The J Dilla x Nike SB Dunk That Never Happened

Nike was planning to release a shoe to commemorate the late producer.

J Dilla
Nike SB wanted to release a J Dilla-themed sneaker to mark what would have been his 50th birthday this year. Via Getty
J Dilla

J Dilla was obsessed with being fresh. The late producer, whose ornate arrangements and untamed drum patterns were the foundation of beats for acts like Slum Village and the Pharcyde, was willing to miss a flight if a barber did not leave his hairline sufficiently sharp. In those instances, Dilla’s mother, Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey, was the one charged with calling off his arrangements—of rescheduling studio time or notifying Busta Rhymes that Dilla would be missing a session.

According to his mother, Dilla’s principles for his physical appearance applied all the way down to the footwear. He would not leave the house if his sneakers had a scuff on them.

“It was my job to clean up the scuff mark,” says Ma Dukes, “and he would make sure I had everything I needed to keep it clean.”

Dilla, born James Dewitt Yancey in 1974, had a yearning for fresh gear since his childhood in Detroit. His mother, who refers to herself as a queen of secondhand, says the family couldn’t afford nice clothes then. Later, she bought him silk shirts in every color as an incentive to keep him in aeronautics school.

When Dilla's music career took off and he finally could start buying the things he wanted, it was Eddie Bauer and Nike Air Force 1s. By the time he died in 2006, from lupus and the blood disease TTP, Dilla had amassed hundreds of sneakers.

“He’d always have to shop and buy two or three pairs of whatever shoe he bought,” his mother says.

Sources tell Complex that Nike wanted to release a commemorative J Dilla sneaker this year through Nike SB, the company’s skateboarding division known for limited-edition artist collaborations. But the proposed J Dilla project, which was meant to take the form of a Nike SB Dunk, was mired in dealings with Dilla’s estate, according to sources with knowledge of the collaboration, and ultimately scrapped.

MF Doom Nike SB Dunk

Complex talked to several people who had visibility on the Dilla Dunks, all of whom either declined to speak on record or requested their names not be used for this story. Nike employees are not allowed to discuss their work with the media without prior approval, and anyone outside the brand involved in the shoes would have signed a non-disclosure agreement.

One person with knowledge of the Dilla Dunks said that the idea for the shoes was floating around at Nike SB as early as 2020. Nike worked on the shoe in 2023, tapping people who were connected with Dilla to inform its design. According to one source, Nike planned to release the shoes in 2024 in conjunction with Dilla Day on Feb. 7, which marks both Dilla’s birthday and the anniversary of the release date of his 2006 album Donuts.

One of the problems, sources say, was that Dilla’s estate was not involved in the project when it first began, and came into the fold too late. Nike’s initial contact for the project, sources say, was not the Dilla estate, which is the sole entity that would be able to greenlight the shoe.

Nike wanted to release the shoe this past February in conjunction with what would have been Dilla’s 50th birthday, but could not meet its deadline to get the shoes produced in time amid negotiations with the estate. The proposed collaboration stalled out from there, according to people familiar with Nike’s plans.

Even though the shoe’s design was nearly finalized, SB’s work on the J Dilla collaboration up to that point was moot.

Nike did not respond to a request for comment on the proposed J Dilla SB Dunks.

James Borden, the court-appointed administrator of Dilla’s estate, was initially responsive when reached for comment, but did not respond to follow-up requests. Borden did not answer any of Complex’s questions about the Dilla x Nike SB Dunks.

As is often the case in the wake of a celebrated artist’s passing, there have been some battles over the usage of Dilla’s work and name.

In a video posted to Instagram in March, Dilla’s brother, Illa J, said there were people pretending to be involved in the estate and speaking on its behalf. He clarified that the estate consists of four heirs—himself, Ma Dukes, and Dilla’s two daughters—and that doing any business with the estate requires approval from all four heirs and the estate’s attorney.

Illa J’s post doesn’t mention the Nike shoes, nor does it appear to be about them, but it speaks to the way people have competed to profit from Dilla’s work, and to the hurdles that a Dilla collaboration would present.

For her part, Ma Dukes says she was aware of previous attempts at making Dilla sneakers happen, but had nothing to do with Nike SB’s recent plans. She’s working with a consultant who is eager to pitch Nike his own design for a Dilla Dunk, but that project doesn’t have any overlap with Nike SB’s Dilla Dunks. And, she says, it hasn’t involved the estate.

An official Dilla x Nike SB Dunk would have fit in the tradition of SB projects designed for left-of-center hip-hop icons. In 2023, Nike SB released a duo of Dunks with Run the Jewels. Some of the most coveted SB Dunks of the 2000s were made in collaboration with De La Soul, who Dilla produced for, and MF DOOM, who said Dilla posthumously appeared to him in a dream and requested they work together.

And Dilla had a legitimate connection to sneakers. There are old photos of him wearing crispy Dunks, and fans on Reddit trying to identify his Nikes. For most of Dilla’s last live performances, during the Frank n Dank European Vacation tour in 2005, he came onstage in a wheelchair with Nike Terminators on feet.

Dilla Stussy Collaborations

Ma Dukes remembers her son expanding his sneaker collection early on through his travels with Q-Tip, whose star power guaranteed him and Dilla free pairs.

“When he went into the stores with Q-Tip, they would gift him tons of things,” she says. “Tons of those, tons of pairs of shoes.”

She also remembers that late in his life, as his health deteriorated, Dilla still found joy in shoes and clothing. In Los Angeles, the producer lived close to Union, Stussy, and Undefeated, the trio of stores on La Brea that defined the city’s streetwear scene in the early 2000s. He was a frequent customer.

“We spent so much time up in there,” says Ma Dukes. “Even when Dilla really couldn’t walk anymore, we made that trip. If he could get in the car and we could get around the corner, we did it.”

He had Stussy tees and a Bape hoodie decorated with rhinestones. (The former paid him homage via a limited edition shirt in 2010.) His sneaker collection was over the top but not chaotic, the shoes arranged in precise order. J Dilla’s mother says that after his death, she donated those possessions.

“Lemme tell you,” says Ma Dukes, “when he passed away, I gave away hundreds of pairs of his shoes.”

She’s hopeful that there’s still a chance Nike will make a Dilla-themed sneaker in the future. Because if her son was here, Ma Dukes says, he’d be in Nikes.

“If it wasn’t for lupus,” says Dilla’s mother, “he’d be wearing some right now.”