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James Dewitt Yancey (February 7, 1974 – February 10, 2006), better known by the stage names J Dilla and Jay Dee, was an American record producer who emerged from the mid-1990s underground hip hop scene in Detroit, Michiganmarker. According to his obituary at, he "was one of the music industry's most influential hip-hop artists, working for big-name acts like De La Soul, Busta Rhymes and Common."

Yancey's career began slowly. He has now become highly regarded, most notably for the production of critically acclaimed albums by Common, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, and The Pharcyde. He was a member of Slum Village for their acclaimed debut album Fantastic, Vol. 2.

In the early 2000s, Yancey's career as a solo artist began to improve; A solo album Welcome 2 Detroit was followed by a collaborative album with California producer Madlib, Champion Sound, which catalyzed the careers of both artists. Just as his music was becoming increasingly popular, Yancey died in 2006 of the blood disease TTP.

Following his death, the hip hop community became centered upon the music and image of J Dilla. Many of the artists with whom Yancey worked performed or recorded tributes, and a large group of followers voiced their support for the late musician. Yancey's music experienced a rebirth as the producer gained many times more listeners than he had during his life, partly due to media exposure. Though several posthumous albums have been released and others are planned, the massive amounts of unreleased recordings by the producer remain somewhat undetermined. Yancey's estate has also been controverted.


Early life

James Yancey was the second oldest of four children including an older brother (Earl), a younger sister and a younger brother, Johnny, also a rapper/producer known as Illa J. The family lived in a house situated near McDougall and East Nevada, off E. 7 Mile in Detroitmarker. He developed a vast musical knowledge from his parents (his mother is a former opera singer and his father was a jazz bassist). According to his mother, he could "match pitch perfect harmony" by "two-months old", to the amazement of musician friends and relatives. He began collecting vinyl at the age of two and would be allowed to spin records in the park, an activity he enjoyed tremendously as a child.

Along with a wide range of musical genres, Yancey developed a passion for hip hop music and formed a rap group called Slum Village with schoolmates T3 (R.L. Altman), and Baatin (Titus Glover) at Pershing High School. He had also taken up beatmaking, using a simple tapedeck as the center of his studio. During these teenage years he "stayed in the basement alone" with his ever-growing collection of records, perfecting his craft. He later told Pete Rock when they met years later that "I was trying to be you."

Early career

In 1992, he met experienced Detroit musician Amp Fiddler, who was impressed by what Jay Dee was able to accomplish with such limited tools. Amp Fiddler let Jay Dee use his MPC, which he learned quickly. In 1995, Jay Dee and MC Phat Kat formed 1st Down, and would be the first Detroit hip hop group to sign with a major label (Payday Records) - a deal that was ended after one single when the label folded. That same year he recorded 'Yesteryearz' with 5 Elementz (a group consisting of the late Proof, Thyme and Mudd).

By the mid 1990s Jay Dee was known as a major hip hop prospect, with a string of singles and remix projects, for Janet Jackson, Pharcyde, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip's solo album and others. The majority of these productions were released without his name recognition, being credited to The Ummah, a production collective composed of Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and later Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné!. Under this umbrella, Jay did some of his most big name R&B and hip hop work, churning out original songs and remixes for Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, Brand New Heavies, Something For the People, trip hop artists Crustation and many others. This all came off the heels of Jay handling the majority of production on The Pharcyde's album Labcabincalifornia, released in the holiday season of 1995. Jay Dee's largest-scale feat came in 1997 when he produced Janet Jackson's Grammy winning single "Got 'til It's Gone" from The Velvet Rope. The song-writing credit and subsequent Grammy were both given to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

Performing career

2000 marked the major label debut of Slum Village with Fantastic, Vol. 2, creating a new following for Jay Dee as a producer and an MC. He was also a founding member of the production collective known as The Soulquarians (along with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, D'Angelo and James Poyser amongst others) which earned him more recognition and buzz. He subsequently worked with Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, and Common - contributing heavily to the latter's critically acclaimed breakthrough album, Like Water for Chocolate.

His debut as a solo artist came in 2001 with the single "Fuck the Police", followed by the album Welcome 2 Detroit, which kicked off U.K.marker Independent record label BBE's "Beat Generation" series. In 2001, Jay Dee, began using the name "J Dilla" (an attempt to differentiate himself from Jermaine Dupri who also goes by "J.D."), and left Slum Village to pursue a major label solo career with MCA Records.

2002 saw Dilla producing the entirety of Frank-N-Dank's 48 Hours, as well as a solo album, but neither record was ever released, although the former did eventually surface through bootlegging. When Dilla finished working with Frank-N-Dank on the 48 Hours album, MCA Records requested a record with a larger commercial appeal, and the artists re-recorded the majority of the tracks, this time using little to no samples. Despite this, neither versions of the album saw the light of day, and Dilla expressed he was disappointed that the music never got out to the fans.

Dilla was signed to a solo deal with MCA Records in 2002 and completed an album in 2003. Although Dilla was known as a producer rather than an MC, he chose to rap on the album and have the music produced by some of his favorite producers such as Madlib, Pete Rock, Hi-Tek, Supa Dave West, Kanye West, Nottz, Waajeed, Quebo Kuntry (J.Benjamin) and others. The album was shelved due to internal changes at the label and MCA folding into Geffen Records. In a 2007 video interview, Dilla's friend DJ House Shoes alluded to the possibility of the MCA album finally seeing an official release through Stones Throw Records in the future. In April 2008, the album, called Pay Jay, began circulating. BBC Radio 1Xtra DJ Benji B played songs from it on his April 18 show, saying that the album is coming out, and people on the internet privately shared and discussed the album.

While the record with MCA stalled, Dilla recorded the uncompromising Ruff Draft, released exclusively to vinyl by German label Groove Attack. Although the album was little known, it signaled a change in sound and attitude, and his work from this point on was increasingly released through independent record labels. In a 2003 interview with Groove Attack, Dilla talked about this change of direction:

Later life

LAmarker-based producer and MC Madlib began collaborating with J Dilla, and the pair formed the group Jaylib in 2002, releasing an album called Champion Sound in 2003. J Dilla relocated from Detroit to LA in 2004 and appeared on tour with Jaylib in Spring 2004.

J Dilla's illness and medication caused dramatic weight loss in 2003 onwards, forcing him to publicly confirm speculation about his health in 2004. Despite a slower output of major releases and production credits in 2004 and 2005, his cult status remained strong within his core audience, as evident by unauthorized circulation of his underground "beat tapes" (instrumental, and raw working materials), mostly through internet file sharing. Articles in publications URB (March 2004) and XXL (June 2005) confirmed rumors of ill health and hospitalization during this period, but these were downplayed by Jay himself. The seriousness of his condition became public in November 2005 when J Dilla toured Europe performing from a wheelchair. It was later revealed that he suffered from Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood disease, and possibly Lupus.

J Dilla died on February 10, 2006, three days after his 32nd birthday at his home in Los Angelesmarker, Californiamarker. According to his mother, Maureen Yancey, the cause was cardiac arrest. His last album, titled Donuts, was released 3 days earlier, on February 7, 2006.

Posthumous music

Upon his death, Dilla had several projects planned for future completion and release.

The Shining, "75% completed when Dilla died," was completed posthumously by Karriem Riggins and released on August 8, 2006 on BBE Records.

Ruff Draft was reissued as a double CD/LP set in March 2007 and is sometimes considered his third solo album. The reissue contains previously unreleased material from the Ruff Draft sessions and instrumentals. Most notably, it was also released in a cassette tape format, paying homage to Dilla's dirty, grimy sound (he was known for recording over two-tracked instrumentals).

Jay Love Japan was announced in 2005 as his debut release on the Operation Unknown label. The official release remains shrouded in mystery, as various legitimate and illegitimate versions of this mini-album can be bought online and in stores.

Champion Sound, J Dilla's and Madlib's collaborative album, was reissued in June 2007 by Stones Throw Records as a 2CD Deluxe Edition with instrumentals and b-sides.

He also produced three tracks on the 2007 Stones Throw Records 2K Sports NBA 2K8 soundtrack, B-Ball Zombie War.

Dillagence, a mixtape of previously unreleased tracks featuring Busta Rhymes over Dilla's production, was released in November 2007. Busta was one of Dilla's most passionate supporters; on the mixtape, Busta says that, although Dilla's name is not listed in every Busta album, he did in fact contribute to every solo Busta album. The compilation was made free for download from

"Modern Day Gangstaz" (also known as "The Ugliest" and "Dangerous MCs"), a song produced by Dilla featuring vocals from The Notorious B.I.G., Busta Rhymes, and Labba, which originally appeared in its original form on a mixtape in the late '90s, eventually surfaced in full-length form in 2007. This version, however, is a cut-and-paste job using verses recorded for Biggie's posthumous Born Again album, for which a new beat was used from Nottz.

Pay Jay, the unreleased album that Dilla recorded for MCA Records, surfaced in bootleg form in 2008. Originally conceived as the album showcasing Dilla's skills on the microphone, the bootleg version contained production by Dilla as well as Kanye West, Waajeed, Bink!, Supa Dave West, Nottz, Questlove, Karriem Riggins, and Pete Rock.

In 2008, Q-Tip used one of Dilla's beats for his song Move off of The Renaissance.

Yancey Boys, by J Dilla's younger brother John Yancey, was released in 2008 on Delicious Vinyl Records. It is produced entirely by J Dilla and features rapping by his brother, under the name Illa J. Stones Throw Records released a digital instrumental version of the album in 2009.

Jay Stay Paid, or J$P, an album put together by Dilla's mother Ms. Yancey and his idol Pete Rock. It is composed of early work pulled from Dillas D.A.T.s as well as later music done during his time in the hospital. Though largely instrumental, it features appearances by Black Thought, Blu, Havoc, Illa J, Lil Fame of M.O.P., MF DOOM and Raekwon.

In 2009, Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon also used Dilla beats for his songs "House of Flying Daggers", "Ason Jones", and "10 Bricks" which are all on his album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II.


Ultimately, his death has had a significant impact on the hip hop community. Besides countless tribute tracks and concerts, Dilla's death created a wealth of interest in his remaining catalogue, and, consequently, Dilla's influence on hip hop production became more apparent.

Dave Chappelle gives a special dedication to J Dilla on his movie Dave Chappelle's Block Party, by stating "This film is dedicated to the life and memory of Music Producer J Dilla, aka Jay Dee (James D. Yancey)". The film focuses mostly on members of the Soulquarians, a collective of hip hop musicians of which Yancey was also a member.

In May 2006, J Dilla's mother announced the creation of "The J Dilla Foundation'", which will work to cure lupus.

J Dilla leaves behind two daughters.

In February 2007, a year after his death, J Dilla posthumously received the Plug Award's Artist of the Year as well as the award for Record Producer of the Year.

Despite these accolades, there have been documented conflicts between his mother and the executor of his estate Arthur Erik regarding future Dilla releases. In an interview with LA Weekly, Erik described how difficult it was for the estate to "protect his legacy" due to bootlegging and unofficial mixtapes. "Who's Biting J Dilla's Beats?" He stressed how important it was for the estate to gather all possible income related to Dilla's name, as Dilla had to borrow money from the government due to mounting medical bills at the end of his life.

A few weeks later Dilla's mother, who has appeared on such unofficial mixtapes such as Busta Rhymes' Dillagence, gave her take on these issues. In addition to stating that Arthur Erik and Dilla's estate has chosen not to communicate with his family, she has stated that he has barred anyone from use of Dilla's likeness or name .

Mrs. Yancey also has mentioned that Erik was in fact Dilla's accountant and not his business manager in his lifetime, and that he fell into his position because she and Dilla were first and foremost concerned about his health and not with getting paperwork in order . She also stated that Dilla's friends in the hip hop community, such as Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes, Madlib, Common and The Roots, have contacted her personally for future projects with Dilla beats, but the estate has vetoed all future projects not contracted prior to Dilla's death. She also implied that Dilla would not support the estate's practices, such as their persecution of bootleggers and file sharers.

Due to Dilla's debt to the government, the family receives no income from projects. Dilla's children are being supported by the social security their mothers have drawn. Likewise, Mrs. Yancey is also still paying off Dilla's medical bills that she helped finance, leaving her also in tremendous debt. She still lives in the same Detroit ghetto, is still a daycare worker at Conant Gardens and also suffers from lupus, the same disease which killed Dilla. To help pay the cost of medication and keep her household afloat, Delicious Vinyl donated all proceeds of Jay Dee - The Delicious Vinyl Years to Mrs. Yancey in 2007. In 2008, Giant Peach created a donation paypal account for her and released a charity mixtape . Despite these actions, it would appear that little income has been generated, as Stones Throw has just released a charity t-shirt on its website .

In a recent article on the family's troubles in Vibe magazines, his mother revealed that the family lost their old home in Detroit due to her taking care of Dilla in his final days "The Battle for J Dilla's Legacy". The mother of one of Dilla's children, Monica Whitlow, also broke her silence on the issue of the estate and his legacy:

J Dilla's music has also lived on through Cartoon Network's late night programing block, Adult Swim. His songs Waves, Welcome to the show, and mash are played in between shows, advertised as, "bumps."

Notable musical tributes

  • Akrobatik pays tribute to Dilla on his album Absolute Value. In the song "Put Your Stamp on It", he raps "If hip hop is dead then it happened the day that Dilla died". The song was produced by Dilla himself.
  • Erykah Badu's 2008 album New Amerykah Part One contains a song with Questlove as a tribute to Dilla titled "Telephone". It is based on a story Dilla's mother told to Badu about Dilla's visions before his passing. The track 'My People' on New Amerykah Part One is a reworking of the Dilla's 'People' from the Donuts album. Badu also dedicates 'The Healer' to Dilla, saying in her lyrics "this one is for Dilla".
  • Busta Rhymes and Mick Boogie released the free mixtape Dillagence [186555]
  • "Forever Begins" from Common's album Finding Forever is a tribute to J Dilla.
  • De La Soul pay tribute to Dilla on the track "La La La" off of the NBA Live 10 soundtrack.
  • DJ Spinna released two tributes to Dilla on 45. The first being "Dilla is the G.O.A.T." an instrumental lament. The second,"Dillagence", contains the same production as the first mentioned, but with added vocals by Phonte of Little Brother fame. All of the lyrics were taken from previous J Dilla songs.
  • Dwele on his 2008 album Sketches of a Man pays tribute to J Dilla all over the album, from the album cover (an imitation of Dilla's instrumental album Donuts), to the interludes ("Workin' On It" is a medley of various songs found on Donuts) and the songs "Open Your Eyes" and "Brandi". "Open Your Eyes" is a cover of the Bobby Caldwell song that was sampled by J Dilla for Common's "The Light", from his 2000 album Like Water For Chocolate. "Brandi" contains a sample from "Go Ladies" from J Dilla's former group Slum Village, who also appear on the song, from their 2000 album, Fantastic, Vol. 2.
  • Flying Lotus made a tribute called "Fall In Love".
  • Robert Glasper, a jazz pianist, recorded "J Dillalude" as a tribute to the late producer.
  • Charles Hamilton released a mixtape entitled, And Then They Played Dilla, in which he pays tribute to Dilla in many of its songs.
  • Kardinal Offishall pays tribute to J Dilla on his album Not 4 Sale. At the end of the song "Due Me a Favour", he performs an a cappella rap, stating, "I believe that Dilla was the number one dude in rap".
  • Madlib's album Beat Konducta Vol. 5: Dil Cosby Suite and Beat Konducta Vol. 6: Dil Withers Suite is his and J-Rocc's tributes to J Dilla.
  • Pete Rock pays tribute to J Dilla on the album [NY's Finest, on the track "Gangsta Boogie".
  • Q-Tip pays tribute to J Dilla in the song "Shaka" and "Life is Better" on his album The Renaissance, as well as in the liner notes.
  • "Can't Stop This" from the The Roots' album Game Theory is a tribute to J Dilla.
  • Show & A.G. pays tribute to J Dilla on their song "Business As Usual" from the Live Hard EP, where A.G. rhymes: "Age bitter, J Dilla rest your soul / Gave his life for this hip hop shit, y'all don't hear me though".
  • Termanology recorded a hip hop mixtape tribute to J Dilla titled "If Heaven Was A Mile Away"


Year Artist Album Label
1997 Slum Village Fan-Tas-Tic Donut Boy Recordings/2006 re-release: Counterflow
2000 Slum Village Fantastic, Vol. 2 Goodvibe
2000 Slum Village (as J-88) Best Kept Secret EP Groove Attack
2000 Jay Dee F—k the Police b/w Move 12" Up Above Records
2001 Jay Dee Welcome 2 Detroit Barely Breaking Even
2003 Jay Dee Ruff Draft Mummy/Groove Attack, Stones Throw
2003 Jaylib Champion Sound Stones Throw
2006 J Dilla Donuts Stones Throw
2006 J Dilla The Shining Barely Breaking Even
2008 J Dilla Jay Love Japan Operation Unknown, official release uncertain
2009 J Dilla Jay Stay Paid Nature Sounds


  1. allmusic Biography
  2. NPR: Hip-Hop Producer, Rapper Jay Dee AKA J Dilla
  3. Liner notes by Ronnie Reese, Ruff Draft (2007)
  4. Let it roll (Metro Times Detroit)
  5. (Scheme Magazine)
  6. (
  7. Haleem, Aadel. Jay Dee Interview. Accessed April 8, 2008.
  8. J Dilla, Ruff Draft (2007), liner notes
  9. BBC 1Xtra Benji B Deviation 4/18/08 show
  10. Fans discuss MCA album, Pay Jay
  11. Detroit Free Press, February 23, 2006
  12. James Yancey, Producer Known for Soulful Hip-Hop, Dies at 32 - New York Times
  13. Detroit Free Press, June 29, 2006
  14. ICEDOTCOM: Search results for dilla
  15. Stone Sthrow Store
  16. [1]
  17. | Hip-Hop On A Higher Level | » Leave J Dilla’s corpse alone
  18. OneTwoOneTwo interview J Dilla's uncle
  19. Band Of Horses, J Dilla Reap PLUG Awards
  20. "An Interview with J Dilla's Mother, Mrs. Maureen Yancey"
  21. "Ma Dukes Donations"
  22. "Donation Shirt for Ma Dukes"
  23. Alternatives Reviews : Erykah Badu: New AmErykah Part One (4th World War)

External links

Official sites


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