Maureen Yancey brought super-producer Jay Dee into this world. Now that he's gone, she's determined to keep his memory and music alive.
Interview by Kelley L. Carter (@kelleylcarter)
The living room, and parts of the dining room, are filled with relics of his life. Across the couch, nailed into the wall, pressed up in a corner and teetering on a chair are mementos—photographs, paintings, framed gold and platinum records—that celebrate the music mastery of producer James Yancey, known to hip-hop fans as Jay Dee or J Dilla.
Some are hand-drawn. Some are intricate watercolors. Some look like they could be hanging in an art gallery. Some look like they could be airbrushed onto an abandoned building. Dilla’s been gone for almost six years now. But sitting in this front room—the room in the house in Conant Gardens, a historic neighborhood on Detroit’s eastside where his love of music first sparked—you almost wouldn’t know it.
He’s still here. And the woman who gave him life makes sure of it.
Her name is Maureen Yancey, though familiar folks call her Ma Dukes. Sometimes she has to catch herself when she speaks about her son, who died of a rare blood disorder in 2006, just days after his 32nd birthday. She often refers to her son in the present tense—and then quickly corrects herself. But she then, in the next sentence, she does it again.
It’s no wonder, really. Since his passing, her life has been dedicated to making sure that her son’s legacy lives on. [Check out our list of the 50 Best Dilla Songs.] The last time she and I talked at length about her son (for this 2009 article), she was embroiled in a nasty legal battle—and at the time, it looked that she was on the losing side. Before he died, her son signed paperwork that appointed two non-family members as executors of his estate. That decision created the type of legal headache that no one wants.
This day, she sits on the living room couch, and often casts glances over at the artwork and music and symbols that represent her son. The three-story home is around the corner from Dilla’s first house on Nevada street. She refers to that home several times. He was living there when he made the music that people on hip-hop’s underground consider to be light years ahead of its time.
But this house—constructed much like the Victorian homes of the 1920s Detroit era—was home. This is the home that his mother left years ago to relocate to Los Angeles with the hopes of nursing her son back to health.
Three years later, much of that craziness has been cleaned up. So we asked Ma Dukes to take a break from planning the big Dilla Day tribute concert—which takes place tomorrow, the anniversary of his death, at the Fillmore of Detroit—to sit down and bring us up to speed on what's going on with the J Dilla Foundation, why she became a music executive, and why she still can’t bring herself to cry for her son.
Is this shrine always here?
Yes, every day. I never think about it like that—you know? It’s interesting, when people bring you stuff, and I wanna look at it and I love most of it. Some of the pieces I’ve really given away.
Where do things stand with the estate right now?
Well let me first say, because of your article, everything hit—I don’t want to use that word, but "S" hit the fan. That was the breaking point. That was a "Oh thank God" point for everything.
Did you not know? Because of that article, people began to open their eyes, they realized what was going on…nobody had a clue. Nobody had an idea of what was going wrong and what could go wrong in the music industry. I got a lot of phone calls, I got people looking into things, finding out about the people that I thought were behind me and looking out for me were not. It was an eye opener.
Who called you?
Bishop Lamont called and said, 'These cats are checking things out, they’re not gonna let this happen.' He said, 'People have become more aware of what can happen.' So Bishop, he made sure he got things in order so if anything were to happen to him his mom, she would not go through unnecessary pains.
Busta. Bishop Lamont. He said, “These cats are checking things out, they’re not gonna let this happen.” He said, “People have become more aware of what can happen.” So Bishop, he made sure he got things in order so if anything were to happen to him his mom, she would not go through unnecessary pains.
Whereas with Dilla, I was in denial. He was trying to prepare me for over a year—so I’m not faultless. While I was there taking care of him for the two years, he always would be like, “Okay, I want you to set up this, and I want you to do this.” I would laugh about it, but I would never listen seriously enough to do really anything at that time, because I was like, “He’s gonna get well and it’ll be all good, and he’ll be doing his own thing.”
So I didn’t care because I thought he’s gonna be alright. And even if I had to stay with him for the rest of his life, I knew he’d be alive and taking care of his business. As time progressed and he got more ill, I still expected that he would just be ill and in a wheelchair—at worst.
You said the estate was settled now. What helped settle it?
Being conscious that the people that I thought were moving forward for me and getting things tied up could care less if it ever got tied up. They were good with where it was at because they could handle things in their own time…
Meaning the attorneys?
Like attorneys. The were in no rush. And I think the most disappointing thing was that even before all of the stuff began to snowball into this big globe of “You have nothing for us to worry about” or “You have nothing here, so why are you bothering us?” kind of attitude. I would get that a lot from [Dilla’s former accountant and estate executor] Arty [Erk] I thought we got along really good at first.
You and Arty did?
Mm-hmm. I never had a problem…Usually I dealt with his secretaries or bookkeepers. You know, if I called for Dilla and requested something, very seldom did I talk to him. I think I talked to him maybe twice, and that was after Dilla got out the hospital. He would ask how he was doing, and I would tell him that he’s on steroids and this, that and the other.
He explained to me that it wasn’t something to worry about. It didn’t sound like anybody that had anything against me. I didn’t start feeling that way until after Dilla passed and my household was upside down and I couldn’t get help. So then I began to see a side of a person that I wasn’t used to dealing with.