January 11, 2013

Instrumental Harmony: Remembering J Dilla

By age 30, James Dewitt Yancey had already mastered and mixed hip-hop tracks for dozens of artists in his respective profession, effectively accomplishing in ten years of his career what most producers and artists couldn’t begin to understand by age 50. His understanding was that music was as much a language as plain English.

Born the oldest of four children to Maureen and Beverly Yancey, James had direct access to an arsenal of music and genetic talent. Beverly was an opera singer and Maureen was a jazz bassist. Needless to say, James gathered a very extensive knowledge of music and rhythms. By the age of three, he could match harmonies perfectly. Alongside a variety of music genres, of which I can imagine included R&B, Jazz, Opera, and Disco, James developed an extensive love for hip-hop music.

As a child, he would mix records in his neighborhood park, a passion that he took great happiness and joy in. By the age of 18, James developed a close relationship with artist Amp Fiddler. Amp was very impressed by all that James could manage in terms of harmony with such little resources, and resorted to letting James use his home mixing studio.

At this same time James met Baatin and T3, both considered formidable emcees for their time. After a very brief introduction, the three developed Slum Village. It was here that we can recognize James’ style of music-jazzy, melodic sounds mixed with hip-hop. The combination was virtually unheard of, and unanimously accepted amongst fans.

From there, an unthinkable event occurred that even James would never truly settle into. MC Q-Tip caught wind of Slum Village’s demo and immediately offered a management and producing contract. What better way to accept such an offer by not actually answering the phone the first day that Q-Tip called? It could not be helped, but hardly mattered, since Q-Tip called him back the very next day. Q-Tip recognized a devoted passion and commitment to hip-hop. A very close relationship developed between the two, and in many ways Q-Tip was the gateway artist for James in collaborating with various artists; including A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, and De La Soul, among many others.

Upon returning to his home city of Detroit, James was met with much acclaim and praise by the hip-hop scene. His absence from Slum Village for that period of time hurt his relations with the group, but meant nothing in the coming weeks. Approximately one month later, he had already finished a collaborative album, and had it copied and shipped out into stores. A neighborhood kid who loved mixing records in his neighborhood playground had become an icon of hip-hop in his city.

Around this same time, James was diagnosed with Lupus. This disease is a systematic immune deficiency that can attack and harm any part of the body. There is no cure for Lupus, and it is usually treated with immunosuppression.

Regardless of this, James still went on to create The Ruff Draft Ep in 2003, his first solo album that, while not very renowned compared to mainstream hip-hop, became the beginning of his journey as an instrumentalist. It was here that his skill as a vocalist, instrumentalist and producer truly shined.

Unfortunately, Lupus only ate further away at his body. He lost over 50% of his body weight and needed assistance to walk due to swollen hands and feet. He was bedridden for many months at a time, a hardship that he overcame by setting up a studio in his hospital room.

It was here that he created his final and unfinished album, The Shining, a marking of his mastery with instrumental works. James attended his European world tour in fall of 2005 with family and friends confined to a wheelchair, and still managed to perform. This was thought of as his last testament to his fans and loved ones.

On February 7, 2006, his 32nd birthday, James was released from the hospital. Three days later, he passed away in his mother’s arms. He left behind two daughters.

His mother, Maureen, created the J Dilla Foundation to help in the fight and possibly find a cure for patients diagnosed with Lupus, although the official site aims to provide assistance and scholarships to youths in school pursuing music degrees in Detroit.

James Dewitt Yancey, aptly known by his peers and fans as J Dilla, received great acclaim and praise for his skill as an artist. Above all else, he desired to spread love and compassion through the craft of music, and his works will be talked about for many years to come. If you would like to hear sample tracks of his work, you can visit Throw Stones Records to get a short biography and listing of his greatest works.


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