The untold story of the noted Detroit hip-hop producer’s drive to make music in the face of life-threatening illness
It was near the end of summer 2005, and James Yancey was sitting in a
hospital bed at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
He couldn’t walk. He could barely talk. And after spending most of the
winter and spring in the hospital, receiving treatment for a rare, life-threatening
blood disease and other complications, he had been re-admitted.
His body was killing him, and little could be done about it.
It was a grim prognosis, but it wasn’t deterring him from tinkering
with his electronic drum machine.
In the sterile white hospital room, the tools of his trade surrounded
him: turntables, headphones, crates of records, a sampler, his drum machine
and a computer, stuff his mother and friends from L.A.-based record label
Stones Throw had lugged to his hospital room. Sometimes his doctor would
listen to the beats through Yancey’s headphones, getting a hip-hop education
from one of the best in the business.
Yancey tampered with his equipment until his hands swelled so much he
could barely move them. When the pain was too intense, he’d take a break.
His mother massaged his fingertips until the bones stopped aching.
Then he’d go back to work. Sometimes he’d wake her up in the middle
of the night, asking to be moved from his bed to a nearby reclining chair
so he could layer more hard-hitting beats atop spacey synths or other
sampled sounds, his creations stored on computer. Yancey told his doctor
he was proud of the work, and that all he wanted to do was finish the
Before September ended, he’d completed all but two songs for “Donuts,”
a disc that hit stores on Feb. 7, his 32nd birthday.
Three days after its release, he died.
Yancey, better known as Jay Dee or J Dilla, is acknowledged as the father
of the Detroit hip-hop sound. Some people call him a creative genius,
and his streetwise but soulful and musically tight production style influenced
some of the world’s biggest rap and R&B stars, from Kanye West to
Janet Jackson to Erykah Badu, many of whom he worked with.
He was a champion of Detroit’s urban music scene, and in the mid-’90s,
when hip-hop was dominated by the East and West coasts, he put a distinct
Motor City sound on the national map — and provided inspiration to then-unknowns
like Eminem, D12 and his own group, Slum Village.
As his reputation rose, he persisted with his distinct connection to
the musical underground, serving as a sort-of people’s champion of the
non-commercial hip-hop scene.
Just as he was poised for even greater fame, he got sick — a medical
odyssey that would put him in and out of hospitals for the better part
of four years, racking up staggering medical bills.
The instigator was a rare and incurable blood disease, but the complications
were many, including recurring kidney failure, severe blood-sugar swings,
immune system issues, heart trouble and what might have been lupus.
While rumors swirled in hip-hop circles that he was sick, the extent
— and specifics — of his health concerns were largely kept secret. Yancey
was not the type who wanted others to know about his problems. Even some
of his closest friends didn’t know what he did: Death was soon coming.
Since his death, fans have gathered to mourn his passing and celebrate
his legacy, a mood that will continue today at a public Detroit memorial
service. And for the first time, those who saw Yancey’s struggles first-hand,
including his mother and doctor, are talking about his final days.
January 2002: Something’s wrong
Yancey first realized something was wrong in January 2002 after coming
back from a gig in Europe, two years after Slum Village’s first national
release, “Fantastic Vol. 2.” Instead of going to his home in
Clinton Township, he went to his parents’ house on Detroit’s east side,
complaining that he had a cold or the flu.
It was unusual behavior. Even as a kid he’d liked his privacy, but that
night he needed to be with his mother, Maureen Yancey, hoping that she
could somehow make it all better.
He was sick to his stomach. He had chills. And after he lay down, he
said he felt worse.
His mother took him to the emergency room at Bon Secours Hospital in
Grosse Pointe. His blood platelet count was below 10. It should have been
between 140 and 180. Doctors told his mother they were surprised that
he was still walking around.
Soon, a specialist from Harper Hospital would diagnose a thrombotic
thrombocytopenic pura or TTP, a rare blood disease that causes a low platelet
count. Abnormal cells were eating away the good cells. Doctors told him
there was no cure or direct treatment.
Yancey stayed in the hospital for about a month and a half. Within weeks
he had to go back for the same thing — a trend that would continue for
more than four years.
Despite the looming health problems, Yancey moved to L.A. about two
years after he was diagnosed, determined to make music. Some things went
well, including a musical collaboration and friendship with the rapper
Common, who became his roommate. But he began to feel worse, and he met
with a blood specialist who told him that in order to live, he’d have
to endure medications and hospital treatments.
In November 2004, Yancey called his mother and asked if she’d come out
to L.A. to help take care of him.
Disease leads to kidney failure
Yancey went into the hospital shortly after his mom arrived, and he
stayed until March 2005. His mother, who slept at the hospital, never
left his side. She began to take the reins of her son’s health issues,
which included mounting bills.
He had to take anti-immune and anti-inflammation steroids. A medication
designed to suppress his immune system gave him high blood sugar, and
he was taken off it.
The TTP also led to kidney failure. His kidneys would shut down, spring
back, shut down again. The three-times-a-week, four-hour dialysis treatments
were sometimes so painful he had to be unhooked from the machine.
Because he was lying in bed for long periods, his legs swelled, making
it difficult to walk. He needed a wheelchair or a walker or cane — the
latter he used when he could get out to the music store to look for records,
or to a nearby fruit market to get juice or a 7-Eleven Slurpee, a treat.
Sometimes he would forget how to swallow and would have to relearn. He
lost 50% of his weight.
“A lot of times, just when we would get ready to get going, he
would get sick again,” Maureen Yancey said. “He was so tired
of going back. It was very sedentary. Just watching him, it was sad at
times. He couldn’t do what he wanted to.”
In 2005, weeks before his 31st birthday, doctors diagnosed something
that looked like lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect
the skin, joints, blood and kidneys. His doctor said it was probably what
contributed to the low platelet count and the frequent swelling and pain
in his hands.
Sure, those long hospital stays had plenty of undesirable consequences.
But it was the inability to touch the music, to pick it out of records
bins, twist it and create it, that made those long stays feel never-ending.
The hospital bills mount
Even though he had insurance through the American Federation of Television
and Radio Artists, the cost to keep Yancey alive was steep, and he had
to pay much of it himself.
Bills for the lengthy hospital stays topped $200,000 each time. Dialysis
three times a week cost $1,800. Each once-a-week shot to raise his hemoglobin
cost $1,800. He had dozens of prescriptions — $700, $900 or even $2,000
out of pocket per bottle. He had large co-pays — one was $6,700 a week
— because he had to see specialists.
His mother, who today gets medical invoices almost daily, has yet to
total up the costs. His plan was to make more music — he had a project
lined up with Will Smith — to pay the bills and leave money to take care
of his Detroit-based daughters, Ja-mya Yancey, 4, and Ty-monet Whitlow,
To pay the bills, Maureen says, she’ll work the rest of her life if
she has to.
A Detroit friend steps in
Mike Buchanan, better known as DJ House Shoes, first met Yancey in the
mid-’90s at Street Corner Music in Beverly Hills. House Shoes worked there
and Yancey was a wanna-be music producer on the hunt for albums.
After Yancey moved to L.A., their friendship waned. In early 2005, House
Shoes heard the rumor that Yancey was in a coma and might not pull through.
He booked a flight to L.A. and packed a bunch of CDs — random beats CDs,
a mix-tape CD that House Shoes had recently released and anything else
he thought Yancey would want to hear.
He stayed a week, spending every day in the hospital with him.
His friend looked different — he was smaller and quieter. House Shoes
struggled, not wanting to pry too much about the details of his friend’s
“I poker-faced it,” House Shoes would say a year later. “It
was hard as hell.”
At his hospitalized birthday celebration, Yancey got cake — chocolate,
his favorite — from one of his record labels, Stones Throw. He also got
a baseball jersey decorated with Detroit street signs.
Then there was a private gift.
House Shoes called about 35 people in Detroit — some who knew Yancey
and others who’d never met him but appreciated his contributions to hip-hop.
He had them leave birthday and get-well greetings on his voice mail.
“Man, listen to this crazy message this girl left me,” House
Shoes said, bringing his cell phone closer to Yancey’s ear.
Then he let them play. All 35 messages. There in his hospital bed, Yancey
broke down and cried.
Yancey hides his condition
Yancey kept quiet about how bad things really were.
After that early 2005 stint at the hospital — the one that prompted
hip-hop message boards to report he was in a coma — he granted an interview
to hip-hop magazine XXL for its June edition.
In the interview, he denied that he was comatose, and said that he had
gotten sick overseas. “As soon as I got back,” he told the magazine,
“I had the flu or something, and I had to check myself into the hospital.
Then they find out I had a ruptured kidney and was malnourished from not
eatin’ the right kinda food. It was something real simple, but it ended
with me being in the hospital.”
Only his doctor and his mother knew how bad it really was.
Detroit rapper Proof, like many of Yancey’s friends, never wanted to
“We never really got into the sickness thing. I would be like ‘How
you doing?’ He would be like ‘Better,’ ” Proof said.
The Bible provides comfort
Yancey became more spiritual in the last year of his life.
He and his mother studied the story of Job, which tackles the question
of why innocent people suffer, and which biblical scholars interpret to
be about faith and patience.
“For God maketh my heart soft, and the Almighty troubleth me: because
I was not cut off before the darkness, neither hath he covered the darkness
from my face.”
His doctor said he had come to terms with illness.
“He didn’t want to be a professional patient,” said Dr. Aron
Bick, Yancey’s L.A.-based hematologist, who also is an oncologist. “The
treatment was difficult because he would not want to go to the hospital.
He was very intelligent. He said, ‘I hear you, doc. But here are my decisions
about my own life.’
“I admired that on a human level. He got the medical care he needed.
He really did not let his medical situation handicap his life. To him,
life came first. He made peace with himself before we even knew it. And
then he made peace with his mom.”
On his 32nd birthday, Yancey spent the day at his L.A. home.
Roommate Common bought him a birthday cake, chocolate, of course. DJ
Peanut Butter Wolf and Madlib, friends from hip-hop’s underground, came
over with a cake in the shape of a chocolate doughnut, to honor the “Donuts”
album, which was released that day.
Their visit was brief, because Yancey felt uncomfortable with people
seeing him that way.
They left the cake at the door. Yancey had a small piece. It was all
his aching stomach could take.
It hadn’t quite been a month since he’d left the hospital, and he’d
just learned how to swallow again. Because his voice wasn’t strong, he
sometimes refused to open his mouth. He was shuffling around his home
with a walker — he’d gotten rid of the wheelchair weeks before.
“At that point I really felt like something was wrong, more so
than ever,” said Peanut Butter Wolf. “Even a few weeks before
that he was in a wheelchair, but he was energetic and showing me music
and showing me his equipment and talked about moving all of his equipment
that’s still in Detroit to L.A.”
Still, in spite of the pain, he was happy. His one prayer had been answered.
This was the first birthday in four years that he hadn’t spent in a hospital.
‘It’s going to be all right’
In the last days of his life, as he shuffled up and down the hallway,
he had heart-to-heart chats with his mother. They were quick. But they
“You know I love you, right?” he said. “And I appreciate
everything you’ve ever done for me.”
“You don’t have to say that,” she said.
He and his mother had developed a ritual that preceded medical procedures:
They’d slap high-fives, an indication that everything was going to be
At home, the day after his birthday, he held his hand up for his mom
to meet it in midair.
She was puzzled. There was no procedure that day. Why was he doing this?
He continued to motion for her to high-five him, refusing to stop until
her hand met his.
Finally, she relented and gave it to him.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “We’re in this
together. It’s all good. You’re going to be all right. I promise you it’s
going to be all right.”