J Dilla - Biography

Often called “your favorite producer’s favorite producer,” J-Dilla’s complex productions have gained respect from many of hip-hop’s elite. Having produced for artists ranging from local Detroit rappers to platinum-selling superstars, J Dilla was not just a great hip-hop producer, but also a versatile and a spectacular musician.

James Dewitt Yancey’s was born in 1974 to a jazz-bassist father and an opera-singing mother. While growing up in Detroit, Yancey took a liking to rapping and creating beats, which he did with the use of a simple tape deck. While in high school, Yancey (then calling himself Jay Dee) formed the hip-hop group Slum Village along with classmates Baatin and T3. Slum Village became a mainstay in Detroit’s underground hip-hop scene. Jay Dee’s ability to construct intricate beats with minimal resources caught the attention of established Detroit musician Amp Fiddler, who would introduce Jay Dee to the Akai MPC (arguably the most important tool in the history of hip-hop beat production). Jay Dee mastered the MPC quickly and never looked back. He was soon introduced to Q-Tip (of A Tribe Called Quest) who was impressed by the young producer and, along with the Tribe’s DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad, they formed The Ummah. An offshoot of A Tribe Called Quest, The Ummah initially formed to further strengthen the already innovative production of the band. Jay Dee played a pivotal role in the production of A Tribe Called Quest’s fourth album, 1996’s Beats, Rhymes and Life (Jive), and subsequently their fifth album, 1998’s The Love Movement (Jive). Jay Dee brought a smoother yet heavier tone to Tribe’s often jovial sound, as can be heard on songs like “Stressed Out” and “Keep it Movin.” Jay Dee went on to produce many successful singles and remixes for artists such as Busta Rhymes, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, Brand New Heavies, and De La Soul. While these were some of Jay Dee’s most commercially recognizable works, he is not directly credited on a majority of them and primary credit is granted to The Ummah. Jay Dee came into his own when he handled a major portion of the production on The Pharcyde’s second album, 1995’s Labcabincalifornia (Delicious Vinyl). Among his plentiful productions on the album are the soulfully serious “Runnin’” and the multilayered “Drop.” It is widely claimed that Jay Dee produced Janet Jackson’s single “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” from her 1997 album The Velvet Rope. Jay Dee himself has even insisted that he and Q-Tip (who is featured on the song) composed the track. However, when the single won a Grammy, it was given to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, both of whom are credited as the producers.

Meanwhile, Jay Dee continued to collaborate with Detroit hip-hop artists such as the late rapper Proof as well as Phat Kat, with whom Jay Dee formed the duo 1st Down — the first Detroit rap group ever to sign with a major label (although the label folded after 1st Down released just one single). Jay Dee was also working with his original group, Slum Village, to record the album Fantastic Vol.1 (Counterflow), which wouldn’t officially be released until 2005 — eight years after its recording. Heavily sought after and bootlegged among hip-hop collectors when it was originally recorded, Fantastic Vol.1 is a showcase of Jay Dee’s unique bass line texturing as well as what would become his trademark drum tinkering.   

At the turn of the new Millennium, Jay Dee, Quest love (The Roots), crooner D’Angelo, and James Poysner founded another production outfit called The Soulquarians — a consistently rotating group of artists that were united through their unconventional yet soul-centric methods of producing urban music. The collective worked on many of its members’ albums including Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun and a vast majority of Common’s acclaimed album Like Water For Chocolate. Jay Dee’s steadily ascending list of accolades began to create a buzz surrounding Slum Village’s second effort, Fantastic, Vol. 2 (GoodVibe), released in 2000. Although internet bootlegging weakened the initial sales of Fantastic, Vol. 2, the album was heavily acclaimed, and the chemistry between the MCs Baatin and T3 attracted comparisons to the dynamic manifested between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest. J Dilla proceeded to produce songs for the likes of Q-Tip (“Vivrant Thing”), Lucy Pearl (“Without You Remix”), and many others.

In 2001, Jay Dee began to call himself J Dilla and he left Slum Village to pursue other endeavors. Dilla released the single “F**K the Police,” which was a scathing criticism of law enforcement and, while it never made it onto an official J Dilla release, it’s regarded as one of his pivotal efforts. After providing the backdrop for a plethora of other artists, Dilla’s savvy beats got the chance to nab center stage on his 2001 solo album Welcome 2 Detroit (BBE). The album is built around the beats but also showcases J Dilla’s microphone skills. His loyalty to his hometown is expressed through collaborations with Detroit rappers Frank-N-Dank, Phat Kat, and Elzhi (who replaced J Dilla in Slum Villiage). Welcome 2 Detroit features tracks like “Think Twice” and “Shake It Down,” which helped to further establish J Dilla as a true maestro in the world of hip-hop beat production.

J Dilla acquired a major label contract with MCA and decided to rap over creations from some of the producers that he personally admired such as Kanye West, Pete Rock, and Hi-Tek. However, when MCA collapsed, the album was shelved and Pay Jay has yet to see a release aside from bootlegs. The tumult that emerged between Dilla and MCA began to stir frustration within him. He used his disillusionment with major labels as motivation for the music and marketing of the hard-hitting Ruff Draft. Perhaps in protest of major labels, the little-known Ruff Draft was originally released in 2003 on Dilla’s own Mummy Records and distributed through the German label Groove Attack. Ruff Draft was re-issued through Stones Throw Records in 2007. J Dilla intended the album to be lo-fi, experimental, and grimy as can be heard on songs like "Let’s Take it Back" or the sexually upbeat "Crushin.’”

Earlier in 2000, several of Dilla’s beats found their way into the hands of Los Angeles-based producer Madlib. Through email, Dilla would send Madlib beats to rap over and in turn, Madlib would send Dilla his beats for Dilla to rap over. Recording the album in two separate cities, they released Champion Sound ( Stones Throw) in 2003 under the name Jaylib. While the two producers/rappers shared common threads in their music, Champion Sound was hailed for contrasting two distinct production styles that complimented the two distinct lyrical deliveries. 

J Dilla had been producing music at a tireless pace. However, in 2004, his output began to slow down and he had lost a significant amount of weight. Dilla openly expressed that he was suffering from a blood disease, which eventually turned out to be lupus. On February 7, 2006, J Dilla turned 33 and on the same day he released what would be the last album of his life, Donuts (2006 Stones Throw). The highly regarded Donuts is composed of 28 instrumental tracks, none of which are more than three minutes in length. Many of the instrumentals from Donuts have been turned into full-length songs by prominent hip-hop artists such as Busta Rhymes, Ghostface Killah, and The Roots. Three days after release of Donuts, James “J Dilla” Yancey died from complications relating to lupus.

The hip-hop community mourned the loss of one of its most skilled contributors. Amazingly, J Dilla kept significantly busy while he was ill. The Shining (BBE) was said to be roughly three quarters done when Dilla died and was released later in 2006. Dilla’s mother, Maureen Yancey, put her trust in his longtime friend and collaborator Karriem Riggins to complete the album. Featuring collaborations with artists like Common, Pharoahe Monch, and Black Thought, The Shining is one of several Dilla projects to surface since his passing. Another project is the instrumental album Jay Love Japan (2006 Operation Unknown), which is now circulating in many forms (bootlegs, promotionals, imports, etc.). Dilla’s death has also sparked interest in his catalogue of unreleased music, which is said to be immense. Riggins has stated that all of Dilla’s music needs to be heard. Dilla’s younger brother, John Yancey (a.k.a. Illa J), released Yancey Boys (Delicious Vinyl) in 2008 that consists of the younger Yancey rapping over beats produced by Dilla.       

The late J Dilla was one of the innovators of hip-hop production. His music transcended genres, and prominent producers like The Neptunes, Kanye West, and Pete Rock have all been quick to tilt their hats out of respect for the legendary Detroit producer. Consistently innovating his music, J Dilla is unarguably one of hip-hop’s greatest producers.  

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