Since his untimely death three years ago at age 32, venerated Detroit beatmaker J Dilla, née James Dewitt Yancey, has been deified like no one in underground hip-hop's history, inspiring scores of musical tributes, a run on his unreleased tracks, and a flood of praise from artists he collaborated with including Common, the Roots and A Tribe Called Quest. "He wasn't just a producer," Busta Rhymes famously said a couple of years ago, "he was the best producer."
Noted for a range that led him to craft both a Grammy-winning hit for Janet Jackson ("Got 'Til It's Gone," 1997) and an album with eccentric producer Madlib (Champion Sound, 2003), Dilla was known for chopped-up samples, delirious key melodies and soulful, downtempo beats.
But while Dilla's star continues to rise, the life of his mother, Maureen Yancey, a former opera singer, has slipped further into chaos. The woman who was his biggest supporter, who let her Detroit home fall into foreclosure so she could be by his side in the twilight of his life, is fighting diabetes, osteoporosis and lupus, the same autoimmune disease that afflicted her son, who actually died from complications related to the blood disease TTP.
Dilla left behind two young daughters when he passed and, because of his lack of insurance and mounting health care bills, some six figures of debt. In his will, he appointed his former accountant Arthur Erk as the executor of his potentially lucrative estate, but Yancey has accused him of mismanagement. For his part, Erk has had to deal with rampant piracy of Dilla's beats. Meanwhile, some are attempting to cash in on his legacy. New York rapper Charles Hamilton, for example, bizarrely credited Dilla as executive producer on his upcoming debut album, claiming he received the late beatmaker's blessing via séance. Hamilton says proceeds from the album will ultimately benefit Dilla's family, but Yancey says he never consulted her.
Though Dilla's posthumous releases — including the recent, critically beloved Nature Sounds CD Jay Stay Paid — have made him arguably more popular now than he was in life, Yancey says she hasn't seen a dime in royalties. Now 60, the woman her son affectionately dubbed "Ma Dukes" has steep medical bills of her own. Since losing her house, she now resides with her husband on a desolate block on Detroit's northeast side. "You might hear gunshots or shooting at any time of the day," she says. "I would say that out of the 25 houses on my block, there are six houses that are totally burned. One photographer told me that it looked like Katrina. And he had been to Katrina!"
Fortunately, her situation seems likely to improve. Erk has resigned as executor of the estate, and Yancey says she has more confidence in its new manager, Alex Borden. Stones Throw Records has started fielding requests from those interested in purchasing the rights to use Dilla's music. Meanwhile, organizations around the country have been holding fundraisers and tribute shows in Ma Dukes' honor. Atlanta's contribution will take place at the latest installment of Gentleman Jack Art, Beats + Lyrics, the traveling urban art show founded by Atlantan Jabari Graham, which will be held at the W Hotel Midtown on Aug. 7.
The event will feature a set from local DJ Rasta Root, who recently released a mixtape of his favorite Dilla tracks, DJ Rasta Root's the Rest of Dilla Vol. 1. A blown-up canvas of the mixtape's cover artwork — a sharp-looking watercolor portrait of Dilla done by artist Eric9 — will be presented to her, along with an honorarium.
Rasta Root says he held off for years on his Dilla tribute — which features solo tracks from the artist, songs from his Detroit collective Slum Village and works he produced for such artists as De La Soul and Tribe — because everybody else was doing it.
Now that most DJs are arranging their Michael Jackson mixes, he says the time felt right for the project. Still, it was a challenge. "[Dilla] didn't quantize his high hats and snares at times, he did his drumming freehand a lot, almost like he was playing live," Rasta Root explains, adding that it made matching beats difficult. "He had a particular style of mixing dope drum sounds and patterns and chopping samples. He was the producer's producer."
Still, Rasta Root believes there's a fine line between honoring Dilla's legacy and trying to capitalize off of it, and says Charles Hamilton is on the wrong side of that line. "I don't think it suffices to say, 'I am going to give [Yancey] money when it sells.' I think that she should be involved in the process." Concerning his own project, available for free download, he says, "I didn't want people to feel like ... I was selling the CDs underhanded."
Yancey sees the bright side of the situation, insisting that many of Dilla's friends and admirers are atoning for his premature death by making sure his mother is taken care of. "Everybody's trying to see that I have a good quality of life, and that I don't have to worry about my medications," she says. "Through me, they rehash the love they have for Dilla, and it's just like an extension of family."
It appears their efforts may pay off. Yancey reports that she and her husband — a Ford retiree who has seen his health care benefits scaled back — will likely be able to afford to move into a new home in a better neighborhood before too long.
It's a moving show of support for a woman who has become a symbol for hip-hop's core values. As she explains it, "I'm everybody's mom and grandma."
Yes, Dottie's was a fun place to be. I played there with the Tone Deaf…
Really, CL? You're somehow against demolishing an abandoned building that has sat vacant for years…
I miss Lenny's.
Urban Realty Partners (Oakland Park, The Reynolds). They are building an apartment complex with 1…