James Yancy (most commonly known as under his aliases Jay Dee and J Dilla) was one of the most prolific producers of music during the mid-1990’s. Lending his signature sound to many hip-hop voices of the time, he became known for interspersing jazz with traditional beats to create unique stages for people to rap over.
Yancy was the oldest of four children, living with his family on the east side of Detroit. With his father and mother both involved in music, their abilities seemed to transfer over to their children; his mother recalls him being able to match “pitch-perfect harmony” by two months.
He developed an affinity for spinning and collecting records, which evolved into a love of hip hop. He would meet his future Slum Village partners, T3 and Baatin, during high school, making the music they would perform on top of. During his teenage years, it was said he secluded himself in a basement with a growing collection of records, creating.
Eventually, Dilla’s skill grew along with his equipment stash, allowing him to record more intricate music and attract attention. Despite being heavily associated with A Tribe Called Quest, Yancy was uncomfortable with it in the beginning: Quest was known for their socially-conscious lyrics, which was something he didn’t always subscribe to.
However, to him, creating meant staying true to himself and his vision for creativity.
But like I said, I understand to a certain extent. I guess that’s how the beats came off on some smooth type of sh-. And at that time, that’s when Ruff Ryders [was out] and there was a lot of hard sh- on the radio so our thing was we’re gonna do exactly what’s not on the radio.”
This increased later in life, as by the mid 2000’s he worked through independent labels despite being tied to a contract with a larger label, MCA. MCA’s desire for more marketable music left several albums unpublished, but led Yancy to seek out places which would support his vision. The freedom that he was allowed let him experiment with his sound and free himself from the need to fit a particular mold.
“You know, if I had a choice, skip the major labels and just put it out yourself man… Trust me. I tell everybody it’s better to do it yourself and let the Indies come after you instead of going in their [direction] and getting a deal and you have to wait, it ain’t fun, take it from me.
Right now, I’m on MCA but it feels like I’m an unsigned artist still. It’s cool, it’s a blessing, but damn I’m like, ‘When’s my shit gonna come out? I’m ready now, what’s up?”
Yancy’s career was cut short by the emergence of a rare blood disorder, which would lead to the decline of his health and eventual death in 2006. The months leading up to his final moments were hard for his friends and family, but Yancy was insistent on working around his illness.
Friend and frequent collaborator Common wrote in his book Some Day This Will All Make Sense that Yancy would often be creating through immense pain. Living with his mother in order to receive her care, he often evoked the same image of an upcoming DJ that he lived in his youth.
His final album, Donuts, was released on his 32nd birthday. Three days later, he passed away. The record evokes a certain freedom from constraint and expectations, and eventually takes a turn for the somber. Seemingly comfortable with his own mortality, Yancy labelled the 28th and 29th track “Hi.” and “Bye.” respectively, almost wishing the listener well.
The sampled lyrics of the final track, “Donuts (Intro)” lament that he “hopes he could be, the type of man that you thought I could be.”
Upon his death, the outpouring of love and support for Yancey reflected the universal respect that hip-hop had for his work. His desire to remain unique, evolving and free earned him a legendary status among musicians who admired his ability and drive. His work still holds influence in DJs to this day.
“I can’t begin to explain the influence his mind and ear has had on my band, myself, and the careers of so many other artists. The most humble, modest, worthy and gifted beatmaker I’ve known…and definitely the best producer on a mic.” – Black Thought, MC of The Roots
While we didn’t want this to be a particularly depressing Year One entry, Yancey’s story makes us question what lasting impression we will leave on people with our work. Sometimes we can feel that in order to command people’s respect, we must bend to their desires; as Dilla shows us, though, sometimes respect is borne from creating our own path and remaining true to our values.
Stay true to yourself, from the beginning to the end.
Image Credit: Red Bull
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