Today is the birthday of James Yancey. We knew him as Jay Dee and later on J Dilla to avoid confusion with Jermaine Dupri. We lost him 5 years ago and the game has never been the same since. The first time it really hit me that Jay Dee was actually killing shit was 1996 when I was at Morgan State University in Baltimore, MD. Back then I was in radio heaven because the Baltimore/DC area had about 4 ridiculous radio stations including Morgan State’s station. They used to play nothing but heat and they had the habit of playing Tha Pharcyde’s “Runnin’”, “Drop” & “Y?” all back to back to back. They also played tracks from Busta Rhymes “The Coming”, De La Soul “Stakes Is High” and Mad Skillz “From Where???” album often. If you ever perused the liner notes of these albums you may have noticed that Jay Dee’s name came up and made you say “Hold up!” on each jawn.
After the release of A Tribe Called Quest “Beats, Rhymes & Life”, “Jay Dee Unrealeased EP”, “The Love Movement”, “Fantastic Vol. 1″, “Amplified”, “Things Fall Apart”, “Ventilation: Da LP”, “Fantastic Vol. 2″, “Like Water For Chocolate”, “Best Kept Secret” and “Mama’s Gun” and several other remixes (not including numerous other projects) J Dilla finally dropped the BBE LP “Welcome 2 Detroit”. If you weren’t paying attention to Dilla during this time then you missed out honestly. There’s a reason why people felt moved enough to rock shirts that said “J Dilla Changed My Life” after he passed away. I can’t imagine having gone the past 15+ years of my life being completely oblivious to his work. Much the same way Bruce Lee, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Bill Withers, James Brown, Prince, Hunter S. Thompson, Piri Thomas, Pete Rock, DJ Premier, RZA and many others have changed my life by me being exposed to their art, music or writing so did James Yancey. If I had to think about it I could say without any reservation that J Dilla DID, in fact change my life.
I’ve previously written about my days discussing Dilla’s production with my producer & DJ friends going back as far as 1996. I’ve written about how I used to cop the Jay Dee Bling 47 beat CD’s from Sandbox Automatic back in the days. I remember the lukewarm reception Common’s “Electric Circus” had when it first dropped because heads thought it was “too weird”. I’ve discussed on Twitter about the time I went to cop the import vinyl of the original “Ruff Draft EP” back in 2003 and I realized there were five other heads there to do the same. Then there was the megaton bomb known as Jaylib “Champion Sound” that was dropped on the masses at around the same time. I can’t recall getting into a friend’s car in 2003 and not hearing that album at some point during the ride. It was around this time that he’d already been established as one of the best to ever do it. I had no idea he wouldn’t be with us too much longer.
I remember seeing those first pictures of Dilla when his health started to deteriorate and being in shock. It hadn’t hit me that he was in danger of not fully recovering and getting back into full health until I saw footage of him doing a show in a wheelchair. He didn’t want to disappoint those that paid money to see him perform so he rocked it anyways. “Donuts”, “The Shining” and “Jay Love Japan” were all still in the works as a bed ridden Dilla would continue to make slaps up until his passing three days after his 32nd birthday. Most humans only begin to scratch the surface of their full potential in life during their 30′s and James Yancey left this mortal coil at 32 as an unadulterated musical genius. My people & I used to joke that if you wanted to make hot shit all you had to do was bite what Dilla was doing. That was back in 2000, mind you.
J Dilla is hands down the most influential producer of the past 15 years. This coming from a guy that listens to more beat tapes than any doctor, psychiatrist or record label A&R would recommend for anyone that wants to keep their sanity. The way he chopped samples, the sound and crispness of his drums, even the way he played keys on some of his tracks all stand out in my memory. You can hear his influence in hundreds of producers and beatmakers the world over. I feel for those that never became fans of his or didn’t have the opportunity to have Dilla change their lives as well. Five years later, several posthumous Dilla projects have dropped with the exception of his 2003 MCA LP “Pay Jay” and greats such as Pete Rock, DJ Premier, DJ Scratch and Nottz regard him as the greatest producer ever. All I know had I never heard James Yancey’s music I wouldn’t be the same person I am today with the same appreciation for Hip Hop.
Rest In Eternal Peace, J Dilla 1974-2006