No art form lionizes its fallen quite like hip-hop. Forget Biggie and 2Pac. Their reputations were sealed the moment the doctors zipped the body bags — though, to be fair, few can argue against their posthumous crowning in the pantheon. More telling is the postmortem red carpet rolled out for Big L and Big Pun, two prodigiously talented artists who released a mere single great album each, dying before they had a chance to ruin their reputations with the inevitable 2005 Houston bounce track. No, in hip-hop, molehills are turned into mountains, with even lesser talents like Dipset flunky Stacks Bundles earning a spate of po-faced eulogies and a prominent “R.I.P. Stack B, Ima keep you alive, kid” shout-out from Lupe Fiasco on last year’s The Cool.
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A beatmaker on track to a first-ballot Hall of Fame career
J Dilla is a different case. Unlike the aforementioned names, when the 32-year-old beat-maker/rapper, born James Yancey, passed away at L.A.’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in the winter of 2006 (due to a cardiac arrest stemming from complications related to Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare and incurable blood disease), he was neither savior nor supernova. Instead, he was an underground legend in those pre-Internet days, when the term actually meant something. Racking up a string of left-field hits capable of stacking up against any producer of the late ’90s/early ’00s, Dilla quietly dropped bombs working with the Pharcyde (“Runnin’”),” De La Soul (“Stakes is High,” “Itsoweezee”), A Tribe Called Quest (“1nce Again,” “Find a Way”), Erykah Badu (“Didn’t Cha’ Know,”), and Common (“The Light”). Meanwhile, with Janet Jackson, Dilla had his only brush with mainstream success, carving Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” into the lean proto-chipmunk soul of “Got Til It’s Gone,” his only single to ever reach the Top 40. In what would become a pattern, Dilla never saw full credit, with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis “mistakenly” getting credit in the liner notes. Nonetheless, the track’s sonics directly influenced the next generation of crate-diggers, with Just Blaze, 9th Wonder and a certain college dropout all taking notes.
Like most great producers, Dilla’s mike skills couldn’t match his otherworldly ear, but he still managed to amass a respectable discography as one-third of Slum Village (whose Fantastic, Volume 2 is often regarded as a subterranean classic); a Jaylib collaboration with Madlib; and Welcome 2 Detroit, an uneven solo effort. Cumulatively, it wasn’t as eye-popping as it was a portent, a start to what would inevitably have made for a first-ballot Hall of Fame career, considering Dilla’s notoriously rigorous work ethic.
He died the same week that L.A.-based Stones Throw released Donuts, an impossibly soulful trip of head-nodding, hip-hop instrumentals that served as a gorgeous, plaintive requiem. It was also Dilla’s finest work,earning him the 2007 Plug Independent Music Awards for Artist of the Year and Producer of the Year. Donuts’ greatness and the sentiment engendered by Dilla’s passing helped to kick-start construction of the Church of James Yancey.
In the short span since, Dilla’s stature has increased exponentially, both critically and commercially. His higher-profile collaborators have ceaselessly kept his name alive, with Badu, the Roots and Common dedicating songs and/or entire albums to his memory and constantly praising him in lyrics and interviews. In turn, a new generation of producers and rappers has started taking cues from Dilla’s sound, chief among them two of hip-hop’s brightest stars: Black Milk, a fellow Motown native who got his start working with Slum Village; and Jay Electronica, a Badu-affiliated New Orleans native who has gotten the Internet crazy by kicking fierce rhymes over long-lost Dilla beats. To say nothing of the hordes of MySpace MCs aping Dilla’s style and in the process discovering what Kanye West found out on Finding Forever: how inherently difficult it is to mimic Dilla’s twisted alchemy of tweaked-out soul samples, black mountain drums and twinkling keys.
But as successful as the deification has been, the budding Dilla empire has foundered, thanks to astronomical health bills, which forced Dilla to go into hock with the government and die with high six-figure IRS debt and few tangible assets — save for a few hard drives of beats and a publishing deal with Universal Music. Ironically, as Dilla’s stock is at an all-time high, the executors of his estate have been bedeviled by a one-two punch: scrambling to pay his tab while fighting rampant Internet piracy of his material, both aimed at the ultimate goal of providing an inheritance for his two young daughters. “It’s frustrating,” says Arthur Erk, the estate’s executor and Dilla’s former business manager. “People have been cropping up left and right, trying to make money off Dilla’s name and likeness. There was something called the Dilla Foundation, which doesn’t even exist legally, yet it was trying to host charity events, claiming authorization from the estate. If there weren’t young children involved, we’d give up. No one needs this type of aggravation.”
Enforcing copyright in the Internet age is a Sisyphean task, and trying to protect one of the first big names to die young in the RapidShare world, Dilla’s estate has been beset with a dilemma that figures to plague families of all prematurely deceased musicians henceforth.
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Explains Erk: “The problem is that Dilla was friendly with a lot of people — many of whom I know, many of whom I don’t — and there have been dozens of bootleg situations we’ve had to expend estate cash on to shut stuff down. If we don’t, it cheapens the value of his brand. We’re trying to protect his legacy and his heirs.”
Keeping track of the wealth of Dilla beats floating around the Web is practically impossible. Most notably, Busta Rhymes released a free Dillagence mixtape last year, featuring an introduction from Dilla’s mother, a matter that Erk claims is currently in mediation. This April, the recording masters of Pay Jay, Dilla’s never-released MCA record, were illicitly leaked to the Internet, sabotaging an estate plan to rerelease them at a yet-to-be-determined date. In a last-ditch effort to assert control over the heavily pirated material, the estate recently took out a full-page ad in Billboard, informing the industry that the only person, including friends and family, legally authorized to execute transactions or make any decisions regarding the commercial use of Dilla’s name, music, merchandise, photographs, video appearances, artwork, etc., is Erk.
“We’re not sure how many Dilla beats are floating around,” says Micheline Levine, Dilla’s former lawyer. “It’s been an absolute nightmare. [Erk] and I have been working without fees, and neither of us dreamed that copyright infringement would be so extensive and harmful to the estate. We’re trying to get the message out to third parties, who may in some convoluted way think they’re helping out the heirs but are really depriving them of income.”
A Dilla tribute is tentatively planned, as are several lawsuits against copyright infringers; both actions are meant to deliver at least a modicum of income beyond the modest royalties. With the gospel of Dilla secure and reasonably certain to grow, his legacy and brand certainly have the potential to provide for his children. Whether or not they do lies in his empire’s efficacy in striking back.