Written by Phin Upham
James DeWitt Yancey was one of the most prolific producers in modern rap history, but you won’t find him on popular radio stations. Whether rapping under the moniker Jay Dee, MC Silk or J-Dilla, his style was almost unmistakable. His compositional album Donuts, used jazz roots to promote hip hop flair.
He was the mad scientist in a basement, mixing sounds together to create something new.
His passion for music developed at age 2. His father, a jazz vocalist, would often sing him lullabies to get him to sleep. The piano was his first instrument, perhaps a nod to his grandfather William James Yancey. His mother kept him off the streets by putting him in church, which only fed into his love of music. When he wasn’t home working on new music, he was at church singing in the choir.
J-Dilla was forced, for lack of a better word, into trade school where he studied aerospace. He turned the experience into a perpetual dance party by DJing at various events. He and his mother would often fight over his love of music. While she preferred him in school, learning valuable things that would make him money, he was actually hanging out at a house down the road recording music.
It took a long time for his parents to come around to the idea of his musical stylings, but they eventually gave their support. Dilla got his start working under Q-Tip, where he produced for artists like Janet Jackson and Busta Rhymes.
His music hit a stand still when he was diagnosed with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, which made him lose weight dramatically. He did a European tour where he performed from a wheelchair, but he didn’t last long. He died in his home in Los Angeles in 2006, his mother said the cause of death was a cardiac arrest. Dilla is remembered fondly by artists like Madlib, who still perform today.