10 years later, J Dilla’s legacy lives on
What would you do if you knew that your days were numbered?
Or, more specifically, what would you do if, at just thirty-two years young, at the peak of your career, right as the infinite hours you had spent studying, honing your craft and preparing to champion your competitors had finally begun to gain you infinite credibility and creative freedom, your days became numbered —indefinitely numbered — by a rare, irreversible blood disease?
A decade ago, James DeWitt Yancey — also known as Jay Dee, or perhaps most famously, J Dilla — faced this exact scenario. In early 2003, after returning from a short tour abroad, Yancey fell ill. Upon visiting an emergency room, he was diagnosed with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare condition that causes small blood clots to form throughout the body, inhibiting the flow of oxygen-rich blood.
Suddenly, Yancey’s days began to dwindle, his fate eternally altered and eerily given an expiration date, but he seems to have been more inspired by the news of his life’s brevity than he was impaired. He resumed his creative process as usual, teaming up with legendary Los Angeles producer Madlib for their historic, collaborative Jaylib LP in 2003, then eventually relocated from Detroit to L.A., along with his mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, to both seek out optimal medical treatment and plant roots closer to the musical action.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time that Detroit’s own Jay Dee departed from the Mitten-state. In 1994, his early musical mentor, Joseph “Amp” Fiddler, a keyboardist and producer who toured with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, introduced Yancey’s work to Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest upon running into him at Lollapalooza.
Q-Tip was impressed by Yancey’s work, so much so that, after the meeting, the producer began “traveling, networking, and doing credited and uncredited work for artists such as Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, and The Pharcyde,” according to his official biography. He eventually became a part of the Ummah production team, which created primarily for A Tribe Called Quest and also included Q-Tip, Yancey, and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Unfortunately, Dilla’s newfound success as a producer put the progression of Slum Village, a Detroit rap group made up of him and childhood friends R.L. “T3” Altman and the late Titus “Baatin” Glover, largely on hold. Though he would return to his roots shortly to work on the team’s first major project, Fantastic, Vol. 1., after earning serious praise from ?uestlove and D’Angelo, figureheads who could offer him access into an entirely separate realm of sound, Yancey became distanced from his bandmates, likely due to his increasingly demanding solo work-load.
In the early 2000s, J Dilla produced ten songs for Common’s classic LP, Like Water For Chocolate and contributed to Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, crafting standout track “Didn’t Cha Know” and earning himself a Grammy nomination in the process. He had separated from Slum Village to join one of the most premier musical movements of the last few decades, one that indefinitely inspired Kanye West’s early interest in sampling soul records and led to the creation of records that remain vital almost two decades later.
“I went to a recording session with Talib Kweli at Electric Ladyland and you guys had the whole building,” Dave Chapelle recalled, appearing as a guest on "The Tonight Show" in 2014 and aiming his comment at ?uestlove, the drummer of the show’s house band, The Roots.
“They had D’Angelo downstairs, and Common was in one floor, and Erykah [Badu] was in another show, I mean another recording studio, and Mos [Def] and [Talib] Kweli are on the roof, and Ahmir [“?uestlove” Thompson] is running up and down, and James [DeWitt Yancey, a.k.a. J Dilla] and everybody playing on everybody’s sessions.”
Nowadays, such a scenario sounds like a music nerd’s fantasy, a session that’s obviously too good to be true. But back then, it was business as usual: Some of the greatest hip-hop, neo-soul and R&B tracks ever created came out of sessions that were more closely related than most people realize. Furthermore, James DeWitt Yancey was present in quite a few of them, masterminding the finer details and deciding when each was finished.
But toward the end of 2005, after arriving in Southern California, J Dilla became seriously unwell. He was soon diagnosed with Lupus, a disease where one’s immune system hyper-actively attacks healthy tissue, and eventually, this led to kidney failure and his requirements of repeated dialysis treatments.
Right as the infinite hours that he had spent studying sound, honing his craft and preparing himself to sonically champion his competitors had finally begun to gain serious attention; James DeWitt Yancey’s days became numbered.
According to J Dilla’s official biography, he “spent his final months doing what he loved the most—creating music. He released Donuts, his third solo LP, on February 7, 2006 before passing away three days later at the age of 32.”
Since then, Donuts has evolved into one of the most praised pieces of music ever. In his critical analysis of the project for the 33 1/3 series, Jordan Ferguson calls the odd LP “a synthesis of everything [Dilla] had done to that point,” and it surely is a jumpy, exciting package of music that twirls its listeners around and takes them on a journey across genres and time.
But Donuts is deeper than that too. Dilla wasn’t just re-tracing his musical steps — he was trying to push hip-hop to be better, work harder and think longer. Dilla was one of the most, if not the most, notorious perfectionist to ever sample a drum loop. On Donuts, he spends every last bit of life in him, literally, reinforcing his musical legacy. He strives to define future soundscapes, raise his genre’s expectations and pen a sincere goodbye in his first-language of rhythms, all at once.
In 2005, speaking publicly on Donuts for the only know time before his death, J Dilla said: “It’s just a compilation of the stuff I thought was a little too much for the MCs. That’s basically what it is, ya know? Me flipping records that people really don’t know how to rap on but they want to rap on.”
Though some modern rappers may be capable of facing his challenge (imagine Kendrick Lamar rapping over “The People”!?!), Donuts remains as enticing, difficult and inspiring as ever, more than ten years later, in its exact original format.
I can only hope that, should my days ever become numbered, I might respond to the news with the bravery and tenacity of James DeWitt Yancey.
Rest in beats, J Dilla. You truly were a great one.