James Yancey a.k.a. Jay Dee, a.k.a. J.Dilla (1974-2006)

James Yancey a.k.a. Jay Dee, a.k.a. J.Dilla (1974-2006)

Jay Dee, born James D. Yancey, was one of the few artists whose records were bought on sight, played until digested and then discussed among fans and critics (usually on Okayplayer), where an entire legion of Dilla devotees lurks). He kept hip-hop relevant long after many of its greatest heroes had left it for dead, at least creatively. There are many talented beat-makers and producers, but there will only be one Jay Dee.


It was his friend Amp Fiddler who taught Jay Dee the basics of the MPC sampler/drum machine/sequencer. Jay, now widely acknowledged as the father of the Detroit hip-hop sound, proved to be somewhat of a prodigy, absorbing every record or sound he heard and logging it for future use. His first stab at recording was 1995’s “No Place to Go,” the single by his group with Phat Kat, First Down. But he gained more notoriety after forming Slum Village with two friends from high school, T3 and Baatin, and creating the now infamous Fantastic Vol. 1 (1996). Legend has it that a cassette copy of that record got into the hands of the Roots‘ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and made him an instant fan. Questlove passed the album to friends such as Common and D’Angelo, but it wasn’t until 1996, when Jay Dee joined the Ummah production team with A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, that people started to really get a taste of Dilla’s sound.

After making friends and connections at New York City’s Battery Studios, Jay Dee started to do solo production work for a number of hip-hop’s elite. But even after producing classic tracks such as De La Soul‘s “Stakes Is High,” the Pharcyde‘s “Runnin” and several of the best on Tribe’s Beats, Rhymes and Life album (including both singles), he was still largely unknown. Two of his biggest records, Janet Jackson’s “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” and a re-working of one of his beats that turned into 2Pac’s posthumous “Do for Love” track, were never officially credited. 

After numerous label problems (including a release of the album on both Capitol and GoodVibe) the much-bootlegged Fantastic Vol. 1 was finally released in full form as the hip-hop masterpiece Fantastic Vol. 2 in 2000. I remember seeing House Shoes spin at St. Andrews in Detroit a month after the album was released. Within two notes of “Raise It Up” the place went wild, proving that this was an anthem long before a record label decided to put its stamp on it.


That was a big year for Jay Dee. His made beats for the likes of Busta Rhymes, Black Star and Guru, and he produced most of Q-Tip’s solo album, Amplified. That was also the year that Dilla, along with Questlove and producer/songwriter James Poyser, co-founded the Soulquarians crew, which went on to include D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Common, Q-Tip, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, the Roots and Bilal. Although Jay has spoken of his nerves being in a room full of “musicians” equipped only with old records and his MPC, he went on to be a driving force behind Common’s Like Water For Chocolate (giving Common his biggest hit yet with “The Light”), D’Angelo’s classic Voodoo album, as well as being a major contributor to Erykah Badu’s equally important Mama’s Gun.


In 2001 Jay Dee released his most personal record, BBE’s Welcome to Detroit. This album displayed his wide-ranging musical ear, introduced the world to local emcees Elzhi, Phat Kat, Frank ‘n’ Dank and Ta’Raach, and firmly established him as a capable emcee in his own right. His next official album was 2003’s Champion Sound, a collaboration with Madlib. Released under the name Jaylib on the Stones Throw label, the project was born out of mutual admiration, and it saw the two making beats for each other to rhyme over and collaborating largely through beat tapes sent through the mail.


In between, Jay Dee released the extremely rare Ruff Draft EP and “Fuck the Police” twelve-inch, a legendary remix for Four Tet‘s “As Serious As Your Life” featuring another Detroit emcee, Guilty Simpson, and a series of unreleased Dilla instrumental albums hand-picked by Jay Dee’s longtime friend and production protégé Waajeed.


But around that time, Jay Dee’s health started to fail. According to the Detroit Free Press, he was diagnosed with a rare blood disease, and for the next four years he’d be in and out of the hospital. In an effort to expand creativity and improve his health, he moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to contribute production for various Stones Throw artists.


Last year, Jay Dee was the only other person besides executive producer Kanye West invited to add tracks to his L.A. roommate Common’s album, Be. But his final offering is Donuts (two other projects, The Shining and Jay Love Japan, are completed, and he also finished production work for artists such as Ghostface, Busta Rhymes, Madlib, Phat Kat, MF Doom, Skillz, Frank ‘n’ Dank, and others). That album was released on his thirty-second birthday, February 7, three days before he died, apparently of complications from the autoimmune disorder lupus. (Memorial contributions can be made to Maureen Yancey, 132 N. Sycamore Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90036; or, via bank wire, to Wells Fargo Bank of Los Angeles, California, Routing Number 122000247, Account Number 6043250676. Donations will be considered a gift of help, not a charitable donation.)


Donuts may be the clearest path to finding his creative genius: a forty-two-minute beat-tape sketchbook of all original material. It showed Dilla’s ability to chop anything he put his hands on and make it brand new. It was also, as revealed by Questlove and confirmed by a representative from Stones Throw, largely made during extended stays at the hospital, using a mess of original 45s, a Numark portable turntable and a Powerbook.


The day before we would find out about Jay Dee’s passing, Waajeed and Stones Throw artist Koushik hosted an all-night listening party for Donuts in New York City. It would become an all-night tribute to the man’s passing. The night was a reminder of Jay Dee’s vast catalog and a proper preview to an album that, like all things Dilla, must be played at full volume to be fully appreciated.


Because he seldom did press, we knew Jay Day best through his music. According to his mother and people who knew him, that was always the most important thing in his life and how he will forever be remembered. Many have written thoughts about Jay Dee (check Black Thought‘s post on Myspace and Questlove’s February 11 and February 15 Myspace blog posts), but Prefix talked to musicians, friends, and fellow artists and producers about Jay Dee, his work, and his legacy.



J. Dilla had just moved to Los Angeles when I first had the chance to meet him. The most unassuming cat in a room, quiet and reserved. We spoke barely a word.  I mean, this is the man who brought so many songs that have made me love music, what could I say to him at the time?


I had my chance later when I briefly joined the record-release shows for Madvillian in L.A. and San Francisco. He was performing with Madlib as Jaylib. We got stuck at Oakland International Airport for a few hours waiting for a ride into town. MF Doom had taken off with his manager in a taxi. We were doing nothing; J-Rocc was on the phone, Madlib had wandered off, crew from Stones Throw were running around getting vehicles together. Jay is just sitting staring into space, in his head.


I had brought a little Casio to mess with for just these kind of touring moments of quiet. Jay seemed to wake up a bit to the sound. We talked for a moment about it and he asked to play a little. That seemed to be all it took. He really lit up playing it.


I think that whole time he was sitting there he was thinking about music. He really lived it.

~Daedelus, producer


Jay Dee is the greatest hip-hop producer of all time, as far as I’m concerned. I feel blessed to have been able to hear and collect his music over the last twelve years; I feel honored that I was able to collaborate with him on the song “Antiquity” by Dwight Trible & The Life Force Trio, and I feel lucky that while he lived in L.A. I got to know him. He is a fellow Aquarian whose musical and creative gifts will live on with me for all of my days.

       ~Carlos Nino, Ammon Contact, Los Angeles


A trend-setter, hip-hop’s elite. He gave his life for this shit. What else can I say?

~A.G. of D.I.T.C.


Jay Dee was a producer’s producer, and not just in a press-release way. The dude made us all feel wack in a way that I can’t even explain to you. He was real black music with the soul out there on the floor, pushing every angle to take soul places it has never been before. He took sounds from other dimensions and infused soul into them. He made exactly what he wanted to hear and didn’t think of how it was gonna sound on an A&R’s table – and he walked away with every shred of credibility and creativity that we all wish we had.


Technically, he was a genius. Not a technical nerd (I wish he was), but really he was just that good – almost like he was from another planet. If God gives talent, Jay’s was hip-hop, and he even kept God guessing. Dilla invented trends, never followed ’em.

~Diplo, deejay and producer


I connected in a special way with J. Dilla through his music. There was a soulful connection that you will hear on the upcoming Fishscale album. What upsets me most is that Jay Dee never got a chance to hear the finished song, but I know he’ll love it when he hears it up top with God.

~ Ghostface, emcee


To me, Jay Dee meant more to me than being a “hot producer.” He was one of the few who seemed to be willing to be a martyr for the art. I’m sure there were many times that it crossed his mind that he could follow the current formula, whatever that may be, in order to cash in and elevate his known status to the next level.


Besides beats, his rap flow was truly next level. Very few were able to find the pockets that he found and play with cadence like he did. To those who saw this, he made they jaws drop. Jay Dee pushed me to find my own voice and flavor. I learned a lot by studying his techniques and then realizing that we all have the freedom to experiment. That takes guts to do when some things are not embraced by the music world as a whole. One thing I noticed is that during interviews, journalists rarely seemed to ask him about the technical side of what he did with music. This irked me. I would’ve loved to hear about when and how he decided to start messing with the timing of his drum programming and what propelled him to do as such.


When I did my collab with Dilla, I was given the opportunity to actually go to Detroit and work with him at his spot. I opted not to, almost as if I subconsciously didn’t want to learn that he was mortal. Silly me. A big regret, indeed, and I never got to know him personally, but I’m very glad to be a part of his discography. Dilla means the world to me. I will miss his guidance and creativity.

~Moka Only, a.k.a. Torch, emcee, producer


Jay’s beats and techniques inspired me so much and taught me how to really capture the best part of track. You could sort of see how Jay listened to tracks by just hearing what he chose to loop or chop. He was a real listener and fan of great music of all types, which is the most essential quality in a good artist and producer. One of the best.

~Boom Bip, producer, Los Angeles, California


Dilla definitely was my favorite in the later years. Thanks to him, that good-vibe hip-hop production stayed alive. That is entirely what I’m on, and I had no other choice but to rock to Jay Dee’s outstanding production. It is a sad time for true hip-hop heads, and we all should be thankful to have even experienced Dilla’s sound. I vow to carry the torch like Slum Village did for Tribe. I really mean this.

~Jneiro Jarel, emcee, producer, Philadelphia


J. Dilla = Dondi = Paul C. The legend continues.

~Count Bass D, emcee, producer, Nashville, Tennessee


I want to send my condolences to Jay’s family on their great loss. We will never forget Jay’s contributions to our lives personally and to the art of music as a whole. We as Detroit producers and artists will continue on the path of musical innovation and integrity that he offered as a gift to the rest of the world. Through his music and in our hearts, Jay will live on until the end of time. R.I.P.

~Afra Behn, Detroit, Michigan


Peter Adarkwah, the founder of BBE Records, said he was “deeply saddened by the news. Jay was one of my favorite hip-hop producers of all time. His passion for music was a rare thing amongst people in the music industry. His music and presence will be sorely missed for many years to come.”


Time to celebrate one of hip-hop’s greatest producers ever. Play this man’s music till time ends. Respect to all family and friends of Jay Dee. “From Allah (God) we begin, and to Allah we return.”

~Tableek from Maspyke


In many ways I feel those who remain have a duty to carry on the music that he can no longer create. I hope to do my small part to progress in musical directions he has yet to cover, in memory of him. Jay Dee was, and continues to be, a huge influence in my hip-hop composition. I love his music and love the journey I had to take to wrap my mind around what he created. A pioneer and a legend, without a doubt. “Now clap your hands to what he’s doing”

~Miles Bonny, producer, Kansas City


The news of Dilla’s death this week has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with in my life. His passing brings more sadness than I can express, for lots of different reasons. The main reason is losing of one of my closest friends for the past fifteen years and knowing that I will never hear his laugh again. The second reason, and the one that upsets me the most, is knowing that the world never truly realized his brilliance during his lifetime.


Thanks to everybody who came out to the Donuts listening party in NYC on the eve of Dilla’s passing. Somehow I think he heard us that night and it made his transition easier. I also want to thank Mrs. Yancey for keeping everybody so strong and looking after him as only a mother could. She’s not just his mother; she’s been a mother to everybody through these last couple of years. Thanks also to Common and Peanut Butter Wolf and the rest of the Stones Throw Crew for everything they have done for Dilla and his family.

Lastly, I want to thank you, Jay Dee, for being a constant source of inspiration for all of us. It’s a shame you had to go, but somehow I think you knew you didn’t have much time, and that’s why you always worked so tirelessly. Your contributions go deeper than music. I appreciate that and want to do the same. I miss you and look forward to seeing you again.

~Waajeed, Platinum Pied Pipers and Bling 47


Dilla was a true inspiration for all of us. Whether you knew him personally or were a fan of his music, he had the ability to touch all of our souls. Dilla, thank you for the music. May your legacy live on.

        ~Diane Payes, Senior Director of Marketing/Publicity, ABB Records, Oakland, California


For me he’s the number-one beat maker, bounce generator and soul creator of the sample generation.

~DJ2D2, producer, FatProducts, Powder Room, ScannerFM.com-Barcelona, Spain


Jay was a living bridge, the only true bridge between hip-hop’s underground and mainstream. What I’ve gotten from this experience is that no compromise whatsoever should be made for the sake of appeasing the masses, especially since at the end of the day, real hip-hop ain’t shit without its dirty essence, nature and soul. This is something that Dilla came to realize and live out at the end…I think he made Donuts with this realization in mind. Listen to what he was saying…he knew what he was doing…he left us with an important message, and now he’s a bridge to the other side.

~Giant Step artist GB, nee Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker


J. Dilla was the most consistently innovative hip-hop musician I have ever heard. … It wasn’t just hip-hop heads who loved or adored Dilla, musicians did, too. … When you look at the phases of great hip-hop producers that we’ve gone through, none of them has covered so many genres so effortlessly. [Dilla] had a way of putting that thump into a piece of music that had you coming back weeks later trying to figure out what he had done. He was also a dope emcee. … His style and delivery were effortless, hard, gritty street sophistication – pure class.

Anything he did in music, he put a stamp on it … The way he brought peoples’ attention to beat-making was mesmerizing. His programming and arrangement have become a blueprint in how to keep a beat moving … his use of electronic equipment was rivaled only by Madlib… He could use a sample that everybody used and make it special … He was a one-off … You cannot put people next to Dilla – you build them another category … All of the serious beat-makers know he was a Miles Davis or John Coltrane of the art form … and I will sum it up with this: There are not four elements in hip-hop, there are now five. Beat-making or producing is the fifth element, and Dilla was the main man that made us aware of that. God bless you, Jay Dee.

~Big Dada artist TY, London


J. Dilla [was] an amazing human being. How many producers would be in a hospital bed with an MPC and vinyl making music? Dilla’s love for his craft was beyond incredible, and it goes without saying that that love shined through in all his work. A true legend in hip-hop, never to be forgotten.

~DJ Chief-One, Port Chester, N.Y.


Dilla pioneered an era that gave many producers a head start. Dude is a legend and definitely one of best that ever touched the MPC.

~Locsmif, producer, Atlanta, Georgia


Jay Dee could hear soul music in any genre or any style.

~Eliot Lipp, producer, Los Angeles


I really respected his sound and production value, the fact he stayed true to himself and made music from the soul. He will be missed. Like Pete Rock or Primo, he changed the way cats made tracks, pushed the envelope and had many biters …, which is a sign of his influence in itself. I’d have to put him up there as one of my favorite producers.

~Ubiquity artist Ohmega Watts


Everyone at Ubiquity was deeply saddened to hear of J. Dilla’s passing at such a young age. Jay was a musical genius and extremely versatile, as skilled in production as he was behind the microphone. 


I remember working with him on the Platinum Pied Pipers project and being a little frustrated because he showed up unprepared without lyrics but then being amazed at how quickly he could actually put a song together. Our sincerest sympathy goes out to his family.

~Michael McFadin, co-founder and president, Ubiquity Records Inc.


J. Dilla has been in my thoughts since [February 10] when I got the text. I’ve been listening to Donuts over and over again. The beats are crazy. Him chopping up soul tunes, his new style; he brought the handclaps in and made it cool to use ’em and now everyone’s been using ’em. This whole neo-soul shit is Jay Dee (which he never got credit for). We went to Pittsburg on a record run. We was back to back, and it was great. Dude had a real big heart. Dilla, you will be missed.

~Kenny Dope, deejay and producer


J. Dilla was the greatest beat-maker of our time. His sound and style influenced and inspired so deeply that he single-handedly changed the sound of hip-hop and soul music, bringing back the organics, the musicality and the groove. He was one of a kind, a master of his craft and will be remembered for all time. He made our world a better place. Rest in peace to a true original and master of the game.

~Mark de Clive-Lowe, producer, London


J is absolutely the most influential producer to bless the boards in the past decade, period. His talent spawned a whole new sound in hip-hop, R&B and soul music. I can honestly say that I have developed a bit of Dilla-ism in my approach to making beats at times. He was undeniably every producer’s favorite producer. He kept cats on their toes and was always ahead of himself. His vibe was infectious, electrifying and mystical. J. Dilla is an innovator and a true legend of our generation. I’m going to miss him.

~DJ Spinna, Brooklyn


From day one the only thing he was trying to do was bring good music to the masses the way he heard it. … I always told him that he was the best to ever do it and he was light years ahead of us and it showed in his work. … For me to just be around him throughout the whole creative process was priceless. … Words can’t even express how much I’m already missing him … but as long as we continue to keep creating good music, J. Dilla’s spirit will live on.

~Phat Kat, a.k.a. Ronnie Cash, Detroit, Michigan


We have lost something that will never be replaced.
James Yancey, 1974-2006, rest in peace. We love you.

~House Shoes, deejay, Detroit, Michigan


Dilla was the best. He taught me so many things. No man can match his level of creativity in the lab. He was an emcee, producer, father, mentor, and a true friend. I’m just thankful to have been able to work with him for the short period of time I did. He will never be forgotten.

~Guilty Simpson, emcee, Detroit, Michigan


Jay Dee’s music touched a lot of lives, and while he will be dearly, dearly missed, we can all celebrate that his music will live forever.

~Bill Sharp of Fat Beats, record store, label, New York City/Los Anegles/Amsterdam


Last weekend we lost one of the most gifted musicians on the planet – one of the most inspiring producers of our time, and in my opinion the best beat-maker that ever was. The producer’s producer. I awoke in my hotel room in Tokyo absolutely devastated to find out that James Yancey, Jay Dee, J. Dilla, had passed away. Anyone who listens regularly to my show will know how I feel about this man’s music and know also that his music is at the core of what this radio program is all about. One of the things that I find most upsetting about his passing is that I don’t feel that he was fully recognized by the mainstream for the genius that he was. Not yet anyway. Like many great artists, maybe it will be only in death that he finds the recognition that he truly deserved in life.

~Benji B, BBC Radio 1 (2/16/06)


Today we lost an artist/producer, a legend and, most of all, a friend. Much love and support to the family, and thanks to all for the outpouring of love and prayers. J. Dilla, you will be with us in everything we do.

~T3 and Elzhi of Slum Village


One tribute, a series of tributes, this message, can’t possibly encompass what his mere influence has meant to me. If anything, my entire catalog would be my tribute. From my first loop I ever made in Goldwave to the last song I’ll ever finish, if there wasn’t a Jay Dee, there wouldn’t be the sound that is Obsidian Blue. Point blank.

~Obsidian Blue, producer, Oklahoma City


I think every real producer in the game was influenced by this man, even if they didn’t know it. He lives through every one of us. Through every snare, kick and hi-hat, you will hear the message of J. Dilla. God bless. Rest in peace.

~King Britt, Philadelphia, deejay, producer


Certainly one of the most important producers of our time. Apart from his incredible impact on music, which we all know about, my most poignant memory of Jay Dee was simply how humble and modest a fellow he was. Meeting him the first time I was filled with trepidation that he’d be this overbearing hip-hop monster, all blinged up and stuff, so you can understand how relieved I was when we got straight into a conversation about Cal Tjader. Pure music, man. He’ll be missed.

~Gilles Peterson, BBC Radio 1, London



Dilla changed the game for hip-hop producers, period. From Keith Murray to the Pharcyde, the Ummah to the Soulquarians, Jaylib, Spacek, D’Angelo, the Roots, Frank ‘n’ Dank, Slum Village and Platinum Pied Pipers, and the zillions of other remixes and originals he blessed us with before leaving us for a better place. His drum-programming sensibilities and sample-chopping techniques were second to none, and everybody and their momma knows that.


When we lose our pioneers so young, it’s disheartening to us all on a fundamental, human level. Many of us also have extremely personal reasons why losing Dilla hurts us so badly, us specifically meaning the musical community many of us share, and even more specifically my fellow young black mavericks as a whole. We have less and less of those mavericks by the minute these days, and when one dies so young, due to physical failure rather than a bullet or the other dumb shit we’re used to seeing kill our men, it hurts even more, because death becomes a bit more tangible to the average person at that point.


I just hope to God that his passing reminds those of us who are musically conscious that there is great work to do in continuing the lost art of penetrating the mainstream without compromising our creative license and sticking to our guns by allowing our style to guide our path, rather than be guided by our “need” to be embraced by the musical ivory tower. I think Dilla was a shining example of the idea that the truth will indeed come to light one day… that artists in the music business need not chase industry-standard pipe dreams in order to be heard, and hopefully be respected and admired as Dilla so incredibly was by a wide and diverse audience of people.


The work he put in in his short time with us is to be honored and remembered, and that work deserves hall-of-fame credentials immediately. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I have a hard time remembering when another producer created so many “me too” followers of the light he shined on people with his work, in such a sincerely short period of time. Shine on, Dilla.


        ~Rich Medina, Kindred Spirits USA





Classic Jay Dee tracks:
1. Slum Village “Fall in Love”
2. Common “Soul Power”
3. Q-Tip “Let’s Ride”
4. Jay Dee “Fuck the Police”
5. Phat Kat “Dedication to the Suckers”
6. Pharcyde “Runnin'”
7. Badu “Kiss Me on My Neck”
8. Black Star “Little Brother”
9. Jaylib “No Games”
10. Bilal w/Mos & Common “Reminisce”
11. Jay Dee “Shake It Down”
12. D’Angelo “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes” (Remix)
13. J-88/Slum Village “Look of Love”
14. De La Soul “Stakes Is High”
15. The Roots “Dynamite”
16. Four Tet “As Serious As Your Life” (Remix)
17. Spacek “Dollar”
18. Elzhi “Love It Here”
19. Talib Kweli “Stand to the Side”
20. ATCQ “Get a Hold”
21. Common “Nag Champa”
22. Keith Murray “The Rhyme” (Remix)
23. Janet Jackson w/Q-Tip “Got ‘Til It’s Gone”
24. Slum Village “2U4U”25. J.Dilla “Two Can Win”

For Jay Dee’s full discography, information on donating to his family, and anything else Dilla related, visit Stones Throw’s Web site.

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