Remembering James "J. Dilla" Yancey
Back in the summer of 1996, when A Tribe Called Quest's Beats, Rhymes & Life was released, I was one of what seemed like a big chunk of disappointed fans. The new sound was a bit cleaner, had a little extra shine on it and I wasn’t happy about it. I mean, come on, the heavy drums were missing. The jazzy feel was gone. Where was Ron Carter?! Tip was “bustin’ his gun”?! What’s happening here?! I hated it. And that was my introduction.
The next year, Janet Jackson would release "Got ‘Til It’s Gone" from her Velvet Rope album. Diddy had the world, including me, in his hands, so "Got ‘Til It’s Gone" didn’t grab my attention till about a year later. By the time it finally got its hold on my ears it was 1998 and this is where the love story begins. It would only take a few more months before "Find A Way" was released as the lead single from The Love Movement. And this time around I fell in love. 1998 also saw the release of Black Star’s first and only album. This signified, for me, a move away from the pop ready sounds of Mr. Combs and a return to the sound I’d fallen in love with.
Then the news came, A Tribe Called Quest disbanded and in a flash it was the summer of 1999 and Q-Tip’s "Vivrant Thing" took off. And of course, again, I hated it. Mos Def’s solo debut was on the horizon and The Roots Things Fall Apart had worked itself deep into my system, so my head was in a totally different space than anything that was on Amplified.
That year was also the year that I was folding shirts, hangin’ suits and fetching shoes at Banana Republic on Fifth Avenue. I remember those rough overnight shifts where we’d gut the whole store and replace it with the next season merchandise. It was during one of those long nights, in late 1999, that one of my coworkers slid me a CDR with a white sticker that said “Slum Village” written on it in black marker. That album didn’t leave my Discman for at least the next month.
2000 hit and the only thing that wrestled attention away from my new discovery (which was later officially released by Goodvibe Recordings in 2000) was D’angelo’s Voodoo, which quickly became one of my favorite albums. Later in the year Like Water For Chocolate and Mama’s Gun would also be released. So in about two year span, from 1998’s "Find A Way" to 2000’s Mama’s Gun one man had his hand in almost all of the music I was in love with. And in February, 2001, he released Welcome To Detroit and I finally opened my eyes.
That album made me go back and listen to Tribe’s Beats, Rhymes & Life and The Love Movement, as well as Q-Tip’s Amplified. It also made me realize that I’d been listening his production for quite some time, as far back as The Pharcyde in 1995 to Busta Rhymes and De La Soul in 1996. So I went from barely knowing who the man was to realizing that I’d loved his work for years. As with all things Hip Hop, my attention span was short. His output didn’t suffer; he was actually getting better and better. I simply maintained my pattern which, every few years, led me to crave something new. In the next few years he’d leave Slum Village, release Ruff Draft and Champion Sound with Madlib and work with everyone from Kanye West, Pete Rock and Ghostface. And although I got my ears on all these projects, and enjoyed them, but I still wasn’t really paying as much attention as I should have.
Fast forward to February 2006, the 10th to be exact. I’m in LA with J*Davey and I get a text message. The news hits. He’s gone. I spoke to Waajeed, of Platinum Pied Pipers, immediately after I found out; you could hear the pain in his voice.
Over the next year I paid attention to the man’s work. I gained a greater understanding of production as a whole, which in turn made me appreciate his talent even more. I heard story after story and was privileged to hear people share their experiences. From ?uestlove talking about how a chunk of Donuts was done on Apple’s Garageband to sitting in an Los Angeles studio while Black Thought played his version of "Workinonit" to listening to the enthusiasm in Common’s voice as he talked about working with his friend and housemate. And of course, DJ House Shoes' retelling of the infamous voicemail “get well” messages.
Through all the music, the stellar career and all the stories I’ve been privileged to hear the one thing that I’ve learned from all of this is to pay attention. I nearly missed the career of one of our generation’s greatest talents. Of course, the beauty of music is that you can always back track and catch up; you can always research and make up what you missed. But we shouldn’t wait until someone’s gone to appreciate what they brought to this world. And in my life, that’s what James “J Dilla” Yancey represents. Not just great music, but a prime example of loving someone while they’re here because they can be snatched away so quickly.
Thank you to Big Tone, Common and Pharaohe Monch for their insight. Also, thank you to Waajeed, Elzhi, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and Black Thought for sharing tidbits that I had no idea would eventually help with this piece. And a special thank you to DJ House Shoes for his candid and brutally honest peak into the work and life of James “Jay Dee/J Dilla” Yancey.