Legend has it that the record which made James Yancey fall in love with hip-hop was Whodini’s 1984 “Big Mouth.” He would have been 10 years old when this minimalist Larry Smith production first dropped, and while it’s impossible to say whether it was the hard-hitting drums or the hilarious lyrics that caught his ear, his early work displays many of the same virtues: a less-is-more aesthetic that left plenty of space for the MCs to stretch out, breathe, and talk their shit.
His first collaborative productions, like 1993’s “Sweet One” by T.H.I.Q.U.E. (co-produced with Ade) and 1994’s “You Can’t Use My Pen” by Da’ Enna C. (produced by P Groove and Sleepy D with Amp Fiddler on bass and J.D. programming drums and sharing microphone duties) had a lot going on. But once J.D. took full control, he discarded all extraneous sounds. As a fan of Pete Rock and A Tribe Called Quest, his beats would eventually take on a soulful warmth, with more subsonic frequencies in the mix, but nothing was more important than the drums—their weight and timbre varying widely from track to track, yet always tastefully paired with the rest of the musical atmosphere. Even in later years, as his stylistic range expanded, Yancey never tired of the boom bap, bringing it back whenever that approach was appropriate for the job at hand.
Yancey’s earliest creative comrades included elementary school chums Frank Bush and Derrick Harvey (a.k.a. “Frank-N-Dank”), Conant Gardens neighbors R.L. “T3” Altman and the late Titus “Baatin" Glover, and acquaintances from the local hip-hop circuit. He met Ronnie “Phat Kat” Watts during the Rhythm Kitchen’s open mic night, and bumped into DeShaun “Big Proof” Holton—along with a young Eminem—at Detroit’s Hip-Hop Shop. When Yancey finally escaped aerospace school and transferred to Pershing High for his senior year, he, Baatin, and T3 formed a group called Ssenepod ("dopeness" spelled backwards). Fortunately they changed their name to Slum Village in 1991. Yancey was destined to be the most successful of all his friends—linking with Q-Tip and getting the opportunity to produce for the bugged-out L.A. quartet the Pharcyde—but he never stopped working with his homies, often saving his best beats for them because that’s what friends are for.