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James Yancey was born in Detroit, Michigan. He was the eldest of four children, including a sister, Martha, and two brothers, Earl and John; John later began making music as Illa J. The family lived in a corner house near McDougall and Nevada, on the east side of Detroit. His parents had New Yorker origins and had musical backgrounds--his mother, Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey, is a former opera singer and his father, Beverly Dewitt Yancey, was a jazz bassist. His mother said that he could "match pitch perfect harmony" when he was a pre-verbal infant.
Along with a wide range of other musical genres, Yancey developed a passion for hip hop music. After transferring from Davis Aerospace Technical High School to Pershing High School, he met classmates T3 and Baatin, and became friends with them through their mutual interest in rap battles. The three formed the rap group called Slum Village. He also took up beat-making using a simple tape deck as the center of his studio. During these teenage years he "stayed in the basement alone" in order to train himself to produce beats with his growing record collection.
In 1992, he met the Detroit musician Amp Fiddler, who let Jay Dee use his Music Production Center, which he learned quickly. In 1995, Jay Dee and MC Phat Kat formed 1st Down and became 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 'Yester Years EP' with 5 Elementz (a group consisting of Proof, Thyme and Mudd). In the year 1996, he formed the group Slum Village and recorded what would become their debut album Fantastic, Vol. 1 at RJ Rice Studios. Upon its release in 1997, the album quickly became popular with fans of Detroit hip hop. At that time, Q-Tip hailed the group as successors to A Tribe Called Quest. However, Jay Dee said that he felt uncomfortable with the comparison and often voiced it in several interviews.
It was kinda fucked up [getting that stamp] because people automatically put us in that [Tribe] category. That was actually a category that we didn't actually wanna be in. I thought the music came off like that, but we didn't realize that shit then. I mean, you gotta listen to the lyrics of the shit. Niggas was talking about getting head from bitches. It was like a nigga from Native Tongues never woulda said that shit. I don't know how to say it. It's kinda fucked up because the audience we were trying to give to were actually people we hung around. Me, myself, I hung around regular ass Detroit cats. Not the backpack shit that people kept putting out there like that. I mean, I ain't never carried no goddamn backpack. But like I said, I understand to a certain extent. I guess that's how the beats came off on some smooth type of shit. And at that time, that's when Ruff Ryders [was out] and there was a lot of hard shit on the radio so our thing was we're gonna do exactly what's not on the radio.
His debut as a solo artist came in 2001 with the single "Fuck the Police" (Up Above Records), followed by the album Welcome 2 Detroit, which began British 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.
In 2002, Dilla produced Frank-N-Dank's 48 Hours, as well as a solo album, but neither record was ever released, although the former surfaced 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 were successful, and Dilla stated that he was disappointed that the music never got out to the fans.
Dilla was signed to a solo deal with MCA Records in 2002. 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 and others. The album was shelved due to internal changes at the label and MCA.
While the record with MCA stalled, Dilla recorded Ruff Draft, released exclusively to vinyl by German label Groove Attack. The album was also unsuccessful, but 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:
You know, if I had a choice... Skip the major labels and just put it out yourself, man... Trust me. I tell everybody it's better to do it yourself and let the Indies come after you instead of going in their [direction] and getting a deal and you have to wait. It ain't fun. Take it from me. Right now, I'm on MCA but it feels like I'm an unsigned artist still. It's cool. It's a blessing, but damn I'm like, 'When's my shit gonna come out? I'm ready now, what's up?'
Later life and death
LA-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 Los Angeles 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 evidenced 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.
Upon his death, Dilla had several projects planned for future completion and release. According to founding Slum Village member T3 in an interview in March 2015, J Dilla has about 150 unreleased beats, some of which featured on Slum Village's album entitled Yes!, which released June 16, 2015.
Ruff Draft was reissued as a double CD/LP set in March 2007 and is sometimes considered his third solo album. The reissue contains 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.
Yancey Boys, the debut album 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, an album featuring 28 previously unreleased instrumental tracks made at various points in his career, was released in 2009 by Nature Sounds. Vocals to a select few of the tracks were provided by rappers who were close to Dilla though the majority of the album is instrumental. The project was mixed and arranged by Pete Rock, who was a major inspiration to Dilla.
In 2010, unreleased production and vocals from J Dilla were featured on Slum Village's sixth studio album Villa Manifesto, the first album with all five members.
In December 2011, Jonathan Taylor, CEO of the Yancey Music Group (founded by Dilla's mother Maureen Yancey), told the UK's Conspiracy Worldwide radio show that the album Rebirth of Detroit was ready for a May 2012 release. On May 25, 2012, Mahogani Music released a limited edition 12" vinyl titled Dillatroit/Rebirth Promo EP, leading up to the official release of Rebirth of Detroit on June 12, 2012.
In 2014, J Dilla's long-lost MCA Records album entitled The Diary was scheduled for release, but was delayed to April 15, 2016, via Mass Appeal Records. Intended for release in 2002, the album is a collection of Dilla's vocal performances over production by Madlib, Pete Rock, Nottz, House Shoes, Karriem Riggins, and others. The first single is the album's intro cut, "The Introduction." 
J Dilla was survived by two daughters. In May 2006, J Dilla's mother announced the creation of the J Dilla Foundation, which will work to cure people affected by lupus.
Dilla's 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 catalog and, consequently, Dilla's influence on hip-hop production became more apparent.
Dave Chappelle gives a special dedication to J Dilla in his movie Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which includes the statement: "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 February 2007, a year after his death, J Dilla posthumously received the PLUG Awards Artist of the Year as well as the award for Record Producer of the Year. In Dilla's hometown of Detroit, Detroit Techno veteran Carl Craig has fronted a movement to install a plaque in honor of J Dilla in Conant Gardens (where the artist grew up and initiated his career). A resolution for the proposed plaque was passed by the Detroit Entertainment Commission in May 2010, and is currently awaiting approval by the Detroit City Council.
Despite these accolades, there have been documented conflicts between his mother and the executor of his estate Arthur Erk regarding future Dilla releases. In an interview with LA Weekly, Erk described how difficult it was for the estate to "protect his legacy" due to bootlegging and unofficial mixtapes. 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 Erk 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.
One of the things Dilla wanted me to do with his legacy was to use it to help others, people with illness, kids who were musically gifted but had little hope due to poverty. I wanted to use my contacts to help people out and it was squashed because we weren't in compliance with the state and there was nothing we could do about it. I'm Dilla's mother and I can't use Dilla's name or likeness, but I know that I still can honor him by doing his work.
Mrs. Yancey also has mentioned that Erk 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 prosecution of bootleggers and file sharers.
Dilla was about love in many formats and for his estate to have done the exact opposite is not having any respect for him or who he was.
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 RenSoul.com 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 magazine, his mother revealed that the family lost their old home in Detroit due to her taking care of Dilla in his final days. The mother of one of Dilla's children, Monica Whitlow, also broke her silence on the issue of the estate and his legacy:
It pisses me off, everything that's going on with this estate. It's ridiculous 'cause it's been three years, and my baby has not seen anything from this estate.
On January 24, 2010, an announcement was made on j-dilla.com, regarding the J Dilla Estate and the Yancey family.
The family of late music producer James "J Dilla" Yancey is extremely pleased to announce the appointment of West Coast probate attorney Alex Borden as administrator of Yancey's estate, and also to announce the establishment of the official J Dilla Foundation. The developments mark a new chapter in preserving and enhancing the legacy of the legendary artist and secure a means of future prosperity for his mother, Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey, daughters Ja'Mya Yancey and Ty-Monae Whitlow, and brother, John "Illa J" Yancey.
A J Dilla-inspired donut shop opened in Detroit on May 3, 2016 to a great reception. Created by Dilla's uncle Herman Hayes to honor his nephew's legacy, it sold out three times on its first day.
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The Roots released a mixtape called Dilla Joints on what would have been J Dilla's 36th birthday in February 2010. The mixtape would later be rapped over by Dice Raw in his mixtape Dilla, Dice, Pregunta.
The Roots pay tribute to J Dilla on their 2006 album Game Theory with "Can't Stop This", a song that incorporates J Dilla's song "Time: The Donut of the Heart" as the beat with emcee Black Thought rapping about the impact he had on his life. The song closes with a number of voice messages discussing J Dilla's legacy and influence on hip-hop music over the years. The Roots again pay tribute to J Dilla, along with deceased Slum Village member Baatin, on the instrumental interlude "Dillatude: Flight of the Titus" from their album How I Got Over.
Rapper XV released a 6-song EP entitled Thanks For The Donuts, strictly using beats produced by J Dilla, on the 5th anniversary of the release of Donuts (February 7, 2011), which also would be J Dilla's 37th birthday.
Erykah Badu's series of New Amerykah albums contains a number of tributes to J Dilla. On New Amerykah Part One (4th World War), Badu first honours Dilla with the song "The Healer", where she sings "this one is for Dilla". She again pays tribute to him on the song "My People", a re-working of the song "People" from J Dilla's album Donuts. The closing song of New Amerykah Part One, "Telephone", draws inspiration from J Dilla's final moments as his mother had described to her, with J Dilla himself having visions about his passage to the afterlife. On New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), Badu pays tribute again to Dilla on the song "Love", a song that J Dilla posthumously produced as well.[clarification needed]
J Rocc commemorates J Dilla with a series of mixes and podcasts entitled Thank You Jay Dee. The series is divided into four acts and was released yearly from 2006 to 2009. The music contained within is a megamix of J Dilla's sample sources, demonstrating the wide variety of styles and songs Dilla was able to incorporate in creating his music.
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.
Dan-e-o released a 2 in 1 album/mixtape entitled Dilla Pickles in honor of J Dilla.
DJ Spinna released an instrumental tribute to J Dilla on vinyl entitled Dilla is the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time), with Spinna producing a beat in the same vein as J Dilla's song "Nobody Cares About Us" with Phat Kat. DJ Spinna would later release a second tribute to Dilla called Dillagence, using the same production as Dilla is the G.O.A.T. and featuring a medley of J Dilla's lyrics performed by Phonte of Little Brother.
Busta Rhymes in collaboration with Mick Boogie, Rah Digga, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli and others, released Dillagence, a mixtape dedicated to J Dilla's memory and featuring songs created by J Dilla.
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.
Q-Tip pays tribute to J Dilla on his 2008 album The Renaissance with the songs "Shaka" and "Life is Better". On the former, he calls J Dilla a "master" and raps, "Dilla, having you in my past has been blast, you've inspired so many and forever will you last", and on the latter, he makes mention of J Dilla twice during a verse that recalls some of hip-hop's most influential figures.
Black Milk mentions J Dilla on various productions of his since his death. On his 2008 album Tronic, Black Milk rhymes about how J Dilla was an inspiration to him ("Long Story Short") and that he was "the best Hip-Hop producer" ("Bond 4 Life"). On his 2010 album, Album of the Year, Black Milk laments that he wishes J Dilla was still around "to hear this new shit" ("Closed Chapter").
Flying Lotus pays tribute to J Dilla by remaking the Slum Village track "Fall In Love" in his own signature sound, utilizing the same melody and harmony with a more electronic aesthetic. The song would later be rhymed over in the song "Paid Homage (RIP J Dilla)", from Detroit emcee Finale's album A Pipe Dream and a Promise. Flying Lotus also produced his own rendition of J Dilla's song "Lightworks" with the song "LTWXRMX" from his white label EP Shhhh! released in 2008. The short film "Until the Quiet Comes" released by Flying Lotus and directed by Kahlil Joseph stars dancer Storyboard P wearing a shirt with the text "J Dilla Changed My Life". Flying Lotus (under pseudonym Captain Murphy) also mentions J Dilla in the song "Dead Man's Tetris" from the 2014 album, You're Dead!.
Robert Glasper, a jazz pianist, pays tribute to J Dilla with the song "J Dillalude". The jazz composition, requested by Q-Tip in a voice message played at the song's onset, is made up of various Dilla productions such as Common's "Thelonius", De La Soul's "Stakes Is High" and Slum Village's "Fall in Love". "Dillalude Pt. 2" was released on the Black Radio Recovered: Remix EP in October 2012 under the Robert Glasper Experiment.
Hip-hop producer J. Rawls pays tribute to J Dilla on his side-project The Liquid Crystal Project with a song entitled "A Tribute to Dilla", a jazzy rendition of Slum Village's song "Players". J. Rawls later pays tribute again to Dilla with the song "Another Tribute to Dilla" released on vinyl 7-inch, which offers a jazzy cover of the song "Fall in Love".
Producer M-Phazes pays tribute to J Dilla with the track "Raise It Up For Dilla".
Ladybug Mecca former member of Digable Planets dedicates her song and video "You Never Get Over It" from her solo album Trip The Light Fantastic in loving memory of J. Dilla and her mother and father.
De La Soul pay tribute to Dilla on the track "La La La" with the line: "Dilla, if you hear me, we are missing you so much."
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".
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".
A Suite for Ma Dukes is a live musical tribute to J Dilla arranged and conducted by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson with the help of Carlos Nino and a 60-piece orchestra. Originally a four-song EP of a selection of J Dilla's works, the project expanded and culminated into a series of live events that were recorded for a subsequent live album release. The concert, the second in the Timeless Conductor Series presented by Mochilla, included orchestral renditions of several J Dilla's productions and featured appearances by soul singers Dwele and Bilal, rappers Posdnous, Talib Kweli and Illa J, along with various instrumental and vocal contributions by some of Dilla's close collaborators like Karriem Riggins, Shafiq Husayn, Thundercat and Amp Fiddler.
On J. Cole's "Knock Knock" from his popular mixtape The Warm-Up, the song opens with the line: "Sometimes play the villain, sometimes play the hero. Sometimes I be Dilla, sometimes I be Preemo.
On Massilon, Ohio rapper Stalley's mixtape Lincoln Way Nights, he refers to Dilla in the song "Tell Montez I Love Her" with this line: "You was the first to introduce me to Dilla, and until this day I ain't never heard nobody realer".
On Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller's The Jukebox mixtape, he does his own rendition of "So Far To Go".
For "Too Deep For the Intro," on the Friday Night Lights mixtape, J. Cole sped up "Didn't Cha Know", which Dilla famously produced for Erykah Badu.
Immortal Technique, in his single "Toast to the Dead", from his free mixtape The Martyr, raps: "J Dilla's still alive as long as his music is." The production of the song is credited to J Dilla himself.
Big Sean made a song called "Two Can Win" paying tribute to J Dilla.
Skyzoo - Jay Dee's death in 2006 prompted Skyzoo to pay tribute with the song "Sky's Last Donut."
Chance The Rapper mentions J Dilla in the mixtape "Acid Rap". The standout song "Everybody's Something" samples Slum Village's "Fall in Love".
Kendrick Lamar has a couple of songs over J Dilla's beats called "Dreams" featuring Punch & "Players (freestyle)" featuring Punch and Jay Rock.
Joey Badass has used some of Dilla's beats in some of his works like "Snakes", "Two Lips" and "Like Me" on his 2015 album, B4.Da.$$ which was an unreleased Dilla beat. Also, in "Christ Conscious", Badass uses the line "Specially educated, Heavily Medicated/ Give me that beat and I'll put you next to Dilla
Agile pays tribute to J Dilla throughout his mixtape Toronto Love Jay.
Rick Ross mentioned his aspirations to have a recording session with Dilla in his track "Walkin' on Air", a song from his 2014 album Mastermind: "All I ever wanted was to make scrilla, Have a recording session with J Dilla".
Mint Condition state in the liner notes to their 2008 album E-Life in reference to J Dilla's death, "Wish we had the chance to work with you, your music continues to inspire us.
James Hughes, the son of filmmaker John Hughes revealed that his father was a huge fan of Donuts.
The Brand New Heavies pay tribute to J Dilla in the liner notes of their 2006 reunion album Get Used to It by saying "And last but not least, a special shout out and in loving memory to the man who hooked up many an ill remix, James (Jay Dee, J Dilla) Yancey. Rest in peace, brotha".
Singer Eric Roberson referred to Dilla's inspiration on his production as "the reason why I even do beats" on his 2007 album ...Left.