James Dewitt Yancey, aka Jay Dee, aka J Dilla, passed away February 10, 2006, just days after his 32nd birthday, leaving the hip hop world in shock and mourning.
His latest solo LP, Donuts, had just dropped on his born day, while only those who knew him best realized that he was about to lose his battle with lupus.
Whereas some artists leave their mark on their given domain, Dilla left an indelible imprint on hip hop music that outlives his many, many classic contributions to this day. Ask any beatmaker who they look up to, and Dilla is inevitably on the short list, usually at the top.
Montreal’s beat scene owes an incalculable debt to the deceased Detroit-bred visionary, and as has been the case every year since his passing, this weekend, the city pays tribute to a king at Montreal Loves Dilla, which happens in tandem with Nuit Blanche this Saturday at l’Astral.
Joining the festivities this year are Dilla’s mother, Maureen “Madukes” Yancey, who has carried on her son’s legacy tirelessly for the past decade, as well as his closest childhood conspirator, Frank Nitt, one half of classic indie crew Frank N Dank.
Nitt and Dilla’s brother, Illa J, form Yancey Boys, who perform alongside event regulars Toast Dawg, Ephiks, Dr. MaD, DJ Manzo, Sev Dee and Mark the Magnanimous, and this year Madukes joins in on the love.
We interviewed Madukes and Frank Nitt by email to catch their reflections on 10 years of bittersweet, symphonic tribute to a legend immortal.
Darcy MacDonald: Did you play music in your youth, singing or otherwise? Or did anyone else in your family?
Maureen “Madukes” Yancey: Madukes never learned to play an instrument of any sort in her youth,however I did sing in school choirs and was a lead soloist, beginning the in the third grade.
I learned music theory in high school and sang in the Wayne State Honor Choir. (Also) I was privileged to have an aunt that taught music in the public school system. Annie Ruth Burns began giving me private vocal training and took me to the opera often.
Dilla’s father, however, played upright bass and sang doo-wop and jazz professionally for over 30 years.
DM: When did you first notice James’s attraction to the musical arts? What were some early clues?
Madukes: I first noticed James had an incredible ear for music in the very first couple months of his infancy. His dad would bounce him on his knees and do bass runs vocally. Dilla could mimic and match with perfect pitch and harmony without ever messing up — even with difficult runs or minor chords. Of course we laughed it off, and really didn’t think it would lead to his life’s work.
There were always singers coming to receive voice training or musicians rehearsing at our home.
James also was a night owl — he was wide awake at night as an infant, and really during his professional years.
DM: I know it is a big question, but I think we all assume a lot of parents, even the most supportive, are a little apprehensive when their child comes home and says “I’m gonna be a professional musician!” or when that reality starts to take shape.
How did you support James’s ambitions, and how did you and his father encourage him to stay grounded as he pursued a career in showbiz?
Madukes: James was destined to be a musician, but was quite the introvert. We were very surprised that he would perform on stage.
As far as keeping him grounded, we prayed a lot and encouraged by teaching all our children what we knew vocally. (We exposed our kids) to different genres of music and, to all genres, making distinctions between classics and complicated works.
And everyone had to sing and was active in church choirs.
There was a nervousness in parenting a musical child. We realized and always warned that music alone was not enough to guarantee food and shelter. I always supported anything my son was interested in, as long as it didn’t hamper academics.
DM: To that end, at what point did you actually accept like, “He’s gonna make it!” and how did you feel? Pride, worry, a mix?
Madukes: A mixed anxiety I guess. Thrilled but worried that his dreams would reach a level of security. Not everyone that is gifted is able to let the world know. A lot of talented people are home in their basements.
(You know) Dilla = John Do e= Silk = JayDee.
I think his alter ego was an incredible musician/comedian/ actor. Dilla was well versed and performance is what Yanceys had to do every Friday and Saturday since the early childhood days, entertaining one another — your choice how, but it had to be good.
Only exception was, you were so bad that you’d have everyone rolling on the floor!
DM: I understand you’ve had your own health issues in the years since James’s passing. What are the signs and symptoms one should look out for when we talk about Lupus? And how can someone diagnosed take precautions?
Madukes: There are no definite signs like childhood diseases or viruses. People should listen to their bodies when it gives indications that something is off balance. My symptoms were the same as my rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. I just assumed it was getting worse.
James had issues as well in the beginning, with his hands and a crippling pain. He suffered with severe migraines for years. He showed symptoms of a flu or virus when we first went to the hospital emergency room and found his (plasma) platelet count under 10.
Regular check-ups for anyone is recommended.
DM: What are your favourite Dilla songs, solo or otherwise?
Madukes: My favorite Dilla songs are “Raise It Up” and “Vivrant Thing,” the Eve remix.
I love all his compositions.
DM: As you travel and take part in Dilla Day events around the continent, what is the common denominator you notice across the ever-faithful fans and artists who come celebrate? And what have been some of your favourite of these events?
Madukes: Every event carries its own vibe and love. I really can’t place one above another. I’m always taken aback by the fact his fans know his lyrics, even when they don’t speak English .
Illa J and Toast Dawg. Photo by Lionel Pierron
DM: Of course your son John (Illa J) lives here in Montreal — have you visited before? What do you know about our annual event?
Madukes: I’ve never had the honour. I grew up hearing about Montreal as a wonderful place to vacation and especially great entertainment. I can’t wait to be there! I’ll be happy to see the place that stole my son’s heart, lol.
DM: James’s legacy has inspired legions of young producers, before and since his death, from bedroom producers to household names and everyone in between. Certainly that has been the case here in Montreal. What message do you have for them? What do you most wish to see carried on from Dilla’s legacy?
Madukes: I can only say that they must be certain that they remain focused in order to build upon their passion. Nothing is quite as easy as it seems and you must be diligent, as well as patient. We all come to life with special talents and desires. Give it all you’ve got!! Dreams really do come true with dedication as a tool.
Darcy MacDonald: I’m sure it’s been asked many times, but for the sake of context for our readers, how did you and Dilla meet to begin with? And what do you think drew you toward each other, both as friends and creative partners?
Frank Nitt: We met in 1986 in middle school, before we were actually making music. I think the love for hip hop and being dancers/breakers created the initial bond (between us) and it grew into the creative side, starting with Dilla teaching me to DJ.
DM: As we commemorate 10 years since Dilla passed, what are your present reflections on the growth of his legacy, and his musical afterlife as passed down to a new generation?
Nitt: I’m always surprised by all the different walks of life that appreciate his music: young, old, Asian, white, it doesn’t matter. That’s a beautiful thing to me. You got the younger kids who start at Donuts — do ya reasearch though, there is much more — and then (for example) greats like Herbie Hancock being introduced to his older works. That’s really dope.
DM: What are your own personal favourite jawns you did together? And I gotta ask, what’s your favourite Jay Dee track, solo or otherwise?
Nitt: Favourite track we did.. too many to name! I’d get into joints that never came out, lol! As for his joints, “Nothing Like This” is special. I took a long trip to Taiwan shortly after Dilla passed and that record was on repeat. It was very consoling.
DM: You’re reuniting with fellow Yancey Boy (and J Dilla’s brother) Illa J for this one, which is a big deal for our scene and this particular celebration, what with John residing here and being increasingly a part of the fabric.
So if you would, hit us with a good story about John and James as brothers, whether funny, telling or both, and tell us a bit about your own creative relationship with Illa as Yancey Boys.
Nitt: Here’s a little tidbit: I actually met James before John was born. He came along a couple months later. So I’ve literally known him his whole life. Our creative process as a group is much like it was with Dilla.
Me and Dank put Illa through the same bootcamp style studio learning sessions as Dilla did us. So we have fun but it’s “attack attack the music.”
DM: What do you have on the go right now, musically or otherwise?
Nitt: Getting ready to drop the first project Asphalt Runways from my new label, Primo Atto ENT. I started it with producer/engineer/editor RobRoy from Milan, hence the Italian company name.
(The) album is dope, (we) got Illa J, Rah Digga, Zapp, Oh No and more, and all the production is by RobRoy. Should get that in the late spring.
DM: What do you miss most about Dilla?
Nitt: The laughter.
DM: Why do you think hip hop works so effectively at celebrating and dealing with personal loss?
Nitt: I think it’s because hip hop is still relatively young, and the pioneers are still active, so the fans are not so far removed from the beginning. So it’s s a far more personal thing.
DM: What are your favorite aspects of Dilla Day parties from town to town, over the years? Any stand-out favourites?
Nitt: Across the board, I think it’s the crazy amount of love and reverence the people show to Dilla, and to all of us. ■
Montreal Loves Dilla is happening at l’Astral (305 Ste-Catherine W.) on Saturday, Feb. 27, 11 p.m., free