Dilla: The real deal

Whether they knew him first as James Yancey, or later as John Doe, Jay Dee or J-Dilla, many were touched by his talent and personality. The Motor City hip-hop producer, who passed away Feb. 9, in Los Angeles, from complications of a kidney ailment, was a Detroit legend. On the eve of Metro Times' biggest annual celebration of local musicians, friends and family members lent their thoughts on his life and legacy.

Maureen Yancey, mother

I'm a fan of his, even though I'm his mama. We were best friends. He inspired me to go back to college. Dilla sat me down and said, "This is what you need to do with your life."

He encouraged me so much so that I was able to maintain a 4.0. When I got my first daycare center, he bought the building for me. When my funds were low, he made sure I had my payroll.

"It's all good." Those were his famous words.

He was always trying to help somebody succeed. That's why he had that love from his fans and fellow musicians.

I'm so overwhelmed. We just came back from the European tour, and I'm just starting to understand what he was telling me about how people loved him. Paris, I can't even put it in words. The response to his transition has been just like Paris all over again. People flew in from all corners, and took special time to come and sit with me.

He said, during his illness, that he had a love for God, and wanted to give the gift to the world that God gave him. I'm not mourning; I'm celebrating his life.

Baatin, founding member, Slum Village

I remember we used to sit in his father's Thunderbird and play Minnie Riperton songs and just cry, man. Way back in the day. We wanted to succeed so bad. It was a dark time in Detroit; wasn't nobody making it out, really. I think some of my fondest memories of him are just hearing his laughter. Anybody that knew him would tell you the way he used to crack up laughing at jokes could make you laugh. It was like his laugh was funnier than the joke.

In the studio, that was the humblest cat I know. Everybody has situations that they deal with, but he dealt with his like a G. You never heard him complaining about stuff. He'd rather come up with a joke than burden other people.

Losing Jay Dee is like losing a loved one in my family. I hope it can help bring the SV family back together again. Not musically, but on the friendship tip. That's what he would have wanted.

T3, Slum Village

J-Dilla was my friend, and he left way too soon. He's one of best that ever did it, the most highly respected producer in the game.

He started the whole neo-soul thing. He kept soul rap — Common, Kanye West, the Roots, Talib Kweli — goin' for the last eight years. All those people came to the D to get the J-Dilla sound!

Read Slum Village's Fantastic, Vol. II track list. A no-name underground rap group from Detroit came out in 2000 with their first album, with Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, D'Angelo, Pete Rock, Kurupt, Common. That was because of the love of Jay Dee's sound.

I miss my brother. I wish we had the chance to do an album with all four of SV. It was something we had just talked about. But the spirit of J-Dilla will live on through SV and the people who respect the greatness in his music.

Wajeed, Platinum Pied Pipers

The reason I started to make music was Dilla. We would go out, get records and talk music theory. It's impossible to be around him without trying to get your weight up.

There was an MPC 2000 [drum machine] in his basement. He religiously used the MPC 3000. Well, ?uestlove broke a disc inside the 2000. Dilla said, "If you can get it out, you can take it to crib and keep it." I got it out, made three tracks that weekend, left them there to see what he would say. He called me like, "Goddamn, dog! You made that shit!?" For him to say that meant a lot.

His brilliance was never realized on a pop level the way a lot of other people were. He was so far ahead of his time. I think he should be remembered as one of the most brilliant producers on this planet.

Dank, Frank N Dank

What I loved most was just him being James Yancey. Fuck Jay Dee, Fuck J-Dilla. He was James. He's been a friend of mine since 1984. Music was just a bonus. We been friends since we were children. I remember we used to play cello together in music class back in middle school. I used to get F's in music class until James showed me how to play the instruments the right way. He's the one that gave me the name Dank.

The man saved my life. I was out in the streets and he saved me. Not by giving me a stack of money but by believing in me and Frank. T3 and Baatin were like our uncles. They all showed us so much. It meant a lot to us to be on his final tour. He knew it was his time. But James was at peace. I'm glad the Lord took his pain away.

House Shoes, DJ

Me and Dilla had a falling out a couple of years ago. But when I heard he got sick, a year ago, I dropped everything to go to L.A. I got him one of those T-shirts with the Detroit streets on it. And I had all these people leave voicemail messages for him on my phone.

The rumor was that he was in a coma. He wasn't, but he was very sick. I gave him the shirt, and then I played the messages for him. Man, he just broke down crying. We talked it out, and things were cool.

Flat out, man, Dilla was the best to ever do it. As far as I'm concerned, when he died, Detroit hip hop died. The rest of my career is now dedicated to making sure as many people as possible know how great he was.

Proof, D12

Dilla was a moody person, but loved to have fun.

He heard things different — had that light in his eyes — when it came to being creative.

People forget. You've got Slum Village, the classic underground group, on one end. Then you got D12, the over-the-top group. You wouldn't even think there are friendships. We go back 15 years.

I remember me and Dilla went to get these FC tattoos. Funky Cowboys, our first rap group. Shit hurt like hell. I'm playin' it off, 'cause he's not gon' get one if he knows it hurts. He got in that seat, and the needle hit his arm. His eyes lit up like a motherfucker!

Jay Dee's message to me is be responsible to your life. He'd been sick for so long, I was kind of bracin' myself for something of this nature. But I don't look at it as losing a friend. I look at it as gaining an angel.

Denaun Porter, D12

Jay Dee was the first cat that made me want to be serious about my beats. He showed me that you can make money off this shit. At the time, I was into making that fast money, doing bullshit that wasn't even worth it. He told me straight up, this one disk, this little 1.5-inch floppy disk can make you a whole lot of money. I appreciated the hell out of that.

Now, I'm making a million dollars a year almost off some shit Dilla taught me to do. Honestly, the man literally changed my life.

Dilla was so ahead of the game, that nigga was damn near an alien with his beats. If he was doing shows in a wheel chair, then that should tell people how much he loved making music.

Dwele, Virgin recording artist

I met Dilla in '97 or '98. He had a sense of humor, that Aquarius sense of humor. I know, 'cause I'm an Aquarius. He could be standoffish at times. He dealt with you when he felt like it. But he was a good guy.

I had the chance to work with him on Welcome 2 Detroit [a Dilla solo album]. It was cool. If I heard something on drums, he'd jump on it and knock it out. And I would jump right in on keys.

I remember watching him sing on the song "Think Twice," from Welcome 2 Detroit. I never thought it was possible to smoke a blunt and sing at the same time. He would take puffs in between lines (laughs).

Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, the Ummah

Talented. Soft-spoken. Very focused. Beautiful brother.

When I met him, I was on tour and Amp Fiddler told me about him. He brought him on my bus. [Dilla] had a big smile on his face. I saw a lot of myself in him and knew somebody as talented as that had to be heard.

The funeral was very sad. It was a very nice day. There was a lot of love in that room, and he was represented well. It's rare, because a lot of people in the industry can be one-dimensional. But James touched a lot of people with his music. He really didn't talk a lot. It makes you want to do better.

I'd liked to say to his mom, stay strong. We're gonna do everything to make his legacy live on. Thanks to the whole D for the brother, for showing that love.

Pete Rock, producer

I met him [in the mid-'90s]. I stayed in his crib for couple days. He opened his heart to me immediately. We hung out in the D, went to a few strip clubs. He took me to every single one. Our relationship was grand. We're both music lovers. I would leave messages on his machine, like, "Look what I made." My friends told me he would jump up and down, and then go make a beat.

He never told me he was sick. I found out when he went to the hospital. It hurts to know that he's not here.

His mom told me, "You're his idol." That's all good, but he took the inspiration and did him with it. This guy was like the futuristic Pete Rock, but he took it higher than me. I've never met any producer who was that dope, and that dope of a person.

Jazzy Jeff, producer

He was a close friend of mine, both in and out of music. It's a great loss to me and the music community. It's amazing to know just how many people he touched with his music.

I cried for days and will probably shed a tear every time I play one of his many gems.

Karriem Riggins, producer

Dilla gave me so much insight on music. He was very giving at a time when so many other producers tried to be competitive and I think that's part of what made him the best. He used to just give me records out of his own collection, out of love, and it's not a lot brothers that share themselves like that.

I can remember how easy it was to lose track of time in Dilla's basement. And with all the classic shit that he put out, what impressed me was that his setup was so minimal. He had a MPC, SP 1200, a record player, a cassette player and a mixer. But he could tap the needle to his records and create his own drum patterns. He could chop records backwards. He could make kicks sound like snares, he could hum some of his hooks and make it sound electronic. He was wild, man. It was an honor to be one of his pallbearers. He was the greatest to ever do it.

Bilal, soul singer

I think my fondest memories of Jay Dee were spent just chilling in his basement out in Detroit. His ability to hear little tiny excerpts of a record and then compose a song out of it was amazing. He heard music like Mozart. Jay had damn near a million records in his basement, and he knew the best samples on every single one of them. He even knew what samples sounded good backwards.

Jay could step into a studio and play bass, piano, drums or whatever. He was like the Prince of hip hop. The man could make some of the illest beats you ever heard in your life in less than five minutes.

I remember being in his basement getting ready to record, and in the time it took Guru to roll up a blunt, he had made the beat to "Certified" for the Jazzmatazz, Vol. 3 album, from scratch. Me and Common used to call him the Duke Ellington of hip hop.

Phat Kat, emcee

Man, I done known him since like 1991, back when he was still John Doe. It's just sad that only in Detroit motherfuckers didn't show him love. Everywhere else, Jay was a star. He could sell out a stadium in Europe, but in Detroit nobody knew who he was. And now people want to be all on his jock and show him respect, but they should have done it when he was still alive.

Folks from out of town don't even believe that Jay Dee's hometown hardly played him on the radio — even after 15 years of putting out good music! We got people in Helsinki doing the Errol Flynn and saying, "Whatupdoe?" And Dilla had to die just to get played on the radio in Detroit. That's like a slap in the face. I'll be honest; I'm real heated at these fake-ass program directors over at JLB and all these other stations that never showed love. Y'all cats are responsible.

Maestro, friend

I remember the first time I met him, I could barely recognize him because he was on dialysis and on medication. He didn’t look like himself, his face was a few shades lighter and it was swollen. But he was still giving of himself. He offered me his phone number on the spot and started giving me honest feedback on my music. That still strikes me to this day.

Even though he was the inspiration for damn near every producer in this city, he was still real humble and almost shy about it. But that’s the type of person he was. And even though he was sick, he would still be up at the Guitar Center with his limited edition Roger Lynn MPC 3000 grinding on the music tip. That’s the Jay Dee I’ll always remember.

Black Milk, BR Gunna

He was the biggest influence on me out of any artist I’ve ever listened to. It wasn’t like we hung out a lot. But I did get the opportunity to do a few songs with him and he spit over one of my tracks on "Reunion" off the Detroit Deli album. Our relationship was more musical than anything. But every time I saw him it was all love.

Jay Dee was the teacher. I learned so much from that man’s music, I probably wouldn’t be anything close to the type of producer I am today if it wasn’t for Jay Dee. That’s the truth.

Guilty Simpson, emcee

My fondest memory of Dilla would have to be last year when I went to visit him in L.A. after he had gotten sick. He wasn’t at his strongest state and was between hospital visits. I remember him going out of his way to make sure I had a good time in California, though. He’d always ask if it was something I wanted to do, or some place I wanted him to take me. I can recall thinking to myself, "Here is a guy that’s sick, and he wants to make sure I’m OK." That’s what I remember most, the human being. Not the producer, the rapper, the musical genius, but the human being. I’ll never forget the love Dilla and Ma Dukes showed me out West. That was the last time I saw Dilla alive. R.I.P!!!

Madlib, producer

The whole time Dilla was sick, he was still all about making music. There’s nothing that could keep him from making beats. Everybody was like, "Yo, is Dilla starting to slow down and take better care of his health?" when he first got sick. But the truth was, he was telling me and J-Rocc to bring him the MPC while he was still in the hospital. Ain’t nobody else that serious about making music that I know. He’s the best, plain and simple.

Big Tone, emcee

Dude was probably the nicest person that I knew. He was just openly nice. Aside from the whole music thing, being at his crib, he was always like, "Y’all straight, y’all want something to drink?" Always trying to force some food or some fruit punch on you. But that was his person. Super humble! He wasn’t a man of a lot words. And it really said a lot about him.

I can remember being at the titty bar with him. It was me, Dwele, 87, Frank N Dank, Karriem Riggins and Jay Dee. We were all up at Chocolate City, and he was damn near hosting the place. He was buying everybody drinks. Champagne was coming from everywhere. The DJs were even playing Welcome 2 Detroit shit and Common. He was in his element to the fullest. Dilla lived his life the way he wanted to and that’s what I’ll remember the most. Khary Kimani Turner and Jonathan Cunningham are freelancers for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

Scroll to read more Michigan Music articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.