New York Times Obit: James Yancey, 32, Producer Known for Soulful Hip-Hop

  • Kelefa Sanneh
  • The New York Times
  • February 12, 2006

James Yancey, the innovative and influential hip-hop producer known as J Dilla or Jay Dee, died on Friday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 32.

The cause was cardiac arrest, according to his mother, Maureen Yancey. She said he had been suffering from lupus and had recently been hospitalized for pneumonia. Mr. Yancey was celebrated for the beats he made, which tended to be warm and slightly off-kilter. On albums by Common, Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest, D'Angelo and his own group, Slum Village, Mr. Yancey pioneered a subdued, sometimes spaced-out form of hip-hop.

His cult of fans stretched around the world (he had an especially devoted following in Europe and Japan), and it included many of his more commercially successful contemporaries.

Pharrell Williams, from the Neptunes, once called him his favorite producer, and Common has called him ''one of the greatest ever.''

In addition to his mother he is survived by his father, Beverly Yancey, and by his two daughters: Ja-mya Yancey and Ty-monae Whitlow. Mr. Yancey never married.

Mr. Yancey came of age in Detroit's hip-hop scene, and word of his meticulous but casual style soon spread. By 2000, when Slum Village released its breakthrough album, ''Fantastic, Vol. 2,'' he was already in demand as a freelance producer. By then, he was also a member of the loose-knit hip-hop collective known as the Soulquarians, which included D'Angelo, James Poyser and members of the Roots. That year, Mr. Yancey was ubiquitous; his laid-back sound could be heard on CD's by Common, Ms. Badu, D'Angelo, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and others.

But he never quite stormed the pop charts, which seemed to suit him fine. He loved abstract, smudgy bass lines, woozy samples, tricky rhythms that deemphasized backbeats. As a consequence, many of the rappers he worked with were more digressive than declarative; Common's rambling style fit particularly well with Mr. Yancey's leisurely beats.

When he moved to Los Angeles, Mr. Yancey teamed up with Stones Throw Records. The label is home to the like-minded producer Madlib; together, the two renamed themselves Jaylib and released a well-regarded album called ''Champion Sound.'' In 2001, he released his debut solo album, ''Welcome 2 Detroit'' (BBE), and last Tuesday, on his 32nd birthday, he released another one, ''Donuts'' (Stones Throw).

''Donuts'' consists of 31 playful little compositions, most of them based on soul samples taken from vinyl records (you can hear the hisses and pops) and almost all shorter than two minutes. The record company issued a brief note about the title: ''Easy explanation. Dilla likes donuts.'' Yesterday his mother managed a chuckle when she confirmed that fact. ''I just bought two dozen a week ago,'' she said.

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