James DeWitt Yancey (7 February 1974 - 10 February 2006), better known by his stage names J Dilla and Jay Dee, was an American record producer and rapper who emerged from the mid-1990s underground hip hop scene in Detroit, Michigan. He produced songs for hip hop groups and rappers such as A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Common, De La Soul, and The Pharcyde.
Often heralded as one of the greatest hip hop music record producers of all time, Yancey was known for his eclectic method of production and consistently changing his style. He is an inspiration to countless hip hop musicians, and his legacy is prevalent in hip hop music today.
Yancey died in 2006 of the blood disease thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. His magnum opus, Donuts, was made in the hospital bed he was treated in, and was released three days before his death.
Early life and beginningsEdit
James Yancey was born on 7 February 1974 to Beverly and Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey at the Zieger Osteopathic Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. He was the oldest of four children, including his sister, Martha, and two brothers, Earl and John. His family lived in a house near McDougall and Nevada, on the east side of Detroit. He developed a vast music knowledge from his parents, with his mother being a former opera singer and his father being a jazz bassist. According to his mother, he could "match pitch perfect harmony" by "two-months old" to the amazement of musician friends and relatives. He began collective vinyl at the age of two and would be allowed to spin records in the park, an activity he enjoyed tremendously as a child. Yancey's first formal instrument training came on piano and cello, where he learned to read music before taking up drums, flute, and guitar. He was also a singer in the church choir, and served as both a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout.
After he graduated from Farwell Middle School, Yancey reluctantly enrolled at Davis Aerospace Technical High School because he was talented at physics. Instead, Yancey used the school as a platform for his music and performed at school parties as a DJ. The technical curiculum at Davis helped Yancey develop a mathematical approach to music composition, but he found other aspects of the experience stifling. While enrolled at the school, Yancey began working with Joseph "Amp" Fiddler, an accomplished keyboardist, producer and comoser. Yancey would forgo school to stay up late at Fiddler's home studio.
While at his studio, Fiddler gave Yancey his first experience with drum machines and digital programming. Yancey spent time digging through the extensive record collection Fiddler shared with siblings and advanced his skills in live instrumentation. "He learned the sampler real quick," said Fiddler. "I'd show him how to quantize, how to freak shit, how to change the time signature, make the feel different, make it fall ahead or behind the beat. He loved that."
In 1995, he collaborated with MC Phat Kat as the duo 1st Down, and signed to Payday Records, becoming the first Detroit hip hop group to sign to a major label. On the label they released a single that same year entitled "A Day wit the Homiez", and was Yancey's first release. The following year, he produced the EP Yester Years by 5-Elementz, a group consisting of, among others, Proof.
During these teenage years, Yancey stayed in his basement alone with his ever-growing collection of records, perfecting his craft. He later told Pete Rock when they met years later that "I was trying to be you."
In 1991, after transferring from Davis Aerospace Technical High School to Detroit Pershing High School for his senior year, Yancey met classmates T3 and Baatin, and became friends with them through a mutual love of rap battles. When Baatin began selling drugs a few years later, T3 and Yancey formed a group called Slum Village in an attempt to get Baatin into hip hop again.
A beat tape made by Yancey caught the attention of Q-Tip in 1994.Under Q-Tip's direction, Yancey began to complete credited and uncredited production and remix work for well-known artists. His first mainstream releases were with Los Angeles hip hop group The Pharcyde, with Yancey producing five songs from their 1995 album Labcabincalifornia. He would go on to produce songs for Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and Janet Jackson. However, much of his work was credited to The Ummah, a production team consisting of Yancey, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
Through Q-Tip's connection, Yancey was inducted into the collective Soulquarians, which, among others, consisted of rapper Common. Yancey produced ten songs on Common's gold-selling 2000 album Like Water for Chocolate, which earned him a Grammy Award nomination for the song "The Light" for Best Solo Rap Performance. Working together on the album created a strong friendship between the two that would last until Yancey's death. Yancey also contributed to Erykah Badu's album "Mama's Gun", which would earn him another Grammy Award nomination for R&B Song of the Year.
Illness and deathEdit
Yancey briefly toured Europe in January 2003 to promote his album Ruff Draft. Upon his return in January 2003, he fell ill. Initially believing it was due to exhaustion and malnutrition, Yancey discovered that he had thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood condition. Despite his fading health, he continued to produce music and teamed up with Los Angeles producer Madlib for the 2003 album Champion Sound. At the urging of Common, Yancey relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles in the spring of 2004 as his health began to worsen. He was later diagnosed with Lupus, which led to kidney failure and frequent hospital visits. Yancey went on his final tour in November and December in 2005, with childhood friends Frank n Dank and DJ Rhettmatic. "He wasn't supposed to go," said Frank. "But he said, 'You know what? I'm going to do it... I'm going to go and rock in a wheelchair'".
Yancey spent his final months creating the album Donuts, which was released on 7 February 2006. The album was created at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he was receiving treatment for his illnesses. Yancey passed away three days later at the age of thirty-two.
Main article: J Dilla discography
- 1997: Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1) (with Slum Village)
- 2000: Fantastic, Vol. 2 (with Slum Village)
- 2000: Best Kept Secret (with Slum Village)
- 2001: Welcome 2 Detroit
- 2003: Champion Sound (with Madlib as Jaylib)
- 2003: Ruff Draft
- 2006: Donuts
- 2006: The Shining
- 2006: Jay Love Japan
- 2009: Jay Stay Paid
- 2012: Rebirth of Detroit
- 2016: The Diary