Illa J & Maureen Yancey: A J. Dilla Family Affair

posted February 05, 2008 12:00:00 AM CST | 17 comments

The passing of James J. Dilla Yancey shocked the Hip Hop world two years ago. He was a father, a son, a brother, a friend, a mentor and so much more to so many people. While we knew Dilla through his body of work; others hold dear to them more intimate, personal memories of who he was. Recently, HipHopDX had the honor of speaking with Dillas mother, Ms. Maureen Yancey (or as many affectionately call her, Ma Dukes) and Dillas younger protg brother John Illa J Yancey. We proceeded with the interview cautiously, unsure of how difficult it would be for them to open up about the loss of their loved one, but it quickly became clear that speaking publicly is a part of their never-ending healing process. Ms. Yancey, a glowing ray of positivity, cant help but laugh as she recalls tales of Dillas strength through adversity. Illa J addresses his brothers talent with undeniable admiration and awe. As the two candidly speak with DX, discover the harrowing depths of the illness that took Dilla from us, his resonant spirit, and the legacy of his greatness.

HipHopDX: What was Dilla like as a child?
Ms. Maureen Yancey:
He was always totally into his musicfrom age two we knew he was a little deejay. He used to spin records in the park for our neighborssoul R&B, everything.
Illa J: My brother was like my hero. A lot of people ask me what if I feel like Im living in his shadow, but its not even like that. Im just happy to have had such a great brother.

DX: Ms. Yancey, Youre a former opera singer; did you consciously try to foster his love in music or was that something that came naturally to him?
MY:
UmI think it was a combination of the two. [Music] was our pastime as a family; thats all we ever did. His dad was a musician, he played Jazz from the Doo Wop days. I studied opera and the classics I desired to sing rhythm and blues but I couldnt get as down n dirty as I wanted to vocally because the classical training sort of blared through. [Laughs]

DX: When Dilla made the decision to get into the rap industry were you supportive of that? Because although some parents, especially those who are musicians themselves, may be supportive of a child entering the music business, when it comes to rap--
MY:
[Laughs] Well, since you put it like that, I have to be truthful. [Laughs] Before Dilla got into [the industry] we used to hear people blasting their [rap] music from their trucks and cars, and we would hear the lyrics and [Dillas father] would say, Oh my God, would you listen to that? he would always make negative comments. But Ive always loved everything that [Dilla] did. And I think because I was a singer I know that vocals, although they play a big part, is not the total package. I was already caught up in the music before the lyrics would come along. I knew that [the sometimes profane lyrics] was just a part of what it was. It was just a part of what he did. So I never had a problem with it because I knew that he wasnt the type of individual to use negative vibes and four-letter words all day long. It was just part of the package. So I accepted it because I knew it wasnt a large part of his character. His dad was offended by it up until we were listening to a song and we were so caught up in the beatI told his dad This has to be DillaI know his music just from the sound of it, and he said No, it cant be! Listen to the words! And I listened and realized it was in fact Dillas music, and it was full of four letter words. [Laughs] Dillas dad liked the song so much he said, I guess we cant say anything bad anymore. I looked at him and said No, You cant. [Laughs] So he was embarrassed [by Dillas lyrics] for awhile, but he got used to it quick.

DX: When did Dilla first start showing signs of his illness?
MY:
It was either 2000 or 2001 in January. He was coming back from a European tour. I thought that he had come back with a little flu from being away; it wouldnt have been the first time he had gotten sick after traveling. So I would visit him after a few days and make sure he was okay get him tea or whatever he needed. So I was [used to him feeling sick after traveling]. But this time it was different; he couldnt seem to shake it off. When he came to spend the night with me I knew he was very ill. He usually liked his alone time

DX: How long did it take to get a proper diagnosis?
MY:
Do you know that we didnt have a proper diagnosis until the last year [of his life]? We got a proper diagnosis January 2, 2005.

DX: Oh, wow
MY:
I had gone [back to Detroit] to check on the rest of the family. At that point, I had already moved in with Dilla in L.A. Dilla got sick within 24 hours of me leaving and was rushed to the hospital. Thats when I realized I would never leave him, not even for an hour. [Laughs] Before that happened we had thought that he was doing a lot better.

DX: Why did it take so long for a proper diagnosis?
MY:
Because his disease was so rareI think only one in a couple million people ever get his disease-- there were few guidelines to go by. The only reason we ever got [a correct diagnosis] was because his blood platelet count was so low. They couldnt even make sense of why he was still alive with is platelet count almost absent completely.

DX: So the correct diagnosis was the rare blood disease TTP compounded with lupus?
MY: Lupus
was the head of everything that happened with him. But because [by far women are much more likely to develop Lupus] the doctors didnt look for it. They cued in on the TTP and they were following his kidney problems and giving him the blood transfusions and even the dialysis after his kidneys started to fail. And it wasnt until everything was already said and done and all of the major obstacles started to come, like the seizures for two or three months at a time that theywell, he went into a fever and they couldnt break his fever, so they started looking for every cause under the sun. They starting consulting with doctors from all over the country like Boston and getting their opinion because they couldnt figure out what was causing everything to go haywire. One day hed be good, and then the next day everything was out of control. I guess someone finally said, "Let's test for [Lupus] anyway." And thats when we found out he definitely had Lupus.

DX: Couldnt that late detection be grounds for malpractice?
MY:
No, because all of the symptoms he had were being treated. Its sort of like when you have an old car and you get something new put on it: that [new] part is gonna be good, but something else is still gonna break down on it. Everything ties in together. Lupus carries so many things with it that they dont know how to detect or how to treat. Everybodys body reacts differently to it. Its a very devastating disease.

DX: I can only imagine. I know Dilla was constantly in and out of the hospitalwhat was the hardest part for you about those extensive hospital stays?
IJ:
I came out to see him in 05 for spring break while he was in the hospital. It was funny because he had his turntables and everything; he was still working only thing different was that he was in the hospital. [Laughs] I didnt realize at the time he was working on Donuts. The hardest part for me was seeing him get real skinny though. I wasnt used to seeing him that way.
MY: It was hard for me when he had to learn how to talk all over againand how to write all over again. I felt the pain he felt inside when he would wake up from his almost semi coma-like state. After they got rid of his fevers and got him where he was stable he would have to re-learn how to even swallow. All of his systems would shut down. When his kidneys went, everything else went haywire.

DX: Was that something he had to learn more than once?
MY:
Yes, it was three or four times that he had to learn to swallow, how to hold a pen or pencil, how to write a letter, how to walk. He would be in tears at times with just the thought that he had to do it all over again. You know, at many times when he was learning how to write he would ask, Am I dying? and it was painful for me to even have him ask a question like that. But after three times we were ready for anything. We had everything at home to help him rehabilitate the next time if needed. But by that time he knew this was the end and he didnt see a need for all of that. His only concern was if he was going to go on tour or not. We had talked about it for a few days, because he still wasnt completely walking. But he made up his mind and said You know, Im gonna do it anyway. Ill take one of my canes with me. [Laughs] So we took one of his canes and two crutches and his wheelchair and headed out.

DX: Learning those basic movements must have been so hard, especially four times over, but his spirits must have been so high in order to go on that European tour.
MY:
Oh God, the tour is what brought him to life. It revitalized his entire being, the love that was given on each and every concert on that tour. I watched it backstage and I truly saw how his passion for his fans kept him going. That was a very hard tour; the weather was so bitterly cold and rainy and snowy and he was in a wheelchair with very fragile bones. Even overseas, we had to go for dialysis treatment. And after that he felt like he had no energy. But hed have a nap, and he might have been a little weak backstage, but by the time he got on-stage it was like he was revived, it was all emotions and love pouring in from the crowd. It was like he had brand new batteries.

DX: J, why do you think your brother kept his illness a secret from the public for so long?
IJ: James
didnt want people to see him like that. He kept to himself. You know how people blow up stuff out of proportion; then hed really be stressed out. [Laughs] At the end of the day, as long as he had his music, he was cool. [Laughs] For real

DX: I know when he was in the hospital he finished up The Shining, but I heard somewhere that it was originally titled 40 Below?
MY:
Yes it wasIm going to put out a project soon and were still going to use that title, just not sure in what capacity yet. The Shining was supposed to be called 40 Below but because of the things he went through in the hospital, because of what he saw within himself he changed it. He had been working on that album for a few years but hadnt completed it. But his heart wasnt into it to complete it until that last year in the hospital.

DX: After Dillas passing there was a huge outcry of support from the music industry, millions of fans, and friends, did that support help you in your healing process?
MY:
Oh, it helped me tremendously. I dont know what I would have done without the love of his friends and people checking on me. They continue to support me, and they carry his torch. Its a beautiful thing. Everyone still wants to continue to do work with Dillas music, and everyone is still doing tributesthere was one in Ann Arbor that Mos Def just did and I think 3,500 people were there, tickets were sold out a week before the show. I know Mos Def also has plans to do some stuff with Dilla soon. Its like hes not even gone.
IJ: Yes, yes, my first time going to Europe on the J. Dilla appreciation tour, it was crazy to see how many people my brother touched even overseas. We were in Paris, and nobody spoke a word of English but they knew all the words to every Dilla song. Everywhere I go people show me mad respect and Ive thankful for that.

DX: Some would say that although your brother rightfully has a huge following, there are some newer fans who have just hopped on the bandwagon. How do you address that?
IJ:
That [opinion] is just for people who want to look at it that way. I was raised to just look at the positive of things. I see it as more people knowing about this musical legacy.

DX: Well its good that you can keep that positive outlookI know a lot of people that thought you were Dilla because you did the Wont Do video [Laughs]
IJ:
[Laughs] Yeah, that was mad funny. They either thought it was Dilla in the video, or that it was my song. [Laughs]

DX: As an artist yourself do you feel that people expect your music to sound a certain way because of your brothers influence?
IJ:
Its hard to say that I dont sound like himthats my brotherthats like saying I can't look like him. [Laughs] But my brother was known more as a producer... Im a singer first, then a songwriter, then producer. My brother still had a big influence on me thoughWere just beginning. People think it was over with The Shinning but we just getting started.

DX: Speaking of which what prompted the creation of Ma Dukes Music?
MY:
Well so much of Dillas music hasnt been heard. He spent his entire life making music so we have stuff from even before Pharcyde and Slum Village. A lot of the older music he did; people are really dying to get a hold of it. Its just a beautiful thing to keep him alive. You can step into my home and know that hes still alive.

DX: Can you speak a little bit about the Dilla foundation?
MY:
At this time, we are operating under Ma Dukes because with the estate being in probate we can't use the name Dilla, something about not being able to use his likeness. But were about to fight, they cant dare try to take that from me. [Laughs] This is something that I was trying to hold in his honor. But I understand there are certain things that have to happen so rather than to wait, Im going to operate under Ma Dukes. We cant wait because there are very talented, artistic children here in Detroit and they need someone to nurture that and hone their skills. But if you come from a household where people dont appreciate what you do; youll never get heard. They need an opportunity. We have very little to offer in Detroit. We have few recreational activities [for youth] in the city. So much is closed down with no money to spend. We want to mentor these children, and appreciate what theyre doing. The only way to appreciate what your true love is, is to keep it going. Also we do the Lupus Walk year-round and in just about every city across the country Dilla always has a group of people walking in his name. Thats how we keep his name alive; we just keep doing what we do.

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