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The Evolution of J Dilla

In the next of our hip-hop retrospectives we look back over James Dewett Yancey's trailblazing career.
illustrated by Dan Evans

Illustration by Dan Evans

It's been seven years since the death of James Dewett Yancey, one of the most revered music producers of the last twenty years. The importance of the man known to his fans and peers as J Dilla has remained steadfast since his passing in 2006; his music and its impact on the work of others untouchable. Dilla's work with artists such as Madlib, Erykah Badu and The Pharcyde (to name but a few) led to his becoming one of the most sought after and well-respected hip-hop producers of all time.


No retrospective of Dilla's success would ever be able to fully encompass his prolific catalogue, but here You Need To Hear This looks at a few especially notable parts of his career, exploring his collaborations, production work, and solo albums.

Introduction to Joseph “Amp” Fiddler

Born in Detroit in 1974, Yancey famously expressed an interest in music from an early age. As a toddler he would sit in the park with a Fisher Price record player and play the records his mother, Maureen ‘Ma Dukes’ Yancey would buy him– his first 45” being “The Wiz” by Michael Jackson.

Hip-hop became a major part of Yancey’s later school years. He met rappers T3 and Baatin, and formed a rap crew called H20. The trio would stay friends and later became known as Slum Village.

Inspired to start making beats by the 1984 track “Big Mouth” by Brooklyn trio Whodini, Yancey began to associate with Detroit based musicians and producers who would quickly come to help shape his career.

His most important early friendship was with Joseph “Amp” Fiddler, who mentored the young Dilla in what it meant to be a music producer. It was through his sessions at “Camp Amp” (the name given to Fiddler's studio) that Yancey mastered the art of digital programming, and encountered the drum machines that would make up part of his multi-layered, chopped up production sound. Fiddler's 'no books' learning method meant that Dilla's technique was almost entirely self taught, as he explained in his final interview with Scratch Magazine.


What Amp did, he’d play some stuff out the MP but he was like, “I’m not going to show you how to work it. You gotta learn on your own.” He was like, “Don’t use a book.” Ever since this day I never read the books to samplers and all of that, I just try to learn them… A lot of people say, “Oh, Amp taught you how to work the MP.” No, not really.

Early projects and success with Slum Village

Yancey became involved in numerous musical projects during his formative years as a young producer in Detroit, meeting friends and peers through Amp Fiddler and also at rap battles in Detroit’s Rhythm Kitchen.

An early collaboration saw Jay Dee (as Yancey came to be know) join up with rapper MC Proof to form the Funky Cowboys, where he showcased his growing talent on drum machines and samplers like the Akai MPC60 and E-mu SP-12. “The Fizzo”, an unreleased track by Dilla and Proof was made in 1994 and features Slum Village rapper T3.

Jay Dee’s first label signing came as part of 1st Down, with Detroit native Phat Kat MCing and Yancey on production. The group were signed by Pay Day records, but their break was short lived due to possible label complications. Their one 12” single, “A Day With The Homiez”, was released in 1995. After the demise of 1st Down, Yancey put his efforts back into Slum Village, the group he had formed in his school years. Originally named Ssenepod, the group became well known in Detroit's hip-hop scene, and recorded their acclaimed first album Fantastic, Vol. 1 in 1996. From the line notes of the release, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson from The Roots describes the impact the album had on him: I mean this ‘tape’. The ‘tape of all tapes’ NEVER left my side. I loves this tape so much I copped a high end walkman for it…I loved this tape so much I did my first ‘stage walkoff faking a piss break’ during Hub’s bass solo just to sneak a peak at a song or two. I loved this tape so much I swear I was gonna break the Roots up when I discovered Black Thought took my tape without my permission. Production collaborations and the influence of Q-Tip Slum Village's first album coincided with Yancey's induction into a music production group called The Ummah, made up of Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed from A Tribe Called Quest, with the occasional inclusion of artists D'Angelo and Raphael Saadiq. It was Jay Dee's meeting with Q-Tip that arguably pushed his career into further new realms of success. I met Tip in ‘94…I had a group that [former Detroit Piston] John Salley was managing - so I gave Tip a tape, and the same day he called back. He was like “who did these beats?” After that, shit just took off. Jay Dee came to produce tracks for Labcabincalifornia, a career defining album by Los Angeles hip-hop group The Pharcyde. The album included the track “Runnin”, relased in 1995. It's a perfect example of Yancey's midas touch, cutting and sampling different genres to create a unique sound. Here he mixes 60s jazz cuts with “Rock Box” by Run D.M.C. to perfection: Work as a producer After the success of Labcabincalifornia, remix requests and further production work on big name artists came regularly, and the mid to late 90s were dominated by his growing work as a producer. Jay Dee’s sound was praised for being constantly ahead of the curve, his reluctance to re-do sounds he had already mastered becoming a defining factor in his success. By 1997, there was a growing number of ‘Dilla heads’, a core fanbase for the producer who was changing the sound of hip-hop. Many notable remixes appeared during the late 90s with Jay Dee and The Ummah’s recognisable flair on them. An issue of much contention surfaced when Janet Jackson released “Got ‘til It’s Gone”, a track which sampled Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”. Though the song officially credited Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis as producers, Yancey claimed in an interview that it was actually him behind the track. This is what happened, this is coming from me. Me, Tip and Ali all collaborated on the track [working together as The Ummah]. I’m not going to say any names, but we all collaborated on this track, made it happen… When it came out, it said produced by someone else. Check those credits, you won’t see a Jay Dee, or a Q-Tip or anyone else. Despite the controversy over “Got ‘til It’s Gone”, The Ummah provided Jay Dee with an invaluable platform for further work, and during his time in the group, he played a hand in work for De La Soul, The Roots and Busta Rhymes. His remix of Macy Gray’s “I Try” is a beautiful, down tempo edit that pairs the raspy quality of Gray’s vocals with a smooth, jazz beat. Soulquarians and distancing from Slum Village Aside from his membership of The Ummah, Jay Dee was a founding member of hip-hop supergroup Soulquarians. Alongside him were Questlove and James Poyser from The Roots, Common, Erykah Badu and Talib Kweli. Although no formal releases came from the group as a whole, each member was involved with the production and writing of the other's work. It was Yancey's involvement in Erykah Badu's “Didn't Cha Know” that earned a Grammy Nomination for R&B song of the year in 2001. This greater level of success contributed towards Yancey's distancing from Slum Village. In 2000, the group released their second album, Fantastic, Vol. 2, and their critical standing further improved. UK DJ Toddla T remembers his first encounter with Dilla through Slum Village's second record: When I lived in Sheffield and I'd got to the record shop when I was 13 or 14, the first thing that I ever bought that I knew was consciously J Dilla was Fantastic Vol. 2. I'd no idea who they were or what it was. I remember putting it on the turntable in the shop and thinking that it was absolutely amazing. I bought it straight away. It wasn't until a couple of years later that I realised that loads of my favourite hip hop records with other people's cuts were Dilla related. However, shortly afterwards Yancey announced his departure from the group, though he continued to produce their next two albums. His status as a highly sought out producer was evident in his decision to leave. A second Grammy nomination came as a result of his work on Common's gold selling album Like Water For Chocolate. Ten of the 21 tracks had his touch on them, and Complex later listed “The Light” as number one on its list of “The 50 Best Dilla Songs”. At the turn of the century, Dilla had mastered his warm and fuzzy boom-bap style of production, and by the time the “The Light” hit he'd reached his peak. The next phase of Jay Dee's production style was more digital, but this was a welcome goodbye to that era, which also gave Common the biggest hit of his career. Solo work and the birth of J Dilla Taking inspiration from his own stomping ground, Welcome 2 Detroit was Yancey's first solo album, released under monikers Jay Dee and J Dilla. The album saw Dilla take up the mic to both rap and sing; “Think Twice” shows Yancey's vocals to be soft and subtle, quite unlike the twangy assertions on tracks like “Give It Up”. The album was followed by a separate track “Fuck the Police”, considered to be one of his best cuts. Inspired by the racially motivated interference Dilla himself suffered, the song became his most loved work as a solo rapper. A fusion of talent: the creation of Jaylib It seemed only a matter of time before the creative genius of Yancey was paired with someone of equal stature and respect. Otis Jackson Jr., better known as DJ and rapper Madlib, was given access to some of Dilla's unreleased instrumental tracks, and went on to rap over Dilla's beats. Stones Throw records, longtime supporters of Madlib and Dilla, then included one of said tracks as the B Side to Madlib's “JFK to LAX”. Peanut Butter Wolf, founder of Stones Throw, remembers the moment Dilla found out about this inclusion. Dilla called me up afterwards, and was like, “Yo, what’s up with that bootleg man!” I wasn’t sure if he was like what’s up, I’m pissed off at you, or what’s up… He was like, “yo man, let’s do some shit official!” Under this instruction, the pair went on to work together on Champion Sound, released on Stones Throw in 2003. Split 50/50 with Dilla on production and Madlib rapping, and vice versa, the album met with great critical acclaim. The talent of the pair fused together to make something DJ Rhettmattic has since described as “almost like Yin and Yang”. Taken from Champion Sound, “Starz” uses samples from the Isley Brothers and Starcastle, showcasing the diversity of the pair in their work together; the first half of the track lyrically light but driven by a thumping bassline and vocal sampling not dissimilar from those used by Kanye West on College Dropout. Despite Dilla’s now apparent health complications, he was still as keen as ever to perform with Madlib on a string of live shows which took Jaylib around the States. The pair created a magnetism on stage to be expected by the two stalwarts of hip-hop. Donuts and the Legacy of Dilla By the early 2000s, the complications Yancey had developed from his battle with lupus began to take hold, and his condition worsened. Though his output became progressively more limited, Dilla continued to listen religiously to music throughout his hospitalisation. During this time, his mother and friends would bring him records; a habit Ma Dukes makes light of during the Crate Diggers documentary on his extensive record collection. “When I took the crate up, and he looked through it, I think out of a whole milk crate full of 45”s, I think he might have taken a dozen out of there and set them aside. He said “you can take that back to the house”. He said “none of that’s good”.” Despite his debilitating condition, J Dilla produced his most successful solo album and arguably most influential, Donuts, for release on February 7th 2006, three days before his death. The majority of the record had been put together during Dilla’s stay in hospital, during which time he remained incredibly private regarding who could listen to his work in progress; he was known to become enraged by those who would attempt to listen to previews in their incomplete form. Donuts, named simply for Yancey’s love of the snack, was quickly lauded as one of the best hip-hop albums of all time. With a tracklist of 31 songs all under three minutes, the album, released on Stones Throw, was lauded by some close friends as “a goodbye letter”. Tracks like "Stop!" serve a poignant reminder of Dilla's self awareness. Sampling "You're Gonna Need Me" by Dionne Warwick, his scratching over the Jadakiss vocal creates the line "is death real?" Made of chopped up samples, “Donuts” is a purely instrumental record, morphing the old, new and ‘future’ beats that had earned Yancey the respect that now comes every time his name is mentioned. So many tracks from the album have been cited as favourites by a diverse range of artists internationally: "Workinonit" chosen by The Horrors, and "Lightworks" by Ma Dukes herself. In the seven years since his death, so many unreleased Dilla cuts have surfaced, but fans are united in the knowledge that the full extent of his catalogue will never be revealed. Inspired by her son's motto that the best talent has always yet to be found, Maureen Yancey is reknown as a tireless campaigner for keeping her son's legacy alive, starting The J Dilla Foundation in his memory to "help fund inner-city music programs, and provide scholarships to students attending schools that have progressive music curricula". In an interview in 2008, Busta Rhymes describes the nature of the man who played a part in every one of his solo albums: For the most part, when I did get the opportunity to meet J Dilla, his demeanour was so calm, like reserved. He wasn't really into the long talk, or the conversation…He wasn't into being in all the clubs, all of the hotspots. He just wasn't that dude…For the most part he was into the grind, just trying to contribute greatness to the game through the music. The man known as Jay Dee may have passed, but his legacy lives on, never allowed to be forgotten by his peers, family, and many imitators. Follow Tamara on Twitter @tamararoper The Evolution of MF DOOM This Is Stones Throw Records: A Conversation With Jeff Broadway The Making of JJ DOOM's "BOOKHEAD"