It’s a bittersweet irony. Visionary hip-hop producer James Dewitt Yancey, a.k.a. Jay Dee, a.k.a. J Dilla, purposefully kept himself off the radar of mainstream celebrity: no partying with Paris Hilton, no clothing lines, no sports drinks or cameos in the videos of artists with whom he worked. Yet when he was buried Tuesday, on the lush grounds of Forest Lawn, he found a final resting place alongside such luminaries as Dorothy Dandridge, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Sam Cooke and Ethel Waters, just to name a few. He earned that.
Dilla, who’d battled lupus and an incurable blood disease for several years, succumbed to kidney failure in his Los Angeles home on February 10, just three days after his 32nd birthday.
He had an almost fanatical following among hip-hop’s most demanding fans and artists. His love of old-school hip-hop and his passion, and genius, for pushing the envelope translated into hard beats, synth grooves, carefully scavenged and insanely freaked samples, and jazz riffs that — no matter how manipulated by his handiwork — reminded you that hip-hop music is soul music, that it can aspire to and achieve the distinction of art. The Motor City native was a singular talent, from his first group, Slum Village, to a slew of underground mix-tapes and leaked tracks; from stellar album cuts (“Runnin’,” from the Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia; “Didn’t Cha Know,” from Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun; “1nce Again,” from A Tribe Called Quest’s Beat, Rhymes & Life;“It’s Your World” and “Love is .?.?.” from Common’s Be) to classic remixes (Pharcyde’s “She Said”; Brand New Heavies’ “Saturday Night”; Janet Jackson’s “Got ’Til It’s Gone”). Dilla also helped shepherd full-length albums to acclaim (Slum Village; Common’s Like Water for Chocolate), some of them ahead of their time and woefully misunderstood, but destined to be properly re-evaluated one day (Common’s Electric Circus; Q-Tip’s Amplified). And still, all that was only a prelude to an astonishing series of completed works in the pipeline by artists including Madlib, Busta Rhymes, Ghostface Killah, A.G., Visionaries, Truth Hurts, Phat Kat, MF DOOM, and Skillz. Dilla’s work ethic was off the charts.
Speaking by phone while packing for a European tour, L.A.’s Kim Hill, formerly of the Black Eyed Peas, told the Weekly, “I don’t have many regrets in my career, but one is not getting a song I’d written [for Jay Dee] into his hands. He’d originally recorded a bunch of tracks for Les Nubians, and for whatever reason they didn’t use them. I heard one that was bananas, really soulful and beautiful, and I wrote a song called ‘Even Steven’ to it. I gave it to a mutual friend to get to him, but I think he was really busy and also just starting to fall ill at that time, so I didn’t want to push. I don’t know if he ever heard it or even got it. He really is one of my favorite producers, and I’ve just been in shock [since hearing the news]. All of us are. Cats are devastated.”
From his home in New York, Taz Arnold of the eclectic collective Sa-Ra added, “Man, Jay Dee was at the top of the game when it came to beat-makers, producers — people following in the footsteps of Marly Marl, Large Professor and cats like that. We grew up in the same generation, and he just took all our heroes — us being lovers of production and beats — and raised the bar in terms of sound. That [Marly Marl, Large Professor] era personified the ultimate creativity in terms of experimenting, in terms of adventurousness regarding the way you make music — excellence in terms of how you make music. We had a chance to work with [Dilla] before he passed. He came by the house and spent a couple of days with us. We knew he was sick, but he really wanted to collaborate. We worked on a song called ‘Thriller,’ and it was really good to be able to chat with him about music. We talked about signing him as a solo artist. I was assuming he was on his way to a full recovery. .?.?. Erykah Badu was at our house that morning [he died], working on some music and painting, and about an hour after she left, she called with the news. It was devastation. May the brother rest in eternal peace. He was the capstone on top of the pyramid.”
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J Dilla’s Donuts (Stones Throw) was released on February 7, his 32nd birthday. Two other projects, The Shining (BBE) and Jay Love Japan (Operation Unknown) are completed. Visit the Stones Throw Web site (www.stonesthrow.com) for information on how to donate to a fund established for J Dilla’s mother, Maureen Yancey, who had moved to Los Angeles to care for him in his final days.