Tuesday night at Northern Lights Lounge in Detroit was Shoes’ House — and the room was stacked. This Tuesday (Feb. 7), in particular, was something special. The Super Bowl weekend had just ended and regulars at the Lights who made it out on this frigid night were there to celebrate the release of renowned Detroit hip-hop producer James “Jay Dee” Yancey’s instrumental album Donuts. Listening parties like this were thrown across the globe — from the Big Apple to Australia, the music of Jay Dee was being celebrated.
Just three days after Jay Dee’s 32nd birthday — and the Donuts’ record release — the fun transformed to tears. On Friday, Feb. 10 in Los Angeles, Jay Dee passed away due to complications from a long battle with lupus.
Yancey aka Jay Dee aka J Dilla was one of the most influential producers of modern hip-hop and soul music. It’s possible that his low-key attitude and devotion to craftsmanship, rather than desire for stardom, kept the unassuming artist below the mainstream’s radar. But musicians and purists to the game will tell you he was the producer’s producer — as talented as a Pharrell Williams or a Kanye West. “If you were to secretly ask the most praised hip-hop producers, if given a top three, who they fear the most, Dilla’s name would chart on everyone’s list, hands down,” The Roots’ ?uestlove told MTV last week. “I am fortunate to have known this man. He inspires me to perfect my craft in every way. Dilla was and will always be my hero.”
Before becoming one of hip-hop’s greatest musical inspirations, Dilla came up through the ranks of the Detroit music scene. Detroit singer/musician Amp Fiddler first taught Dilla how to work the MPC (a sampling/beat-making machine). “The first beat he played for me he looped the whole track from cassette player to cassette player,” Amp Fiddler said. “There were a few drops — but for the most part it was pretty damn precise. So I told him he needs to go home and separate all the samples to load into the MPC, and he came back with all the samples separated and mapped out exactly how he wanted it. As time went on, he got better and better. He used to come by the crib to get on the MPC and (he’d) work on it for three or four hours at a time. He used to have a big smile on his face — because he was so excited — after finishing a beat.”
Finishing a beat was one thing, but it was the popular underground hip-hop sounds of pioneers Pete Rock, Diamond D and DJ Premier that led Jay Dee on the path to becoming a legendary technician. From the very beginning of his career Jay Dee was known to be a studio rat, always working and always improving on his sound. “What separates Dilla from every other producer in hip-hop is that he became superior to all his influences,” said DJ House Shoes, a Detroit hip-hop DJ/producer. “He was a natural and made me want to be better than I was.”
Frank, of the rap duo Frank-n-Dank, remembered that it was Jay Dee’s Detroit upbringing that would motivate the desire to explore all facets of hip-hop music and culture: “Me and Jay Dee used to DJ around 10th, 11th grade. We would cut class and DJ at middle schools. He introduced me to DJing by teaching me how to transform.”
As Jay Dee’s high school years went on at Detroit Pershing, his love of rhyming and beat-making continued to get stronger. Jay Dee kept making beats and performing with his group — he was the MC, Copez the DJ and Frank-n-Dank the dancers. But soon he would link up with T3, Baatin and Waajeed — at the time known as the crew H20. Slum Village would soon form and become the main focus of Jay Dee’s musical existence. As Frank revealed of those early days: “Of everyone that Dilla worked with in the neighborhood, Slum Village was the front runner. That was Dilla’s priority.” Frank continued, “When we were all in the studio, it was like a boot camp. We only had one DAT machine … so there was no room for mistakes. There were no retakes, you needed to get your beats and rhymes together beforehand. We would have five-minute beat-battles where we would take a record and have to finish that beat in five minutes. It was all a serious learning experience.”
Jay Dee would craft future classics for Slum Village at home, in “the basement.” Along with another MC he came up with, Phat Kat, they would eventually start the Gang Starr-structured duo 1st Down, where Jay Dee was the producer and Phat Kat the MC. After knocking out a bunch of demo recordings, 1st Down got a break by landing a singles deal with the then-prestigious Pay Day Records label, home of the likes of O.C. and Jeru The Damaja. Only one 12” single would be released (“A Day Wit The Homiez” b/w “Front Street”) and Jay Dee would turn his focus back to his signature sound and SV.
With an unflinching fondness for studio wizardry and a love for finding new sounds, Jay Dee began to change the way hip-hop was produced. Phat Kat stated: “Dilla didn’t fuck around in the studio. Everybody else had to adjust their style to keep up with Dilla or if they ever wanted the chance to work with Dilla. You had to be able to knock out your verse in one take.”
Phat Kat explained that creating music came easily for Jay Dee. “I’ve seen Dilla make beats in 10 minutes. We made that track off of Welcome 2 Detroit in 10 minutes flat. We completed the whole Dedication To The Suckers EP from scratch in less than one night. He did the beats and I laid the verses. We started at 9 p.m. and finished by 12 midnight.”
Slum Village’s first demo, the Dilla-produced Fan-tas-tic, launched Jay Dee on a long string of notable national production work for the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Tha Pharcyde, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson and Common. As long-time friend and Detroit DJ/musician DJ Dez expressed: “Dilla was able to cross genres in such a manner that he made it all feel the same. He had people not making hip-hop seeking his work. Like when we were in the studio with Erykah Badu making ‘Didn’t Cha Know.’ I was playing percussion on there. It was some ol’ soul shit and with Dilla it came out quick and easy. Afterwards, we’re in the car with Erykah and she couldn’t help but rant and rave about how amazing Dilla is.”
With musicians from all over the world eager to collaborate with him, Jay Dee left Slum Village shortly after the release of the group’s Fantastic Vol. 2 to explore his solo ventures and other production work. In 2001, Jay Dee released the compilation-esque album Welcome 2 Detroit on BBE Records. “Jay was one of my favorite hip-hop producers of all time,” Peter Adarkwah, founder of BBE Records, said in a statement last week. “His passion for music was a rare thing amongst people in the music industry. His music and presence will be sorely missed.”
Following his time at BBE, Jay Dee landed an ill-fated album deal with MCA Records. He bounced back with stellar solo releases such as the “Fuck The Police” 12” single and the Ruff Draft EP, along with the classic collaboration known as Jaylib with west coast MC/producer Madlib. Besides the release of Donuts, Jay Dee was able to finish at least two other projects before his death, an EP titled Jay Love Japan and the full-length solo album The Shining — both originally slated for release later this year. | RDW
Donuts is in stores now.
aka Jay Dee
While listening to Donuts before his untimely death, we hear an album of two-and-half-dozen beats from Dilla just chopping up crazy samples and showing a lot of experimentation. The listener gets a big whiff of Dilla’s beat-making genius, with a dash of influence from his recent West Coast associations with Madlib and the Stones Throw crew.
Upon his death, Donuts took on a whole new meaning. While much of the album was made during recent stays in the hospital, it was as if Dilla knew his upcoming fate and was making his own farewell to the world with Donuts. Many of the samples used and the songs’ titles do all the talking. On “Don’t Cry,” sampled vocals singing the words “I can’t stand to see you cry” repeat throughout. The heavenly sounds of “Waves” or “One Eleven” are enough to make you want to shed a tear. Most incredibly, is the way the album closes out with tracks named “U-Love,” “Hi,” “Bye” and “Last Donut of the Night,” as if Dilla was saying goodbye to everyone through his music. — KF
[As young men at Detroit’s Pershing High School, T3 co-founded Slum Village with Jay Dee and Baatin in the mid-‘90s. Real Detroit asked the long-time friend of Jay Dee to share his thoughts regarding Dilla’s passing. — Ed.]
Dilla dog was one of the most slept on MCs and producers that ever lived … He was one of my closest friends, more like a brother …
The founder of the whole neo soul-sound, respected amongst “the who’s who list” of people in the entertainment game. We — as Slum Village — will make people aware of all the things J Dilla done for music. And moving the needle for Detroit artists, he paved a way for all of us in hip-hop — ask any well-known producer and they know who the fuck Dilla was. In fact, he’s probably on their top 5 list. His sound will live on through Slum Village forever.