Pubished by eMusic.com: Hey Ma – Maureen Yancey Remembers Her Son, J Dilla
There's a disarming effervescence to Maureen Yancey as she shares memories of her late son, the Detroit producer and rapper J. Dilla. It has been over three years since Dilla passed away from complications related to lupus, yet she speaks of him as though he were still a constant source of amusement and inspiration. When asked if Dilla ever tried her seemingly infinite patience, she laughs: "Of course he made me very mad. For a whole week. He was two years old."
Despite controversies surrounding Dilla's estate, indiscriminate bootlegging of his unreleased works and her own ongoing battle with lupus, Ms. Yancey — "Ma Dukes," to those who know her — has been one of the proudest and most optimistic champions of her late son's legacy. We spoke to Ms. Yancey over the phone in Boston, where she was attending a performance of Dilla classics at the Berklee College of Music. "They teach a Dilla class at Berklee," she explained proudly. "These students are having a program this evening and it's like a culmination of their classes. It's just spectacular!" In his absence, perhaps this is the next best thing to a proper Mother's Day gift.
"He was very unusual as a kid. The reason I say 'unusual' is because I had two boys in the house. One played with cars and trucks and Legos. And then there was Dilla, who had nothing but records and records and more records. He never asked for any toys. They didn't interest him. He would play with his brother maybe for a half-hour or so — he would give him a half-hour of his time. After that half-hour he just didn't have tolerance for the toys and the games: it would be back to the turntable.
We always let him choose his own records, even at two years old. You could go into a record shop and they would play different records in the shop, so you got to hear a lot of new stuff. (He went) shopping every Friday as a ritual, when his dad got paid. We lived downtown, and the record shop was two blocks away, so (his dad) would walk him to the record shop. If he heard something playing that caught his ear, he would ask for it. I was amazed at some of the choices he made. I know he couldn't have known all the artists. Maybe he was looking at the labels?
He started making his own music as a pre-teen, using cassettes. We had cassette tapes and everything, and he had a drum machine. And he'd be downstairs making music…he would do it continually, until it was time for him to go to bed. He would just be rewinding that tape over and over…he had a process where he could get the full sound. He had his own little technique. I know when my husband did his reel-to-reel, he did the same thing. He always did the recording himself, because he was never satisfied with how other people would do it. I think Dilla acquired some of that from him.
While he was still (in high school), he began to spend more time at Amp Fiddler's home. Amp showed him how to run the boards, and how to operate everything in that studio. He spent time with Amp at night to do different sessions. A lot of times he should have been home resting to get ready to go to school, but would be running late because he was in the studio all night.
From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., I had daycare going upstairs. And from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., Dilla had people coming daily to learn to do beats or for him to help with their music. These same young men who are big in the industry now — they would be outside my door at 6 p.m. every day, waiting. Eminem was one of them. Eminem and Paul Rosenberg — who turned out to be his attorney — Paul was rapping at the time, he wanted to be a rapper, too — they would be there at 6 sharp. They were very punctual! They would wait. And then there was Karriem Riggins. He was the quiet one. He was very polite and he never spoke. He was always silent. Proof would be there everyday. He was going to the ritzy, private high school — It was one of the best high schools they had in Michigan, very upper crust. It was hilarious that he went there. He was a good student — but he didn't want anyone to know it!
I felt good about (his career) when Amp took him to meet Q-Tip. Of all the young men and women Amp worked with — he worked with the entire community in Detroit — of all the people he could have taken, he took Dilla. And, sure enough, that turned out to be a wonderful thing. We got a phone call the next day — I remember we got it and Q-Tip's attorney called and said she had talked with Tip and he was very interested and he wanted him to fly out to New York and sign him up to do some work for him and choose an attorney. The whole house was in an uproar! I remember there were daycare teachers upstairs and they were screaming and I was about to burst wide-open.
He was diagnosed in 2002. They didn't diagnose him with lupus itself until 2005. They had not a clue it was lupus the entire time. Before then it was as a complication of lupus, but they hadn't a clue to look for it. Before they thought it was TTP (Thrombotic Thrombocytopenic Purpura)…and the other was something that attacked different cells. The names were so long, I could never memorize what they were. It was just a bunch of rare blood disorders that one in ten million people would get. There was no real way to treat it. And then we would have specialists consulting with other specialists, trying to figure out how to treat it. When we were at Cedars-Sinai I think he had 15 doctors treating him daily. They were online at all times. They would spend an hour there, trying to figure out what was going on.
He was just dumbfounded. I think it really made him sad — I've been sick for so long now. Why me? What have I done to deserve this? I didn't know what to say. I remember just sitting there. After a while he was all right.
He was sad, but he wouldn't drop any tears. It was the golden rule. He angered me so many times. I know he should have been upset. That's why I knew I couldn't let him see me upset or see me cry. I know coming out of dialysis it was so painful he felt like he was dead, with the condition that he had, it would make him feel like his life had drained out of him. It was really rough.
His situation — he would do good one day, and maybe his platelet count would drop to near-nothing over night. And it was just like…something you couldn't even imagine. This one day they said he wouldn't live through the night. They said he wouldn't make it through the next three hours. They had all types of masks on him. And he told them, No tubes. Everybody was in an uproar — Does he understand that his breathing is only eight percent and he can't make it? And he said, No. I'll be all right in the morning. And, of course, I'm about to lose my mind, and everyone was upset at me. But for some reason I didn't sign the papers. For some reason, I listened to him. And, sure enough, within eight hours time, his breathing was at one hundred percent. And they thought he was going to leave there at any minute. For some reason, I trusted him.
I'm so glad we had doctors that understood he was a musician. They allowed me to bring materials and equipment up. Stones Throw made sure he got a small, red sampler — it was something new that had just come out. Peanut Butter Wolf went and got it for him. And he had this piano-guitar — it was a small keyboard but it had guitar also — it was unusual — and then we got a turntable — he had to have two, one old one from the house and one portable for the 45s he was listening to. So I would bring crates of records up. By that time he had taught me how to record shop. It was good. I did the record shopping, I would bring things up, whether it was different equipment or a new mic. That way I knew he would have a good day.
As soon as he was able to support himself upright, it was time to go record shopping. Of course, at Amoeba (Records)…he would get out of the hospital, and that was something you know we had coming up. And I'd be so worried. Because he would be on a walker — the three-pronged walker — and the walker is at the end of one aisle, and I'm looking for something for him in another aisle, and when I come back, I see the walker and I don't see him. And I'm freaking out, cause he's already scooted his way down to another aisle. He was so engrossed in what he was doing, he had left the walker.
He knew. We had so many times…we would be out of the hospital, and then we would find ourselves back in a week. Some of his doctors were very frank with him — they would let him know they couldn't cure it, they could only treat it. So he knew what he was up against. He had accepted that he would not be here. He asked me a million times: Am I going to die today? Am I going to die? And that was just profound for me. I would open my mouth right away, but it took me forever to say, No, of course not.
Dilla never changed. It was always music, totally music, and more music. The only thing that changed was that the bass got deeper, and our heads would thump more.