Even more than most popular music, hip-hop moves fast. Trends come and go. Styles and subgenres are born, evolve, and fade away. Yet somehow, 10 years after his untimely departure from planet Earth, James Dewitt Yancey looms even larger over the art of hip-hop and the craft of music production today than he did when he died at age 32.
A cult-like following has developed around the late Detroit beat maker and MC whose life played out like a parable: self-taught genius from humble beginnings makes a name for himself, influences an entire generation with work that’s way ahead of its time, gets played by the music industry, bootlegged by admirers big and small, and harassed by police before suffering a tragic death as he reaches the cusp of the fame and fortune he so richly deserved. Much like David Bowie, Yancey cheated mortality by creating—tirelessly, fearlessly—right until the end, releasing some of his most challenging and personal work just days before his demise.
Memes and T-shirts proclaim “Dilla Changed My Life.” Respected musicians and fans alike swear that “Dilla is God.” All hyperbole aside, there’s no denying the fact that he’s a strong contender for greatest rap producer of all time, with a serious R&B and electronica catalog to boot. Call him what you will—J.D., Jay Dee, John Doe, J. Dilla, Dill Withers—the man knew how to flip a beat. (He was nice on the mic too, but that’s a whole other story.)
Music ran in his blood. His father, the late Beverly Yancey, was a bassist and vocalist who co-wrote the Spinners hit “It’s a Shame.” His grandfather, William James Yancey, used to play the piano to accompany the pictures that flickered across the silver screens of silent movie theaters. “Since he was a couple of months old, he wouldn’t go to sleep unless he heard jazz,” said his mother, Maureen Yancey, who was partial to opera and classical herself. “My husband had to sing and play for him to go to sleep. It was his lullaby music as a child in his nursery.” James received formal training in piano and cello before picking up the piano, flute, and drums on his own.
Excited by their son’s talent for physics, Yancey’s parents enrolled him at Davis Aerospace Technical High School, but he hated wearing the ROTC uniform and showed more interest in percussion than jet propulsion. While he was supposed to be hitting the books, young Yancey would often walk to the nearby home studio of Amp Fiddler, a musician and producer who had toured with Parliament Funkadelic. At “Camp Amp” he learned the rudiments of the E-mu SP-12 and the Akai S950 and MPC60. His mentor forbade him to read the instructions, challenging the bright teenager to figure out the sophisticated sound equipment on his own.
“He learned the sampler real quick,” Fiddler recalled. “I’d show him how to quantize, how to freak shit, how to change the time signature, make the feel different, make it fall ahead or behind the beat. He loved that.”
As for the industry, well, he never quite figured that out. Soft-spoken and generous to a fault, Yancey shared his knowledge and all the fruits of his labors freely with his close circle of friends, having little regard for anything but the quality of the music. Honesty was his only policy, and he could never get used to liars and backbiters. Whenever he stepped into the vocal booth, his righteous indignation poured out in lyrics of fury. Dilla’s confidante DJ House Shoes described his rap alter-ego as a case of “split personality, damn near.” The creative catharsis may have helped preserve his sanity.
As prolific as he was versatile, Dilla churned out thousands of tracks, circulating countless “batches” of beat CDs that changed the sound of rap and R&B. Even at the height of his success, he considered himself an “underground” artist, never too big to work with an unknown talent—though he was allergic to “microwave popcorn-ass n#gg@s,” as Posdnuos put it on De La Soul’s Dilla-produced banger “Much More.”
“He went all over the place and he showed range,” says Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson in the documentary Still Shining. “People that have heard his beat tapes know that they were like snowflakes. No two were the same.”
Still, common threads do emerge. Dilla is often referred to as a “producer’s producer,” not only because fellow practitioners can better appreciate the subtler nuances of his work, and just how hard it was to do the things he made seem so effortless. But also because his beats are, in a very real sense, alive. They possess a certain humanity—an organic messiness, the opposite of robotic repetition. As complicated and precise as each track might be, the drum hits were slightly off, the keyboards delightfully sloppy.
In much the same way that Jackson Pollock’s splattered canvases were “action paintings,” Dilla’s beats are “action records.” His scratches seem to twist the space-time continuum. As a listener, you feel as if you’re sitting on the vinyl, getting dizzy as the fingerprinted disc rotates forth and back. Whenever the beat abruptly drops out, you can feel Dilla’s hand on the fader.
While he definitely went through “phases,” Yancey mostly worked off inspiration and vibes. “There were multiple beats that I'd already rapped on that ended up on the beat tapes that Dilla sent out and that somebody bought,” Detroit MC Phat Kat, a friend and frequent collaborator, once recalled. “When the industry started jumping on the Dilla bandwagon, they was getting scraps. He kept all the hot shit for himself and the crew. After we’d seen that people were jumping on all the stuff he was doing, everything that me and Dilla recorded, we did it right on the spot. That’s why I always got the freshest shit.”
Fans and fellow artists are still processing Dilla’s body of work. What follows is an attempt to make sense of the phases of his creativity, identifying the unique hallmarks that distinguish each one, as well as the qualities that run throughout them all. It’s a Sisyphean task, if not a fool’s errand. Over the course of his 13-year career, Yancey restlessly reinvented his sonic palette—ranging from crisp boom bap to warm jazzy soul to synthetic digital sounds and far-out experimental fare. And because of his free-wheeling distribution methods, beats from different stages of his evolution could pop up at any moment, and continue to do do, a decade after his passing. Yet somehow each new release feels every bit as fresh as—if not fresher than—the latest leak to hit the Internet.
“Ain’t no Dilla like the one I got—no one can do shit better,” De La Soul rhyme on their 2014 Smell the D.A.I.S.Y. mixtape, a compilation of classic De La songs re-recorded over Jay Dee joints. “His beats held the DNA of hip hop and kept it hot like a thermal sweater.”
With that said, let’s lace up our boots and go stomping through the sound gardens of this East Detroit savant.