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.
Did Arty reach out to you after the article ran?
No. We were going back and forth with the courts and we weren’t getting paperwork done at the time. The guys knew that I was in a kind of bad situation dealing with him, so I didn’t have my own attorney and I had no way of getting one, so Egon took his own savings and got me an attorney.
Egon from Stones Throw Records?
Yes. He paid with his savings and got me an attorney. He got somebody who was really good, because he knew that I was up against somebody that was fighting against me. He said, “It’s not right, Ma.” He said, “That’s your son and you should be represented well.”
What did the new attorney do for you?
They did a tribute, it was a radio show and Red Bull helped sponsor that one and they wanted to raise some funds to help me out. And they called me a couple days before and they were like, 'Ma, we’re having trouble. We’re getting cease and desist letters and everything about not doing the show, not doing this and we can’t sell T-shirts, we can’t give you anything.'
He requested paperwork. Remember there was a campaign out in Billboard magazine? It said not to send any donations my way, not to allow anything to happen. And when people were trying to do tributes, they were trying to block them. I remember one in particular was in D.C. and was myself, Pete Rock, and Talib Kweli, I believe.
They did a tribute, it was a radio show and Red Bull helped sponsor that one and they wanted to do something special to raise some funds to help me out. And they called me a couple days before—I’m ready to go, I’d been booked and everything—and they were like, “Ma, we’re having trouble. We’re getting cease and desist letters and everything about not doing the show, not doing this and we can’t sell T-shirts, we can’t give you anything and all kinds of stuff.”
I’m like, “What?” I’m like, ‘Where’s this coming from?’ Because they never reached out to me to tell me anything.
But things changed with the new legal team?
Our new attorneys had our interests at heart. They went all the way back to day one, because they said the amounts that he owed IRS and whatever [didn’t make sense.] I had a dispute about it because I remember when he moved to Huntington Woods [Michigan], his taxes were a surplus.
He had like maybe $32,000 or $36,000 credit on his taxes, so how did he go from that—and you’re already beginning to be sick and making less or doing less projects—to owing so much and your big heyday is already gone? So how do you go from that to almost $500,000?
They said that he owed half a million dollars in taxes?
Yes. And then by the time they got everything together and they claimed it was $700,000. I’m thinking, “This is impossible, because he never did his own accounting, he always had accounting firms.”
Something didn’t seem right?
Something was wrong. Cause we know he started with the surplus. There was nothing said about owing taxes when he was with [another firm] and then all of a sudden, he owes all this money in taxes.
So was it that his taxes weren’t being paid on his behalf? Is that what you believe?
That’s where it started backing up. And then also he had corporate taxes, you know, because when he did the Pay Jay [album], that was a corporation and it was corporate taxes for that.
Is this something that your new attorney discovered?
Yes. So all these things had to be straightened out. All the paperwork had to be sent back and then go through the courts and everything. Arty got sick of it too. Just like we were so tired of so much showing up and it just had to be straightened out.
I guess Arty got tired of it and he said he was stepping down—he didn’t need to be the executive. Dilla had left him as an executor because he thought that his finances were being handled.
Then [Dilla’s former attorney and estate executor] Micheline [Levine] was the second executor because she was his attorney, and he felt that she would follow up on things and follow suit with what he had wanted done. I was the third executor and the reason that that was third, the real reason, as he explained—I didn’t want to hear any of this while he was in the hospital—but the reason that I would take over if something happened Micheline or either worked with her or take over was because he didn’t want me to deal with any friction from the baby’s mamas.
Did Micheline also step down as executor too?
Yes. When Arty stepped down, she stepped down.
What year did that happen?
That had to be two years now.
So in 2010?
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.
Yes. We started tying up ends in the spring of last year. They went through every year, had to go back every year since he first started making beats in order to calculate and make everything. Cause what I brought to their attention was that not only did he not make the amount of money to get those kind of taxes—a lot of it was probably for taxes that were not paid after monies were added on, but I let them know about the surplus.
We would get the receipts in the mail, the stubs, and at that time he still had good money coming from ASCAP and every check would be a few grand, but when his taxes started falling behind—maybe it was 2003—when they started adding up as falling behind, that money was direct to IRS.
So what did he actually owe in taxes?
Well I don’t have the end result, round figure, because they were working on the last two years in the summer…I haven’t heard anything. [But] I’m pretty sure that it’ll be something good.
No, not even a minute amount of that. The only thing to worry about would be still pending medical expenses. But just the revenue from any mechanical royalties or any beats that were sold or licensed over the past years up until his passing or even after, none of the family or anybody has gotten a dime.
So you still haven’t gotten the money?
Oh no. But the process is…I don’t care if I don’t, as long as everything is smooth and fresh—and that’s where we’re at now. We’re moving forward now and we had hoped to be free and clear by the end of the summer, but you know how things go. It’ll be like, “Yay!” So excited.
So you’re just hoping by the end of this summer…
Oh, I know before that time. But I had hoped that before the year went out… But definitely working. The new estate has been so, so good.
Are you the lead executor?
Yes. I’m the only one left. Right now, for all intents and purposes, we have our attorney who’s acting executor during the process of the clearing out.
How are Dilla’s daughters doing?
They’re great! Computer nuts. They’re really tech savvy. Those little girls are really smart and I’m really happy about that.
But they’re not receiving money from the estate yet?
No, they receive Social Security. I was glad they started receiving that right away.
Is the plan—or maybe at least your hope—that some time later this year they’ll start to receive money from the estate?
The one question that people always ask me is if you’ve cried yet. Last time we talked, you said you haven’t shed one tear since Dilla died.
You haven’t shed a tear yet?
No. I’m so excited about his life. It’s such a celebration. How can you cry when you live to brighten the world with what he gave? I think his gift was something to brighten the world. So I’m just so super excited.
Even through all those frustrating moments with the estate?
[I haven't shed a tear yet.] I’m so excited about his life. It’s such a celebration. How can you cry when you live to brighten the world with what he gave? I think his gift was something to brighten the world. So I’m just so super excited.
Even with the frustrating moments. You know what? That’s what keeps me going. This Rebirth project has invigorated me every day. I don’t care what comes. I don’t care what lies ahead—and it’s been some rough, dark clouds hanging over my life.
Where do you pull your strength from? How is it that you’ve been able to be so strong? Because it’s been a pretty tumultuous last six years...
It has. But I trust in God and I know that he makes all the difference in my life. And then I have to count my blessings. I think that’s it. My faith is no stronger than anybody else. Sometimes we all will slip and find ourselves not appreciating things. But I have been truly blessed.
You know, my kids [John 'Illa J' Yancey, Martha, and Earl], they stand beside me and since Dilla died, I have not given the 100 percent that I know that I could give. If I just stopped for a minute and said, “Oh, I haven’t done this for them lately.” But they are so patient and they love me still and they’re there for me and help me.
And now you’re caring for his father? He’s not doing well?
It’s been some rough, dark clouds hanging over my life, especially since Mr. Yancey has been ill. Because you know he had three strokes and a heart attack.
And this is all inside of the last year?
Yes. Three bouts of pneumonia. He had a trach put in and a feeding tube, and he’s had three times down with the kidneys. But he’s still kicking.
Is he lucid?
Very seldom. He’ll see me and he’ll say, “It’s you again, lady.” Sometimes he knows me, but sometimes it’s just like that face that he sees and he’s looking at me and I guess he’s like, “What now?”
And I’m talking to him and I’m scratching his hair—he loves having his hair scratched—and talking to him and everything and kissing him on his forehead and his face. And he’ll be like, “Oh God,” cause he always hated mushy stuff.
You’re kind of like this hip-hop mama now.
I love it. That has kept me from falling apart. I get so much love from these individuals. And the Rebirth project—Oh my God. Some of the guys I’ve met for the first time for this project, and I think with it being a little different because you’re not just putting your arms around hip-hop, but people that love art and the art of music and canvas and dance.
They all shower me with love, so I can’t fall apart, because I have to do what I can to make things better. We have artists [on this project] that would’ve sworn 10 years ago they wouldn’t speak to Dilla much less be caught in the same room and they’re doing these projects together, collabin’ on records together and making beautiful things together.
When will that come out?
It won’t be out until Memorial weekend. And that’s just in time, because we were trying to make sure and pace everything so that everything would be done—and it’s just been remarkable.
And will you be doing that with Stones Throw?
No, no we’re doing it on Ruff Draft records, it’s our own label. I started the label and set everything in motion last year.
Can you name off a couple of artists that will be on that project?
Oh yes, Danny Brown—and that was a gift, because when we started, he was the first artist to come out and say, “Okay, I’m gonna do this. I’ll do this for you Ma Dukes because I’m showing my love.” Monica Blaire and we have the Almighty Dredknaughtz. And that’s been an inspiration for a lot of people. And we have Phat Kat, who is now Ronnie Euro—he changed his name.
So this project is going to be all Detroit artists?
All Detroit artists. Listen, we got so many artists that came forth, so we had to say, “Whoa, this is too many for an EP, we’re gonna have to make it a series.” So it will be a series. The artists that he already worked with that are not Detroiters, they hit me up wanting to know, “Well, what’s up with this, Ma Dukes? You didn’t call me. I would do this.”
I said, “We’re doing this first one with Detroit artists because it’s for Detroit. It’s rebirthing our city and taking back what we own and possess, which is a beautiful thing, and I think the world should know that we still got it and we are cohesive and what we need to be. We can come together and do these things.” So that’s really the whole purpose: to heal the attitudes, to come together and show what we have bright and glamorous in all aspects of music and then we have the artistry to go along with it.
So we have that and the first release will be all Detroiters and the second release will be still some Detroiters, because we’re not leaving anybody behind, so they’re satisfied as long as they get to get out the gate and then there will be a few that will be probably people like Talib and different ones will be outside Detroit.
And this Detroit tribute, you’re doing it actually on the anniversary of his death?
On the anniversary of his death, six years from the day he passed, the same weekday. So to me, it was a spiritual meaning behind it. And it hurts when I travel and everywhere else in the world is holding up his music and acknowledging his brilliance and mind and his hometown doesn’t even know who he is.
So I said, Maureen, it’s time for Dilla’s name to be in lights in his hometown. It’s just incredible that this little boy that spun records in Harmony Park at two-years-old turned out to be a master of music like that. But I want so much for the world to know that [music] was his true love, his only true love was music.
He never married and of course he loves and adores his daughters. He got along pretty well with moms, as well as I guess could be expected with whatever situation it was. I know he had a lot of love for a lot of people, and it would just be great to say, ‘Salute, James, you did a great job.’ That’s all I want.
All I want is [for people] to acknowledge that he did a good job and he was a good person. Kelley, I am so glad of everything that he ever did. I’m glad about every strip joint he ever went in. I’m glad about every car, truck and every dime he spent on himself, because he lived so short a time and he gave his entire being to music to share. So why not let him have something while he was here?
I’m just grateful, I’m terribly grateful, because to live, to want to do something rich, to share and to never see any of your dreams fulfilled or any desires fulfilled is a travesty.