September 30, 2016
Ma Dukes is publishing a children’s book about her son, the amazing J Dilla
by Ian Dreiblatt
This year marks a decade since the death of J Dilla, a musician whose gifts were so many and so apparent, whose legacy is so treasured, and who was himself so loved by so many, that to write about him without alienating either fans or the uninitiated seems all but impossible. But I’m going to try.
Dilla was born James Dewitt Yancey in Detroit in 1974, son of jazz bassist Beverly Yancey and opera enthusiast Maureen Yancey-Smith. His prodigious musical talent quickly became apparent, writes biographer Ronnie Reese, as he insisted on ditching school to make music of increasing complexity with his friends:
Yancey was stubborn, but above all, was “a great kid,” says Maureen, who eventually understood the nature of her son’s resolve. At times, adults may underestimate or overlook a child’s ambition due to his or her youth, but in many instances, children have a clear idea of their life’s path at an early age. At two, Yancey knew his mission was to make music, even though his mother had other plans for his future. “When you know that music is in your heart,” she says, “you have to follow that, and it helps if you have your parents’ support.” The Yanceys were a close-knit family, and Beverly and Maureen both open-minded caregivers, so Yancey was ultimately awarded their blessing.
“My husband and I had many different interests… we did a lot of different things,” Maureen explains. “But James was totally into his music. It was like it ran through his veins.”
Under a couple of stage names—most prominently Jay Dee and J Dilla—Yancey would go on to form several groups, the legendary Slum Village probably best-known among them, and to record a huge amount of music. With a style influenced by the post-bop jazz he had grown up hearing and the audio tape deck that remained at the center of his creative process, he could be crunchily body-moving, Beatlesily inward-tunneling, eerily lush, and kind of retro-futuristic. He also produced some of most beloved tracks from the golden age of hip-hop, blessed some amazing R&B, and remixed like a motherfucker. (For a clear window into his genius, I recommend listening to Stan Getz and Luiz Bonfa’s Saudade Vem Correndo and James Moody’s You Follow Me, and then the beat Dilla made out of them for the Pharcyde’s Runnin’.) He was a kind of kerosene Midas: everything he touched turned to superhot fire.
But J Dilla wasn’t well. By late 2005, he was showing up for concerts in a wheelchair, a situation that forced him to confirm that he was suffering from a rare blood disorder called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. On February 7, 2006, he turned thirty-two and released Donuts. The album, named for Dilla’s favorite snack, is widely regarded as his magnum opus and considered by many the best instrumental hip-hop record ever recorded. Three days later, he died.
Dilla stayed close with his mother for his entire life (she’s so beloved by the community of musicians that surrounded her son that in 2010, more than seventy of them came together under the direction of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson to record Suite for Ma Dukes, an arrangement of his music, in her honor). Shortly after his death, she started the J Dilla Foundation, but soon came into conflict with Arthur Erk, legal executor of Dilla’s estate. Yancey explained to LA Weekly’s Jeff Weiss in 2008:
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.
It appears, though, that some of the legal issues around Dilla’s name and likeness have been resolved, because Yancey recently announced on the Dilla website a forthcoming children’s book, written by Karla the Dog author CQ Wilder and Foundation director Diana Boardley-Wise, illustrated by Tokio Aoyama, and titled The Life Story of James Dewitt Yancey. It’s available for pre-order through the site, and scheduled to publish on November 22, 2016. It’ll also be available as an audiobook read by Yancey herself, in a format called “audio USB cassette,” which, well, I have no idea what that is, but you had me at “cassette.”
In a statement, Yancey said:
It’s been an amazing quest for the Foundation as we gear up to support the education of youth by inspiring them to pick up an instrument and enhance their creativity and learn to appreciate the arts… This book can be enjoyed by the very young, as an audio is also available. It’s an example of striving to be all you can be and working hard to achieve ones goals in life.
She recently stopped by Hot 97 to talk with Peter Rosenberg about the book, Dilla’s instruments being collected by the Smithsonian, and more:
“He had a funk side, and he had this other side that no one could quite put their finger on.” Yeah. Yeah.
Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.