THREE YEARS AFTER HIS UNTIMELY DEATH, J DILLA’S BEATS AND REPUTATION LOOM EVER LARGER OVER HIP HOP. BUT FOR HIS MOTHER – WHO NURSED THE VISIONARY PRODUCER THROUGH A CHRONIC ILLNESS AND HAS WATCHED HIS ESTATE LANGUISH IN LIMBO – THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES. BY KELLEY LOUISE CARTER
There’s nothing Maureen Yancey wouldn’t do for her children. But as she sits in the basement studio of her only surviving son’s Los Angeles home, she struggles with the one thing she hasn’t done since her firstborn, James Dewitt Yancey known in hip hop circles as Jay Dee or J Dilla – three years ago of complications from lupus. She just can’t. She didn’t do it when the ambulance arrived at the nearby house Dilla shared with. Common, and she didn’t when they failed to revive him from cardiac arrest. She couldn’t even bring herself to do it when she picked out which baseball cap she’d place by his coffin.
“When he left, I had an awful void,” she says calmly. “I didn’t grieve like you always think you’d grieve. I always had a joy and the strength to help others to get through it. But…” her voice trails off, hands smoothing down her jeans. “I haven’t cried yet.”
Still, the memories came flooding back when she flew from Detroit to visit the city where her son was buried at age 32. “I rejoiced in the fact that he wasn’t sick anymore,” she says, “and that he’d done what he came here to do. I do believe that. His purpose on earth was to come here and give us the music that he had in his heart and soul.”
The equipment that surrounds her is Dilla’s, the same gear he used to create the deceptively simple, unspeakably beautiful music that solidified his reputation as one of hip hop’s greatest. As Busta Rhymes put it in 2007, “He wasn’t just a producer, he was the best producer.”
Many of her son’s friends – Common, Busta, Erykah Badu – still call regularly, and keep her son’s music in rotation. Q-Tip’s latest single, “Move” (Universal Motown, 2008), was built around a Dilla beat, and her other son John Yancey, a rapper known as Illa J has released the powerful new album, Yancey Boys (Delicious Vinyl, 2008), which was produced by his big brother.
Meanwhile the 60-year-old woman everybody calls Ma Dukes faces health problems of her own, and financial challenges as well. Although numerous memorials and “benefits” were held in his name, the proceeds didn’t change his family’s life. Dilla left two daughters – Ja’Mya, 7, and Paige, 9 – to provide for, a sizeable IRS bill, and unresolved legal issues surrounding the use of his beats. Ma Dukes says she has never received money from her son’s estate and that her plans to establish a foundation in his name were quashed by the executor of his estate. Somehow, she was not reduced to tears even after Dilla’s attorney informed her that she had no legal right to use her own son’s name or likeness for commercial purposes. Not even to support his family.
IN HIS NATIVE DETROIT, DILLA WAS THE MAN. The soft-spoken beatmaker was a pioneer of the Motor City hip hop landscape that struggled to gain national recognition before Slim Shady put the D on the map in 1999. Though he remains anonymous to the masses, Dilla is considered a demigod by his hardcore fans. His distinctive drum sounds and grimy, organic sound palette revolutionized hip hop production, and echoes of his innovative use of samples can be heard in the work of Just Blaze and Kanye West. “He can do a Primo beat better than Premier. He can do a Dre beat better than Dre, and he can out-rock Pete Rock,” says fellow Detroit producer House Shoes. “But none of them could duplicate a Dilla beat. Much respect to those three. They were pioneers. But that’s the fucking truth.”
Dilla grew up in the Conant Gardens section of Detroit’s Eastside surrounded by music. His dad, Beverly Yancey, played piano and upright bass. “My mom and dad had a jazz a cappella group, and they’d sing in the living room for hours and hours,” says Illa J, 22. “It was really laid-back and nonchalant. While that was happening, my brother would be downstairs in the basement doing his thing.”
By the mid-1990s, Dilla was getting calls from some of the hottest stars of the day. He produced tracks for The Pharcyde, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, and Q-Tip, with whom he founded the production collective The Ummah. Yet despite these high-profile projects, Dilla shunned the limelight. His love of music eclipsed any concern for dealing with industry politics. “He wasn’t antisocial,” says Illa J. “He was just quiet. That comes from our dad. A lot of his personality rubbed off on my brother. It was all about the craft for him. He didn’t care about all that other stuff.”
When Tribe’s Beats, Rhymes, and Life (Jive, 1996) was nominated for a Grammy, Tip invited Dilla to the award ceremony. “I was like, ‘Yo, this is a good opportunity for you, you should just go.’ He was like, ‘Hell no, I ain’t going. Fuck that!”‘ recalls Q-Tip, laughing at the memory. “I said, ‘You got nominated for a fucking Grammy. You are going to go.’ He said, ‘I ain’t got nothing to wear!’ But he went. He was so mad and disgruntled and angry about that. He was much happier doing it his way. That’s who he was. He didn’t really want to fuck with none of that. And I don’t blame him.”
DILLA REALIZED SOMETHING WAS WRONG WITH HIS HEALTH IN JANUARY OF 2002. He’d just returned from Europe and thought he had a bad flu. Sick to his stomach and complaining of chills, Ma Dukes took him to the emergency room at Bon Secours hospital in suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. His blood platelet count should have been above 150, but it was below 10. Doctors told his mother they were surprised he was still walking around.
He tested positive for lupus, an autoimmune disease that can be fatal. To make matters worse, Detroit doctors diagnosed him with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, aka TTP, a rare disorder that causes blood clots to form in the body’s blood vessels.
Despite his degenerating health, Dilla packed up his stuff and moved out to Los Angeles, where he lived with his friend and frequent collaborator Common. He set up a studio and got to work. But very few knew how bad life was for the soft-spoken prodigy. He poured himself into his work, doing his best to forget his health problems. Ma Dukes says there were several close calls. When she left him alone once, Dilla fell down and bumped his head. Because she refused to leave Dilla’s side during his last days, she and her husband lost their house. She tried to file for bankruptcy to save the family home but didn’t get back to Detroit in time to sign the necessary paperwork. “I wasn’t leaving my son,” she says.”We lost the house. But I wasn’t concerned. It didn’t bother me at all.”
At summer’s end, 2005, Dilla found himself in a hospital bed at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, the same hospital where The Notorious B.I.G. and Eazy-E died. He’d lost the ability to walk and could barely talk. His own body was killing him, and there was little to be done about it.
Sensing that death was coming, he told his mother he needed his equipment in the hospital with him. Ma Dukes asked his friends from the L.A.-based label Stones Throw Records to lug his turntables, mixer, crates of records, MPC, and computer into his room. When his hands were too swollen, Ma Dukes would massage his stiffened fingers so Dilla could work on the tracks, letting his doctors listen to the beats through his headphones.
Sometimes he’d wake Ma Dukes up in the middle of the night, asking her to help move him from his bed to a reclining chair so he could work a bit more comfortably. His only focus was finishing the album. Donuts was released on Stones Throw on February 7, 2006, his 32nd birthday. Dilla died three days later.
crazy to hear all that soul,” Illa J says of one haunting track called “Don’t Cry.” “I got to
be in the right mode to listen to it. It’s emotional for me. I can feel my brother talking to me through the music.”
THREE DAYS AFTER DILLA DIED, HIS ELDEST DAUGHTER, PAIGE, TURNED 6. “That was a low blow,” says her mother, Monica Whitlow. “To have to tell my baby that before her birthday was the worst. We didn’t get to say goodbye.” The 29-year-old, who knew Dilla before his career took off, still lives in Detroit. She emphasizes that their relationship was never about money. “To have him back here, breathing and living, that’s worth more than money any day,” she says. “But it pisses me off, everything that’s going on with this estate. It’s ridiculous ’cause it’s been three years, and my baby has not seen anything from this estate. Nobody has granted James his final wish.”
Although Dilla’s will stipulates that all assets be divided among his mother, his two daughters, and his brother, the executor of the estate is his accountant Arty Erk, and as back-up, there’s his attorney, Micheline Levine and then his mother. Ma Dukes says she grew so frustrated that communications broke down between her and the executor. Erk explains that payments from the estate were delayed because Dilla has an outstanding tax debt in the “healthy six figures.” He says he is negotiating a payment plan with the IRS and that a petition has been filed with the probate court in order to get family allowances paid to Dilla’s children.
The other major issue facing the estate is that so many people are using Dilla’s beats without permission. Dilla would often create beat CDs and hand them out to friends.
“It’s been difficult to police,” Erk admits, adding that he’s at the tail end of litigation with Busta Rhymes. “An album was released by Busta on the Internet called Dillagence without authorization,” Levine explains. “And, of course, we’re now unable to use those tracks and exploit those downloads. Everybody downloaded it for free.” Attempts to reach out to Busta were not returned.
Ma Dukes counters that Busta paid Dilla for those tracks years ago. “He got a raw deal,” she says. “Busta didn’t take anything from anybody.” Ma Dukes says she feels bad that her son’s friend had to go through such rough treatment by his estate.
The same scenario has played out several times since Dilla’s death. The estate has settled “four or five” similar cases, negotiating what they believe is fair market value for the beats. “A lot of people are coming out of the woodwork with things that he did for them,” says Erk, who took out an ad in Billboard magazine in April 2008, notifying people to stop using Dilla’s material. The estate also sent out cease-and-desist letters to various entertainers as well as people throwing events in Dilla’s name-including his own mother, she says. “Her dream was to open a camp where kids with lupus could have normal lives,” says Joy Yoon, an L.A. journalist who interviewed Ma Dukes shortly after her son’s death and later offered to help her raise funds for what was to be called the J Dilla Foundation. “But then she said she was put on hold by the lawyers.”
Ma Dukes insists she will go on with her plans for the foundation, establishing it in her own name. “It’s been over two years, and they’re talking the same crap,” she says. “I don’t have a Ph.D., but I know how to use a phone and talk to somebody and make arrangements. It’s just not an excuse. They have no respect for the fact that I had anything to do with bringing him into this world.”
Meanwhile, she has voiced concerns about Dilla’s will itself, which he signed on September 8, 2005, nearly six months before his death. “I don’t even know if he really knew what he was signing,” she says. “I don’t think he would have signed anything if he’d known it would be like this now.” She has hired an attorney who is also representing her son and Paige’s mother, Monica Whitlow, who says that legal action is “in the works.”
“His estate is fucked up,” Q-Tip says. “I know the lawyers are saying that he had certain tax issues and all that stuff. But you were getting paid to represent him when he was alive, so it shouldn’t be any of that. Ma Dukes ain’t getting nothing, and the kids ain’t getting nothing. It’s a horrible thing.”
During the last year of her son’s life, Maureen Yancey tested positive for lupus. She says she’s not worried about dying and has accepted the fact that she and her husband must now live in a rental property in a neighborhood she describes as “a war-torn zone.” What keeps her up at night is her grand children. “I just want the girls to be taken care of,” she says. “That’s all.”
In response to a petition filed by her mother, Joyleete Hunter, Dilla’s youngest daughter, Ja’Mya, has begun receiving money from the estate, and Erk says Paige should start receiving payouts sometime in early 2009. “Oh really?” says Whitlow. “That’s new information for me.” She has had few conversations with Erk and says that when she informed him she was working with Ma Dukes’ lawyer, he warned her, “This is going to get ugly.” But she remains undeterred. “I gotta speak up for my baby ’cause I been quiet too long,” she says.”He hasn’t seen ugly. I can show him ugly.”
In the meantime, Ma Dukes says please
don’t cry for her. “It’s really rough for everybody out there. But prayers help,” she says with a sigh.”Pray for my strength.”