THREE YEARS AFTER HIS UNTIMELY DEATH, J DILLA'S BEATS AND REPUTATION LOOM EVER LARGER OVER
HIP HOP. BUT FOR HIS MOTHER – WHO NURSED THE
VISIONARY PRODUCER THROUGH A CHRONIC
ILLNESS AND HAS WATCHED HIS ESTATE LANGUISH
IN LIMBO – THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES. BY KELLEY LOUISE CARTER
There's nothing Maureen Yancey wouldn't do for her
children. But as she sits in the basement studio of her
only surviving son's Los Angeles home, she struggles
with the one thing she hasn't done since her firstborn, James
Dewitt Yancey known in hip hop circles as Jay Dee or
J Dilla – three years ago of complications from lupus.
She just can't. She didn't do it when the ambulance
arrived at the nearby house Dilla shared with. Common, and
she didn't when they failed to revive him from cardiac
arrest. She couldn't even bring herself to do it when she
picked out which baseball cap she'd place by his coffin.
"When he left, I had an awful void," she says
calmly. "I didn't grieve like you always think
you'd grieve. I always had a joy and the strength
to help others to get through it. But…" her voice
trails off, hands smoothing down her jeans. "I haven't cried yet."
Still, the memories came flooding back
when she flew from Detroit to visit the city
where her son was buried at age 32. "I rejoiced
in the fact that he wasn't sick anymore," she
says, "and that he'd done what he came here to
do. I do believe that. His purpose on earth was
to come here and give us the music that he had
in his heart and soul."
The equipment that surrounds her is Dilla's,
the same gear he used to create the deceptively
simple, unspeakably beautiful music that solidified his reputation as one of hip hop's greatest.
As Busta Rhymes put it in 2007, "He wasn't just
a producer, he was the best producer."
Many of her son's friends – Common, Busta,
Erykah Badu – still call regularly, and keep her
son's music in rotation. Q-Tip's latest single, "Move" (Universal
Motown, 2008), was built around a Dilla beat,
and her other son John Yancey, a rapper known
as Illa J has released the powerful new album,
Yancey Boys (Delicious Vinyl, 2008), which was
produced by his big brother.
Meanwhile the 60-year-old woman everybody calls Ma Dukes faces health problems of her own, and financial challenges as
well. Although numerous memorials and
"benefits" were held in his name, the proceeds
didn't change his family's life. Dilla left two
daughters – Ja'Mya, 7, and Paige, 9 – to provide for, a sizeable
IRS bill, and unresolved legal issues surrounding the use of his beats. Ma Dukes says she has
never received money from her son's estate
and that her plans to establish a foundation in
his name were quashed by the executor of his
estate. Somehow, she was not reduced to tears
even after Dilla's attorney informed her that
she had no legal right to use her own son's
name or likeness for commercial purposes. Not
even to support his family.
IN HIS NATIVE DETROIT, DILLA WAS THE MAN.
The soft-spoken beatmaker was a pioneer of
the Motor City hip hop landscape that struggled to gain national recognition before Slim
Shady put the D on the map in 1999. Though
he remains anonymous to the masses, Dilla
is considered a demigod by his hardcore fans.
His distinctive drum sounds and grimy,
organic sound palette revolutionized hip hop
production, and echoes of his innovative use
of samples can be heard in the work of Just
Blaze and Kanye West. "He can do a Primo beat
better than Premier. He can do a Dre beat better
than Dre, and he can out-rock Pete Rock,"
says fellow Detroit producer House Shoes.
"But none of them could duplicate a Dilla beat.
Much respect to those three. They were pioneers. But that's the fucking truth."
Dilla grew up in the Conant Gardens section
of Detroit's Eastside surrounded by music. His
dad, Beverly Yancey, played piano and upright
bass. "My mom and dad had a jazz a cappella
group, and they'd sing in the living room for
hours and hours," says Illa J, 22. "It was really
laid-back and nonchalant. While that was happening, my brother would be downstairs in the
basement doing his thing."
By the mid-1990s, Dilla was getting calls
from some of the hottest stars of the day. He
produced tracks for The Pharcyde, De La Soul,
Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, and Q-Tip,
with whom he founded the production collective The Ummah. Yet despite these high-profile
projects, Dilla shunned the limelight. His love
of music eclipsed any concern for dealing with
industry politics. "He wasn't antisocial," says
Illa J. "He was just quiet. That comes from our
dad. A lot of his personality rubbed off on my
brother. It was all about the craft for him. He
didn't care about all that other stuff."
When Tribe's Beats, Rhymes, and Life (Jive, 1996) was nominated for a Grammy, Tip invited
Dilla to the award ceremony. "I was like, 'Yo,
this is a good opportunity for you, you should
just go.' He was like, 'Hell no, I ain't going. Fuck
that!"' recalls Q-Tip, laughing at the memory.
"I said, 'You got nominated for a fucking
Grammy. You are going to go.' He said, 'I ain't
got nothing to wear!' But he went. He was so
mad and disgruntled and angry about that. He
was much happier doing it his way. That's who
he was. He didn't really want to fuck with none
of that. And I don't blame him."
DILLA REALIZED SOMETHING WAS WRONG WITH HIS
HEALTH IN JANUARY OF 2002. He'd just returned
from Europe and thought he had a bad flu.
Sick to his stomach and complaining of chills,
Ma Dukes took him to the emergency room
at Bon Secours hospital in suburban Grosse
Pointe, Michigan. His blood platelet count should
have been above 150, but it was below 10.
Doctors told his mother they were surprised
he was still walking around.
He tested positive for lupus, an autoimmune
disease that can be fatal. To make matters worse,
Detroit doctors diagnosed him with thrombotic
thrombocytopenic purpura, aka TTP, a rare disorder that causes blood clots to form in the
body's blood vessels.
Despite his degenerating health, Dilla
packed up his stuff and moved out to Los
Angeles, where he lived with his friend and
frequent collaborator Common. He set up a
studio and got to work. But
very few knew how bad life was for the soft-spoken prodigy. He poured himself into his
work, doing his best to forget his health problems. Ma Dukes says there were several close
calls. When she left him alone once, Dilla fell
down and bumped his head. Because she
refused to leave Dilla's side during his last days,
she and her husband lost their house. She tried
to file for bankruptcy to save the family home
but didn't get back to Detroit in time to sign
the necessary paperwork. "I wasn't leaving
my son," she says."We lost the house. But I wasn't concerned. It didn't bother me at all."
At summer's end, 2005, Dilla found himself
in a hospital bed at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles,
the same hospital where The Notorious B.I.G.
and Eazy-E died. He'd lost the ability to walk
and could barely talk. His own body was killing
him, and there was little to be done about it.
Sensing that death was coming, he told his
mother he needed his equipment in the hospital
with him. Ma Dukes asked his friends from the
L.A.-based label Stones Throw Records to lug
his turntables, mixer, crates of records, MPC,
and computer into his room. When his hands
were too swollen, Ma Dukes would massage his
stiffened fingers so Dilla could work on the
tracks, letting his doctors listen to the beats
through his headphones.
Sometimes he'd wake Ma Dukes up in the
middle of the night, asking her to help move
him from his bed to a reclining chair so he
could work a bit more comfortably. His only
focus was finishing the album. Donuts was released on Stones Throw on February 7, 2006, his 32nd birthday. Dilla died three days later.
crazy to hear all that soul," Illa J says of one haunting track called "Don't Cry." "I got to
be in the right mode to listen to it. It's emotional
for me. I can feel my brother talking to me
through the music."
THREE DAYS AFTER DILLA DIED, HIS ELDEST
DAUGHTER, PAIGE, TURNED 6. "That was a low
blow," says her mother, Monica Whitlow.
"To have to tell my baby that before her birthday was the worst. We didn't get to say goodbye." The 29-year-old, who knew Dilla before his career took off, still lives in Detroit.
She emphasizes that their relationship was
never about money. "To have him back here,
breathing and living, that's worth more than
money any day," she says. "But it pisses me
off, everything that's going on with this estate. It's ridiculous 'cause it's been three
years, and my baby has not seen anything
from this estate. Nobody has granted James
his final wish."
Although Dilla's will stipulates that all
assets be divided among his mother, his two
daughters, and his brother, the executor of
the estate is his accountant Arty Erk, and as
back-up, there's his attorney, Micheline
Levine and then his mother. Ma Dukes says
she grew so frustrated that communications
broke down between her and the executor.
Erk explains that payments from the estate were delayed because Dilla has an outstanding tax debt in the "healthy six figures." He
says he is negotiating a payment plan with
the IRS and that a petition has been filed with
the probate court in order to get family allowances paid to Dilla's children.
The other major issue facing the estate is
that so many people are using Dilla's beats
without permission. Dilla would often create
beat CDs and hand them out to friends.
"It's been difficult to police," Erk admits,
adding that he's at the tail end of litigation
with Busta Rhymes. "An album was released
by Busta on the Internet called Dillagence without authorization," Levine explains.
"And, of course, we're now unable to use
those tracks and exploit those downloads.
Everybody downloaded it for free." Attempts
to reach out to Busta were not returned.
Ma Dukes counters that Busta paid Dilla
for those tracks years ago. "He got a raw
deal," she says. "Busta didn't take anything
from anybody." Ma Dukes says she feels bad
that her son's friend had to go through such
rough treatment by his estate.
The same scenario has played out several
times since Dilla's death. The estate has settled
"four or five" similar cases, negotiating what
they believe is fair market value for the beats.
"A lot of people are coming out of the woodwork with things that he did for them," says
Erk, who took out an ad in Billboard magazine
in April 2008, notifying people to stop using
Dilla's material. The estate also sent out cease-and-desist letters to various entertainers as well as people throwing events in Dilla's
name-including his own mother, she says.
"Her dream was to open a camp where kids
with lupus could have normal lives," says Joy
Yoon, an L.A. journalist who interviewed Ma
Dukes shortly after her son's death and later
offered to help her raise funds for what was to
be called the J Dilla Foundation. "But then she
said she was put on hold by the lawyers."
Ma Dukes insists she will go on with her
plans for the foundation, establishing it in her
own name. "It's been over two years, and
they're talking the same crap," she says. "I
don't have a Ph.D., but I know how to use a
phone and talk to somebody and make arrangements. It's just not an excuse. They have
no respect for the fact that I had anything to
do with bringing him into this world."
Meanwhile, she has voiced concerns
about Dilla's will itself, which he signed on
September 8, 2005, nearly six months before
his death. "I don't even know if he really
knew what he was signing," she says. "I don't
think he would have signed anything if he'd
known it would be like this now." She has
hired an attorney who is also representing her
son and Paige's mother, Monica Whitlow,
who says that legal action is "in the works."
"His estate is fucked up," Q-Tip says.
"I know the lawyers are saying that he had
certain tax issues and all that stuff. But you
were getting paid to represent him when he
was alive, so it shouldn't be any of that. Ma
Dukes ain't getting nothing, and the kids
ain't getting nothing. It's a horrible thing."
During the last year of her son's life,
Maureen Yancey tested positive for lupus. She
says she's not worried about dying and has
accepted the fact that she and her husband
must now live in a rental property in a neighborhood she describes as "a war-torn zone."
What keeps her up at night is her grand
children. "I just want the girls to be taken
care of," she says. "That's all."
In response to a petition filed by her
mother, Joyleete Hunter, Dilla's youngest
daughter, Ja'Mya, has begun receiving money
from the estate, and Erk says Paige should
start receiving payouts sometime in early
2009. "Oh really?" says Whitlow. "That's
new information for me." She has had few
conversations with Erk and says that when
she informed him she was working with Ma
Dukes' lawyer, he warned her, "This is going
to get ugly." But she remains undeterred. "I
gotta speak up for my baby 'cause I been quiet
too long," she says."He hasn't seen ugly. I
can show him ugly."
In the meantime, Ma Dukes says please
don't cry for her. "It's really rough for everybody out there. But prayers help," she says
with a sigh."Pray for my strength."