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An Interview with J Dilla's Mother, Ms. Maureen Yancey

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece discussing the difficulties J Dilla's estate has had in enforcing copyright law and paying off the six-figure IRS debt left behind. In the aftermath of the story's publication, I had the chance to speak with his mother, Ms. Maureen Yancey about Dilla's legacy and her current estrangement with the executors of his estate.

Q: In

the original article, some comments from Dilla’s estate’s executors made you take pause. What were they and what sort of problems have you had with the estate?

A: I understand the side [estate executor] Arty Erk’s coming from and what he’s trying to do. However, there has been no communication between them and the family in a year. The only time I hear a peep is if there are some propositions between attorney’s going to court. That’s the only time I’m made aware of things.

It’s ridiculous. I still have contacts with all of Dilla’s friends and people in the hip-hop community. We still talk, we still keep in touch, we’ve became friends. They check in on me and I’ve had the opportunity to direct them to the estate thinking they’d be able to help do projects. But most of the time, none of their inquiries have been addressed. There’s no one that has made it accessible to them to contribute and get work done. I’ve stopped sending people there. They haven’t been forthright, I was told they didn’t appreciate the help, that we weren’t supposed to use Dilla’s name or license. By the time, I understood what was happening and learned about the legal ramifications, I took down the website for the Foundation that we’d created as to be in compliance with state laws. I figured in the coming year, they’d reevaluate their decision, but it never happened.

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 and 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.

What were your intended goals for the Foundation?

I wanted to set it up to help others but also to be a nucleus for the fans who wanted to do tributes and honor Dilla. It would be a place for artists to be able to show their support. When the estate chose not to communicate with us, they sold themselves short. The A-list artists stay in contact with me directly and they’re basically cutting off the quality talents that made themselves closest to Dilla. Anyone with a knowledge about his work would know this, but those in charge haven’t a clue to Dilla’s worth, They haven’t a clue as to who he was as a man or what his relationship was with his fans and his peers. It’s a community, those artists coming out of the underground. You can see this when you travel around the world and see how large his fan base really was. People are still discovering the extent of Dilla’s influence.

He has a young audience just coming into the community who he’s had a major influence on. Then there’s the issue of the jazz community. Dilla grew up with jazz. That was his lullaby and the connection is far greater than the estate realizes. It’s more than just notes. There’s so much that can be done and the estate hasn’t got a clue. It’s such a waste of time. But I’m not closing the door on them yet. Dilla worked alongside with me and I was a big part of my son’s past. I moved to LA to take care of him, I worked for him from day one, that’s why the communication with his peers and me has been so great.

What do you hope happens with the estate?

At the end of the day, we want our voices to be heard. We want the community to work with me and the estate. We want everyone to work together. It’s been the estate’s choice to not communicate with us and it jeopardizes the future quality of his projects. They make the decisions for him without the proper musical knowledge. Their depth of musical knowledge just isn’t enough.

How did this entire mess come about? Why did Dilla pick these people if they didn’t know anything about music?

He definitely wouldn’t have chosen any of them if he knew better. The thing is, Dilla got along with mostly everyone, but if he knew about certain people who have collaborated with the estate he’d been spinning in his grave. They might as well have gotten someone off the street to oversee things. They know the words but they don’t know what they mean.

Arty Erk was never his business manager as he portrays himself. During Dilla’s lifetime, he was strictly an accountant. Now they constantly threaten to sue at the drop of a dime, I don’t want to risk my health so I try not to worry about these things too much but it’s upsetting.

It all happened because of our lack of knowledge. Dilla was the first person in our family to even have a will, he was the first to even have anything to designate, the only one of us that had an estate. I’m talking about grandparents and great-grandparents back all the way down. Usually, all we’ve left behind is bills. I didn’t know how what to do, so we ended up sitting on the paperwork for months. We put it off. As his mother and best friend, I didn’t want to interfere or ask questions. I felt it wasn’t my place. I was so sure that he’d pull out of it. I never had a clue that he’d pass. He’d always tell me, ‘mom I’m going to go home,’ so that’s what I thought would happen. If I’d know he was going to pass, I’d have certainly had someone look at the paperwork. It’s just we never thought he’d need it. He ended up with Arty Erk because he had handled his finances, but still, he never had knowledge that it would end up this way.

And what about Micheline Levine, his attorney?

Dilla had been with her for most of his career, since he’d been with the Ummah. Whaen Dilla started to make it, he interviewed with several attorney’s and he felt the most comfortable with Scott Felcher, who employed Micheline. Dilla was big on going with the people he felt the most comfortable with.

I called her a little while back to let her know that Arty wasn’t being fair with me and that he’d made a few comments that I felt were racist. We’d had a relationship in the past and whenever she’d had a disagreement with Dilla, I’d smooth it over. Dilla had a lot of respect for his elders but he brought her to tears a few times and refused to say that he was sorry, but I’d help bridge the gap. Yet she didn’t seem to care when I expressed my displeasure with the situation.

What specific comments did you find racist?

When Dilla got sick, I’d been having health problems of my own, but since I had to take care of Dilla, I ended up neglecting my own health. I was feeling really ill and had very little activity in my lungs. I needed needed medication and I had bills. Not bills that would take a lifetime to settle but bills nonetheless.

At one point, Arty told me to call him back and in the meantime, he’d try to see what he could do. I waited and never got the return call. Still in the same poor shape, I called him and he said that he couldn’t do anything and asked me, ‘well, what did you expect to happen? Were you expecting a big windfall of money?’ I said, ‘no, but you did tell me to call back and otherwise I wouldn’t have done that.’

At one point in the conversation, he told to me consider going to social services or getting state aid. My gut told me if I had not been a black mother, he wouldn’t have said those words. But that wasn’t the first time. In the past, he’d made comments about Dilla buying rims. He called me up one time to chastise me for Dilla having a lack of funds and told me that he wouldn’t be in this predicament had he not spent money on rims for his truck. But Dilla made the money, he worked for it and he wanted to spend it on what he wanted to spend it on. Erk doesn’t know much about the community and how important it is what they see you in and how you dress, how you look in public.

I never told Dilla about that conversation but I wish I had. He would’ve fired him right there. At the end of my last conversation with Erk, I told him that he didn’t have to ever worry about me calling him again in this lifetime. That was over a year ago and I called Micheline about five minutes later to let her know what he’d said and how I felt about it. I only talked to her once after that, about the guy we chose from Stones Throw to work on Dilla’s remaining catalog.

Ultimately, they don’t want anyone who knows the business to deal with Dilla’s stuff. They’d rather do it themselves and close themselves off from the community.

So what’s the status of Dilla’s kids at the moment?

They’re doing fine. Both of the mother’s are drawing social security and his daughters are living with them. Dilla wanted them to be taken care of and they are.

You’ve mentioned how close of a relationship you have with Dilla’s artist friends? Who do you still keep in touch with?

Everyone calls me. Busta calls regularly. Erykah, Common, The Roots. All the top name artists used to come over during Christmas and New Year’s and at various points during the year, so we came to be a family. It’s a beautiful relationship that’s never faltered, even the artists out in LA. Madlib is a perfect example. Before they’d met face to face, Dilla and him already had a great relationship. The thing is, Dilla didn’t want to work with just anyone. There were times he’d gotten offers that would involve big money and he would be like ‘I’m not feeling them,’ and tell me that he knew better. I’d be sick about it, because it would be at times when he really needed the financial resources, but it wasn’t about that, it was about quality. I mean he’s still receiving awards and dedications worldwide to this day.

So what do the artist’s themselves think of the tumultuous relationship you’ve had with the estate?

I can’t name one of them who’s happy about it. None of them want to see me having to grovel for money for medication. I’ve always been a businesswoman but I had to give it up to take care of Dilla.

What was your profession?

I ran a day care, I had always done that in a building at ConantGardens. I’d always taken care of myself and never depended on Dilla.

What about the relationship with Stones Throw? You see a lot of mean-spirited comments and rumors in chat rooms that they’ve been less than upright in business matters regarding Dilla.

Stones Throw has always been wonderful. When I came to LA to take care of Dilla, his medical bills were sky-high but the people from the label were there every day. The only time they didn’t come was when I would call them and tell them to come a day later, because Dilla was too sick for visitors. They took care of the finances, they gave him advances for music that had barely been discussed. They’ve been great.

Dilla didn’t have health insurance for his last two years, so every time he went in and out of the hospital, he would rack up massive bills, sometimes up to a quarter of a million dollars. But they would always try to give us help, even if they didn’t have it. I know people say mean things about them but they just aren’t true. They’re totally honest and they loved Dilla, they stuck by him to the very end.

Why do you think the estate has been so brusque in dealing with you and the artist community?

I think it’s simply a control issue. They don’t want to worry about ma dukes saying anything. They don’t have the time to be bothered, Time will tell. They’ve definitely done things that are unnerving, that’s for sure.

What would you have liked to have seen happen?

I would’ve liked to be in harmony with them and for there to have been less bigotry, I would’ve liked to have seen activity. If you do work, people find out about it. Dilla wasn’t about controversy, he would’ve liked things to have been peaceful. 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.

Has it been difficult for you to be one of the main people in charge of protecting your son’s legacy?

It’s been a joy. Even in bad times when people want to slander me, people know the truth, everyone in the community knows. I was there at the beginning and people know that I loved and gave everything to my son. There was nothing I wouldn’t have done for Dilla. If it takes 10 years for them to get over this merry-go-ground, it’s going to be okay because Dilla wanted to help people who suffered.

Being in Detroit, it’s overwhelming the talent that these kids have here. But there’s no art appreciation, there’s no type of outlet at all. We have very few recreations here. When you come to my home it looks like Beirut. We need these talented and responsible children to see a spark to see the possibility.

What do you think about the current renaissance of Detroit hip-hop, with Black Milk, Elzhi, Phat Kat and others starting to break nationally and who pay such an obvious tribute to your son’s music?

I think it was a wake up call for them. They were all so close. Phat Kat would come here every day and would just be hanging around outside. The inspiration has gotten stronger for them. They know they’re not promised anything,

Dilla knew when he was going to leave. He talked about different things for me to do when he was gone, but I didn’t want to hear that. But he knew that he only had a certain amount of time left that he was blessed with. My greatest bit of advice is to tell artists to get a living will and to name for your executor someone who loves you through thick and thin. Don’t take things for granted. I know Dilla’s not the first one to get bad advice. It happens a lot in this industry but I hadn’t a clue about it. This stuff just wasn’t on my mind. All I want to do now is get the foundation up and running because that’s what Dilla really wanted.

Is there any bit of your son’s music that you hold most dear to you?

I know all of his music but Donuts means the most, because I was there. We had our schedules in the hospital and we’d rotate it around dialysis. It was hard because we’d have to do stuff in the wee hours of the night, with stacks of crates littering the room. We worked double-time and the doctor’s were worried but they ultimately knew that it was necessary to keep his spirits up. It was wonderful to be a part of and it’s special to me. I didn’t even understand the way he arranged things at first. I hadn’t given thought to the arrangement, with the “last song of the night.’ He knew his time was winding down and that album was his way of letting you know. It’s like being taken along for a ride. Dilla would always say, ‘are you ready for a ride,’ and that was what he felt with that album.

Any other favorites?

I liked “Fuck the Police,” a lot because Dilla had so much trouble with the police and it tormented him. He was all about being clean and crisp when he left home, his car was always immaculate and the police always assumed that he was dealing drugs or something. I remember the night the inspiration for the occurred. They were in the basement making music and they went to the gas station four doors from my home to get food. On their way there, the cops tried to tear them up, We ran down to the gas station and the cops were already stripping the car apart, trying to disassemble it. Dilla was furious. He hadn’t done anything wrong. He hasn’t driving a Caddy truck or a Lexus, he was just in a Ford Ranger that my husband had bought it for him because he worked at Ford. It was Dilla’s first real car, before he’d made any money on his own and now the cops were belittling him. It hurt him so bad. I told him not to get so upset and that he should put his anger to good use and write a song about it. They didn’t get much work done that night but it was business as usual the next day.

When did you first sense how musically gifted Dilla was?

At two months old, he could do perfect harmony, it was incredible. My husband would play jazz to put him to sleep every night and I was going to school for night classes and we thought it would sooth him. Meanwhile, he’d been harmonizing along with the basslines in perfect pitch. It was amazing, we’d tape it and play it for other musicians. We were a very musical family, my husband was always training people to sing.

At two and three years old, he’d start to go to the record shop every Friday and they would play all the new records for him. He’d buy a few and then go to the park and spin records. He was only 2 and a half. Now ironically, it’s an area where they have an artist haven.

What would you like people to remember about your son?

I’d like them to remember what his music was about. It was very simple: it’s about love. Sometimes it was negative, sometimes it was positive. I didn’t appreciate that until he had passed. Dilla loved people, he loved doing what he did, and he loved those he worked with.

So with all this in mind, what are you plans for the future?

I’m planning on founding the J Dilla foundation in his honor. I suppose I’ll just do it with my own name, God gave me one too. The artists will be informed that this is what Ma Dukes is doing in honor of him. No one can stop me from doing it and the work will still be the same. I just want his fans to know how much we appreciate him and love and cherish all the support.


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