, that’s when Ruff Ryders [was out] and there was a lot of hard shit on the radio so our thing was we’re gonna do exactly what’s not on the radio.[13]

By the mid-1990s Jay Dee had a string of singles and remix projects, for Janet Jackson, The Pharcyde, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip's solo album and others. Many of these productions were released without his name recognition, being credited to The Ummah, a production collective composed of him, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and later Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné!. However, he was given songwriting credit on all of his non-remix productions under The Ummah.[14] Under this umbrella, Jay Dee produced original songs and remixes for Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, Brand New Heavies, Something For the People, trip hop artists Crustation and many others. He handled production on seven tracks from The Pharcyde's album Labcabincalifornia, released in the holiday season of 1995 and Hello, the debut album by Poe, released earlier that year on Modern Records.[15]

Performing careerEdit

2000 marked the major label debut of Slum Village with Fantastic, Vol. 2, creating a new following for J Dilla as a producer and an MC. He was also a founding member of the production collective known as The Soulquarians (along with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, D'Angelo and James Poyser amongst others) which earned him more recognition. He subsequently worked with Erykah Badu, Poe, Talib Kweli, and Common—contributing heavily to the latter's critically acclaimed breakthrough album, Like Water for Chocolate.[5]

His debut as a solo artist came in 2001 with the single "Fuck the Police" (Up Above Records), followed by the album Welcome 2 Detroit, which began British independent record label BBE's "Beat Generation" series. In 2001, Jay Dee began using the name "J Dilla" (an attempt to differentiate himself from Jermaine Dupri who also goes by "J.D."), and left Slum Village to pursue a major label solo career with MCA Records.

In 2002, Dilla produced Frank-N-Dank's 48 Hours, as well as a solo album, but neither record was ever released, although the former surfaced through bootlegging.[16] When Dilla finished working with Frank-N-Dank on the 48 Hours album, MCA Records requested a record with a larger commercial appeal, and the artists re-recorded the majority of the tracks, this time using little to no samples.[citation needed] Despite this, neither versions of the album were successful, and Dilla stated that he was disappointed that the music never got out to the fans.[citation needed]

Around this time, Dilla also assisted in the production of singer and fellow Soulquarian Bilal's second album, Love for Sale.[17] The singer credited Dilla with showing him a unique approach to drum programming: "He had this thing where no matter what he picked up he could bend his will into it. Just because you hear it so strong in your head you can throw the funk in it."[18]

Dilla was signed to a solo deal with MCA Records in 2002. Although Dilla was known as a producer rather than an MC, he chose to rap on the album and have the music produced by some of his favorite producers,[19] such as Madlib, Pete Rock, Hi-Tek, Supa Dave West, Kanye West, Nottz, Waajeed and others. The album was shelved due to internal changes at the label and MCA.[citation needed]

While the record with MCA stalled, Dilla recorded Ruff Draft, released exclusively to vinyl by German label Groove Attack.[20] The album was also unsuccessful, but his work from this point on was increasingly released through independent record labels. In a 2003 interview with Groove Attack, Dilla talked about this change of direction:

You know, if I had a choice... Skip the major labels and just put it out yourself, man... Trust me. I tell everybody it's better to do it yourself and let the Indies come after you instead of going in their [direction] and getting a deal and you have to wait. It ain't fun. Take it from me. Right now, I'm on MCA but it feels like I'm an unsigned artist still. It's cool. It's a blessing, but damn I'm like, 'When's my shit gonna come out? I'm ready now, what's up?'

Later life and deathEdit

LA-based producer and MC Madlib began collaborating with J Dilla, and the pair formed the group Jaylib in 2002, releasing an album called Champion Sound in 2003.[5] J Dilla relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles in 2004 and appeared on tour with Jaylib in Spring 2004.

J Dilla's illness and medication caused dramatic weight loss in 2003 onwards, forcing him to publicly confirm speculation about his health in 2004. Despite a slower output of major releases and production credits in 2004 and 2005, his cult status remained strong within his core audience, as evidenced by unauthorized circulation of his underground "beat tapes" (instrumental, and raw working materials), mostly through internet file sharing. Articles in publications URB (March 2004) and XXL (June 2005) confirmed rumors of ill health and hospitalization during this period, but these were downplayed by Jay himself. The seriousness of his condition became public in November 2005 when J Dilla toured Europe performing from a wheelchair. It was later revealed that he suffered from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (a rare blood disease), and lupus.[8][21] Near the end of his of life, he was mostly bound to hospitals, which eventually left him in debt – after his medical insurance was dropped following a late payment. His mother, Maureen Yancey, recalled paying $500,000 a month.[22]

J Dilla died on February 10, 2006, at his home in Los Angeles, California, three days after his 32nd birthday and the release of his final album Donuts. Maureen said that the cause was cardiac arrest.[23][24][25][26]

Posthumously released musicEdit

At the time of his death, Dilla had several projects planned for future completion and release.[5] According to founding Slum Village member T3 in an interview in March 2015, J Dilla had about 150 unreleased beats, some of which featured on Slum Village's album entitled Yes!, which released June 16, 2015.[27]

The Shining was "75% completed when Dilla died" and was completed by Karriem Riggins and released on August 8, 2006, on BBE Records.[28]

Ruff Draft was reissued as a double CD/LP set in March 2007 and is sometimes considered his third solo album. The reissue contains unreleased material from the Ruff Draft sessions and instrumentals. It was also released in a cassette tape format, paying homage to Dilla's dirty, grimy sound (he was known for recording over two-tracked instrumentals).[5]

Sniperlite was an EP released by the hip hop collaboration Dilla Ghost Doom, consisting of J Dilla, Ghostface Killah, and MF Doom. It was recorded sometime in 2005 before Dilla's passing. It was subsequently released in 2008 by Stones Throw Records.

Jay Love Japan was announced in 2005 as his debut release on the Operation Unknown label. Though it saw a 2006 release in Japan, it was heavily bootlegged elsewhere and did not receive an official release until 2016.

Champion Sound, J Dilla's and Madlib's collaborative album, was reissued in June 2007 by Stones Throw Records as a 2-CD Deluxe Edition with instrumentals and b-sides.[5]

Yancey Boys, the debut album by J Dilla's younger brother John Yancey, was released in 2008 on Delicious Vinyl Records. It is produced entirely by J Dilla and features rapping by his brother, under the name Illa J. Stones Throw Records released a digital instrumental version of the album in 2009.[29]

Jay Stay Paid, an album featuring 28 previously unreleased instrumental tracks made at various points in his career, was released in 2009 by Nature Sounds. Vocals to a select few of the tracks were provided by rappers who were close to Dilla though the majority of the album is instrumental. The project was mixed and arranged by Pete Rock.

In 2010, unreleased production and vocals from J Dilla were featured on Slum Village's sixth studio album Villa Manifesto, the first album with all five members.

In December 2011, Jonathan Taylor, CEO of the Yancey Music Group (founded by Dilla's mother Maureen Yancey), told the UK's Conspiracy Worldwide radio show that the album Rebirth of Detroit was ready for a May 2012 release.[30] On May 25, 2012, Mahogani Music released a limited edition 12" vinyl titled Dillatroit/Rebirth Promo EP, leading up to the official release of Rebirth of Detroit on June 12, 2012.

In 2014, J Dilla's long-lost MCA Records album entitled The Diary was scheduled for release, but was delayed to April 15, 2016, via Mass Appeal Records. Intended for release in 2002, the album is a collection of Dilla's vocal performances over production by Madlib, Pete Rock, Nottz, House Shoes, Karriem Riggins, and others. The first single is the album's intro cut, "The Introduction."[31]

In 2020, Dres of Black Sheep announced that he would be releasing a collaborative album with J Dilla titled No Words, with unreleased instrumentals of Dilla's provided with the cooperation of his mother.[32]

The 20th anniversary edition of Welcome 2 Detroit was released in February 2021.[33]


Minimoog Voyager, as owned by J Dilla.
Mural of J Dilla (center) and MF Doom (left), in the style of Peanuts.

J Dilla was survived by two daughters.[34] In May 2006, J Dilla's mother announced the creation of the J Dilla Foundation, which will work to cure people affected by lupus.[5]

Dilla's death has had a significant impact on the hip-hop community.[35] Besides countless tribute tracks and concerts, Dilla's death created a wealth of interest in his remaining catalog and, consequently, Dilla's influence on hip-hop production became more apparent.[5] "Highly influential for both producers and drummers", he made "innovative" use of the MPC sampler, by employing real-time rhythms and choosing not to quantize[disambiguation needed] them, thus creating a "drunk" and "laid-back" style which "[was] a significant contribution to contemporary popular music that evade[d] quick interpretation, transcription and definition". Questlove – who considers Dilla the "world’s greatest drummer" – stated that he "invented the sound we call neo-soul" and actively sought to emulate Dilla.[36] The University of Illinois' Adam Kruse states that Dilla is "considered one of the greatest beat producers in hip-hop's history".[37]

Dave Chappelle gives a special dedication to J Dilla in his movie Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which includes the statement: "This film is dedicated to the life and memory of Music Producer J Dilla, aka Jay Dee (James D. Yancey)". The film focuses mostly on members of the Soulquarians, a collective of hip-hop musicians of which Yancey was also a member.

J Dilla's music has been used in various television programs. In 2006, Cartoon Network's late night programing block Adult Swim played the songs "Waves", "Welcome to the Show", and "Mash" during the commercial bumpers in between shows, as well as a number of tracks on their Chrome Children EP. In May 2010, UK mobile network O2 used Jaylib's "The Red" instrumental in their "Pool Party" ad.[38] A recent BBC documentary inspired by the Olympic runner Usain Bolt contained two J Dilla-produced songs—"So Far To Go" by Common and "Runnin'" by The Pharcyde.

In February 2007, a year after his death, J Dilla posthumously received the PLUG Awards Artist of the Year as well as the award for Record Producer of the Year.[39] In Dilla's hometown of Detroit, Detroit Techno veteran Carl Craig has fronted a movement to install a plaque in honor of J Dilla in Conant Gardens (where the artist grew up and initiated his career). A resolution for the proposed plaque was passed by the Detroit Entertainment Commission in May 2010, and is currently awaiting approval by the Detroit City Council.[40]

Despite these accolades, there have been documented conflicts between his mother and the executor of his estate Arthur Erk regarding future Dilla releases. In an interview with LA Weekly, Erk described how difficult it was for the estate to "protect his legacy" due to bootlegging and unofficial mixtapes.[41] He stressed how important it was for the estate to gather all possible income related to Dilla's name, as Dilla had to borrow money from the government due to mounting medical bills at the end of his life.[41]

A few weeks later Dilla's mother, who has appeared on such unofficial mixtapes as Busta Rhymes' Dillagence, gave her take on these issues. In addition to stating that Arthur Erk and Dilla's estate has chosen not to communicate with his family, she has stated that he has barred anyone from use of Dilla's likeness or name.[42]

One of the things Dilla wanted me to do with his legacy was to use it to help others, people with illness, kids who were musically gifted but had little hope due to poverty. I wanted to use my contacts to help people out and it was squashed because we weren’t in compliance with the state and there was nothing we could do about it. I’m Dilla’s mother and I can’t use Dilla’s name or likeness, but I know that I still can honor him by doing his work.[42]

Mrs. Yancey also has mentioned that Erk was in fact Dilla's accountant and not his business manager in his lifetime, and that he fell into his position because she and Dilla were first and foremost concerned about his health and not with getting paperwork in order.[42] She also stated that Dilla's friends in the hip-hop community, such as Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes, Madlib, Common and The Roots, have contacted her personally for future projects with Dilla beats, but the estate has vetoed all future projects not contracted prior to Dilla's death.[42] She also implied that Dilla would not support the estate's practices, such as their prosecution of bootleggers and file sharers.[42]

Due to Dilla's debt to the government, the family receives no income from projects.[42] Dilla's children are being supported by the social security their mothers have drawn.[42] Likewise, Mrs. Yancey is also still paying off Dilla's medical bills that she helped finance, leaving her also in tremendous debt. She still lives in the same Detroit ghetto, is still a daycare worker at Conant Gardens and also suffers from lupus, the same disease which killed Dilla.[42] To help pay the cost of medication and keep her household afloat, Delicious Vinyl donated all proceeds of Jay Dee – The Delicious Vinyl Years to Mrs. Yancey in 2007. In 2008, Giant Peach created a donation PayPal account for her and RenSoul.com released a charity mixtape.[43]

According to his mother, the family lost their old home in Detroit due to her taking care of Dilla in his final days.[44] The mother of one of Dilla's children, Monica Whitlow, also broke her silence on the issue of the estate and his legacy:

It pisses me off, everything that's going on with this estate. It's ridiculous 'cause it's been three years, and my baby has not seen anything from this estate.[44]

On January 24, 2010, an announcement was made on j-dilla.com, regarding the J Dilla Estate and the Yancey family.

The family of late music producer James “J Dilla” Yancey is extremely pleased to announce the appointment of West Coast probate attorney Alex Borden as an administrator of Yancey’s estate, and also to announce the establishment of the official J Dilla Foundation. The developments mark a new chapter in preserving and enhancing the legacy of the legendary artist and secure a means of future prosperity for his mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, daughters Ja’Mya Yancey and Ty-Monae Whitlow, and brother, John “Illa J” Yancey.[45]

In Summer 2012, Montpellier, France, dedicated a small street "Allée Jay Dee".[46]

In 2014, Maureen Yancey donated J Dilla's custom-made Minimoog Voyager synthesizer and Akai MIDI Production Center 3000 Limited Edition to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. They are currently part of the "Musical Crossroads" exhibit.[47][48][49][50]

A J Dilla-inspired donut shop opened in Detroit on May 3, 2016, to a great reception.[51] Created by Dilla's uncle Herman Hayes to honor his nephew's legacy, it sold out three times on its first day.



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Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

Official sites