This February 10th will mark ten years since one man’s transcendent journey with music came to an end. This man was hip-hop rapper, DJ, and producer James Dewitt Yancy aka J Dilla aka Jay Dee.
It is thanks to a dedication to music from a young age that young Yancy was led to the home studio of Joseph “Amp” Fiddler. Despite his family’s expectations that he’d be in school, Yancy would often put in late hours of work on his sound. In high school, he joined two other Detroit rappers, Baatin and T3 to form the group Slum Village. Time passed, and things changed considerably after a fateful listening session during Lollapalooza with Queens rapper, Q-Tip, where Amp played him Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 1.
J Dilla eventually left the group in 2001 while Young RJ and T3 continued to record under the name. Their latest album, Yes!, features tracks with previously recorded production from J Dilla.
Outside of Slum Village, J Dilla was already a well-regarded figure. The trust that artists had in his ability to produce manifested in his work early with Los Angeles group, Pharcyde. In 1995, J Dilla under the name of Jay Dee contributed several productions for their group’s 2nd album Labcabincalifornia. Both singles from the album “Drop” and “Runnin’” were respectively successful, with “Runnin’” reaching #55 on Billboard hot 100. Flash forward years later to 2000 and you have Chicago rapper Common going to Jay Dilla to produce 10 of the 16 tracks on his 4th album, Water for Chocolate. This was a huge commercial success and is certified gold.
He also spent time as part of the collective, The Ummah, (translating to “community” from Arabic). The other members were Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, two members of the group A Tribe Called Quest. This group was the creative force behind the album’s Beats, Rhymes and Life, and The Love Movement released by A Tribe Called Quest.
We honor this man because his reach was so tremendous at such a quiet scale. His genius behind a board opened lyrical avenues for artists like Erykah Badu on “Didn’t Cha Know?” or his consistent work with Busta Rhymes through solo involvement and through Ummah. The quality of his production ignited the spark in a lot of rappers and other artists who did not sacrifice their substance for watered down presence that would buy them commercial appeal.
3 days before his blood disease, TTP, took him from the world he released Donuts. J Dilla culminated a lifetime worth of work into an unexpected goodbye. Donuts boast the spontaneity of sound that you most often see in jazz sets, which goes to show the influence it has had on him throughout his life. If you are not dancing by the time the voice on “Mash” says “you’re going to dance like you have never danced before,” there are obviously things that are wrong with you. I steal my father’s two-step 15 seconds into track one every time. Fair warning, if you’ve never heard Donuts, be ready to not want to listen to shit else for a minute, this will hijack all types of your rotation.
I have nothing else to say besides thank you, J Dilla. Thank you from hip-hop, and thank you for those who have yet to discover you. I am going to grab a donut and keep letting it play.