Tomorrow will mark the day that James DeWitt Yancey, known to music fans worldwide as Jay Dee or J Dilla, left this earth far too soon at age 32 because of complications from the autoimmune disorder lupus.
One of the most prodigious production talents hip-hop has ever witnessed, Dilla’s legacy was uniquely multi-faceted: hit-maker for the likes of Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, Common, Janet Jackson, Erykah Badu, etc.; underground hero for his dual Fantastic voyages with his hometown Conant Gardens, Detroit crew Slum Village; sonic innovator, whose classic later efforts Ruff Draft, Jaylib (collaborative album with Madlib), and Donuts defined an aesthetic for a generation of listeners and beat-icians.
Indeed, J Dilla changed our lives. And in homage we present a few facts you might not have known about his storied life. Raise it up for one of the all-time greats. J Dilla 4ever.
Written by Chairman Mao (@chairmanmaonyc)
His Father Ghost-Wrote “It’s a Shame” For The Spinners
The timeless 1970 smash single—later sampled/remade by “golden era” rappers Bob & the Mob and Monie Love—bears the invisible musical fingerprints of none other than Dilla’s Pop Dukes, Beverly DeWitt Yancey. Proof positive that musical genius follows bloodlines.
His First Job Was As A Junior Police Cadet
When he was a teenager, Dilla worked with the Detroit Police Department. But after suffering through one too many incidents of police harassment and racial profiling as a young adult, a fed-up Jay would record the classic single, “Fuck the Police,” in 2001.
He Studied To Become An Air Force Pilot
Jay attended Davis Aerospace Technical High School in Detroit for three years, as is detailed by writer Ronnie Reese in Dilla’s official bio. Though his aptitude for physics was excellent, as Jay’s mother Maureen recalls, “He hated wearing his Air Force ROTC uniform to school.” Plus, his heart was in music. By his senior year he’d transferred to Detroit Pershing, where his classmates included future fellow Slum Villagers T3 and Baatin.
His First Musical Mentor Was Amp Fiddler, Not Q-Tip
Though Q-Tip was responsible for Dilla’s first big break in the music industry—when the Abstract took a liking to Dilla’s beats after Jay passed him an early SV demo—he was not the fledgling producer’s first important musical mentor.
That distinction belongs to longtime Detroit singer/musician/producer Amp Fiddler, who’s local neighborhood lab, affectionately dubbed “Camp Amp,” was where Dilla first learned the ropes of production and studio work.
When A Tribe Called Quest and the P-Funk All-Stars (Fiddler was a member) were both on the bill of Lollapalooza in 1994, it was in fact Amp who hipped Q-Tip to Jay’s production prowess, making the introduction that forever altered the sonic landscape of hip-hop production.
NBA Star John Salley Once Managed Him
For a stretch between the formation of the quintet Ssenepod (i.e. “Dopeness” backwards) featuring Dilla, T3, Baatin, Waajeed, and Que D, and the classic Slum Village trio line-up, Jay Dee and T3 signed on with a management team, Hoops, composed of partners R.J. Rice (of ’80s R&B electro outfit R.J.’s Latest Arrival) and Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boy”-era big man, John Salley.
According to Rice, a potential Hoops-brokered deal with Columbia Records for the duo fell through when the label opted to push Digable Planets towards Slum Village’s jazz-fueled hip-hop sound rather than sign Slum itself. Not cool like that, Columbia.
Biggie Once Recorded A 2Pac Diss Over One of His Beats
As legend has it in 1996 Dilla produced a track known as “The Ugliest” for frequent collaborator Busta Rhymes on which The Notorious B.I.G. dropped a guest verse. Only problem was this was during the ongoing and increasingly hostile Bad Boy-Death Row rift, and B.I.G.’s verse flagrantly went after 2Pac.
Busta apparently wasn’t too keen on the idea of getting caught up in the beef, and despite an attempt by Puffy to buy the beat from Busta for B.I.G.’s use, the song—which, incredibly enough, was also to feature Nas—never reached completion as originally conceived. Later, B.I.G.’s verse would be resurrected (sans Jay’s beat) for his posthumous Born Again album on the song "Dangerous MCs."
He Once Went On A “Date” With Lil Kim
As is very briefly recalled in an excerpt from Frank-N-Dank & J. Dilla’s European Vacation DVD shot in late 2005, while Dilla was on his final tour—with Frank-N-Dank, DJ Rhettmatic, and friend Dave “New York” Tobman: The Queen Bee picked up Dilla Dawg at Q-Tip’s house in the 600. They had Chinese food.
The Jaylib Sessions Were Recorded On Just Two Tracks
A fan of Oxnard, CA’s finest since his Lootpak days, Jay tapped Madlib for beats for Jay’s ill-fated MCA album. Soon afterwards Jay caught word that Madlib had begun recording verses over Jay Dee beat tapes, and had even pressed up a white label 12” of some of the material. Jay stepped to Madlib saying, "If you want do this let’s do it for real and put out an album." Thus Jaylib was born—a series of collabs that entailed no actual studio sessions, just raw 2-track overdubbed recordings sent back and forth between the two visionary beatsmiths.
He Didn’t Read Equipment Manuals
As Jay confessed in his final interview with Scratch in February 2006, he was self-taught on virtually all of his production equipment—a trait he adopted at the behest of mentor Amp Fiddler, who introduced Dilla to the MPC, but stopped short of showing him how to actually operate it. “‘Don’t use a book,’” Jay recalled Amp telling him. “‘You gotta learn on your own.’”
Chocolate Cake Was His Favorite
As reported by Kelly L. Carter of the Detroit Free Press, it was Jay’s favorite flavor ’til the day he returned to the essence. When Dilla came home from the hospital to his Los Angeles apartment in early 2006, and celebrated his first birthday in four years in his own home, his friend and roommate Common bought him a chocolate cake to commemorate the milestone.
His pals from Stones Throw Records, Madlib and Peanut Butter Wolf, also came by his place with a celebratory cake in the shape of a chocolate donut to celebrate the just released Donuts. However, Jay—weak from kidney failure and dialysis treatments after being diagnosed with Lupus—did not want his friends to witness his deteriorating health, and kept their visit brief.
He passed away just three days later. Rest assured, however, that if they didn’t serve chocolate cake in hip-hop heaven before February 10th, 2006 they sure as hell did thereafter. J Dilla, R.I.P.