James “J. Dilla” Yancey was one of the most creative and respected producers in the music industry. J. Dilla was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, home of the Motown sound. He has created masterpieces for Common, A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, Bilal, The Pharcyde, Busta Rhymes, Dwele, D’Angelo, Janet Jackson and the list goes on and on. Dilla was also one of the founding members of the Detroit hip-hop group Slum Village. Unfortunately we lost J. Dilla at the age of 33 from the blood disease TTP connected to his Lupus.
I was privileged to meet with and interview Dilla’s mother Ms. Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey who was visiting Toronto to promote the film ‘Suite for Ma Dukes’. This was a great opportunity for us to honour this strong black woman who gave birth to and raised this musical icon. ‘Suite for Ma Dukes’ is a concert documentary celebrating the music of J. Dilla, composed and arranged for a 60-piece orchestra by Miguel Atwood-Ferguson.
Ty Harper from OTA Live said and I quote, “it’s very rare that we receive the opportunity to sit down and pick the brain of the parents of a genius”. I took full advantage of this opportunity to interview Ma Dukes and ask her some questions that may not normally be asked about her son, J. Dilla.
What was it like growing up in the Yancey household?
Ma Dukes: It was not orthodox. As most people would have a coffee table as a standard in their living room, we had microphones set up. Every Friday we would entertain each other by singing and/or dancing. You had to do something to make us laugh or clap. You had to improve each and every week, Mr. Yancey liked it that way. That’s how we enjoyed our family time together at the end of the week.
Tell us about the Gospel influence in your home?
Ma Dukes: Our home was definitely a gospel household. We all sang in the choir, that’s right Dilla sang in the choir as well. Dilla didn’t get nervous until his voice changed to bass, and then he became self-conscious. He played the keyboard and the drums but, he wouldn’t play in the church. We would have bible studies and dinner at our homes, which would end with entertainment. When Dilla played the snare drum it would sound like a whole band was in our living room.
Did you encourage your children’s talents?
Ma Dukes: I tried to encourage all of my children but I learned early to step back and not encourage them. My children were rebellious and if I showed too much interest they would slack off. I had a tendency to get over excited about my daughter playing the flute and Dilla playing the cello that it would make them want to stop doing it. It made me proud beyond measure to see them excel in music, but I allowed them to pursue their interests without any pressure from me.
Did Dilla come to you for honest critiques?
Ma Dukes: Dilla never came to me for critiques. I was not privileged to hear most of his work before it was completed. He didn’t want people to hear his product in its raw state, it had to be mastered. I couldn’t even go down to the basement (where he worked) in my own house to try and sneak a listen. We called him “alien” because he would get into a zone for 2 to 3 days where he wouldn’t come out of the basement. I had to send sandwiches down and beg him to eat. He spent tireless hours perfecting his craft. When working on a specific project for an artist he would work non-stop to meet their deadlines. He never wanted an artist to be waiting for their work.
What artist did J. Dilla look up to the most?
Ma Dukes: Without a doubt, Dilla adored Pete Rock. He kept it no secret, he idolized him. In his early beginnings his dream was to produce like Pete Rock. Pete thought it was funny when he found out about this, he said “Jay Z said he wanted to be like Dilla”!! If you listen intently to their music you will notice the resemblance in the way they master their music. There is something special about Pete Rock, he never worries about how much attention he gets for his music he just wants it to be good. I feel Dilla shared this same view about his work.
Did you realize that your son was becoming an icon?
Ma Dukes: I did not realize that he was becoming an icon because he was very humble. We were extremely close and there was nothing we couldn’t talk about but, he did not mention how influential he was in hip-hop. His music was a piece of him, it was personal and he held it inside. People would call me to ask if I heard the new “Dilla” track on the radio and that’s how I found out about his new music. I didn’t even know about the Grammy nominations until the day before. He didn’t want to make anything bigger than it should be. He was just passionate about his work, it was never about the money or fame.
What is your favourite Dilla track?
Ma Dukes: “Vivrant Thing” by Q-Tip. Every single time I hear this song I’m drawn back to it like a vacuum. I love all of his music but, this song and “Breathe and Stop” also by Q-Tip, hold a special place in my heart.
How do you feel about the break-up of Slum Village and the future of Detroit hip-hop?
Ma Dukes: I definitely wasn’t happy about the break up seeing that Dilla was a founding member and they were like brothers. There was a lack of communication and lack of understanding. At one point Dilla’s workload became so tremendous and he wanted to help all of the artists coming his way. Q-Tip, Phife, Erykah Badu, Common, Busta Rhymes, Bilal, The Roots were all coming to Dilla for production and he wanted to help these artists with not only their group projects but with their solo projects. So in order to meet their deadlines and Slum’s deadlines it became stressful for everyone.
As for the Detroit sound, my hope is that we can come together and work as a collective to promote each other. If we can’t appreciate what we have here we can’t expect the world to appreciate it. We definitely have a signature sound which I call the “New Motown Sound”, we just have to acknowledge our treasures.
Tell us about the J. Dilla Foundation and its mission?
Ma Dukes: The J. Dilla foundation is my heart. It’s my way of giving back to the world Dilla’s gift. When he was in ICU he stressed that he wanted to give his gift of music to the world. As a mom, I didn’t want to acknowledge that he was speaking to a higher power and was accepting his fate. I didn’t want to accept that he was leaving us. Dilla was always about helping people to make something out of their lives and that’s what the foundation aims to do. We support schools and individuals who are passionate about music that requires funding to pursue their interests. We are limited in our resources, but we would give all to help someone realize a dream, until the account is empty. My job is to see his music reach everyone, I live just for that purpose. Dilla is alive, especially in my home.
Final question, tell us about ‘Suite for Ma Dukes’ and what you want the audience to leave with?
Ma Dukes: ‘Suite for Ma Dukes’ is part documentary part concert, it’s a living thing. It is a film that explores the gift of music and a new form of hip-hop. It’s Dilla’s music performed by a 60 piece chamber orchestra. The musicians involved in this film, many of them were not familiar with Dilla’s music. Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (composer) was a huge fan of Dilla’s music and took an innovative approach to it. This was done out of love and sheer passion for music, no musician or artist was compensated. It’s a priceless work of art in which you will not leave the same after experiencing it.
Ma Dukes welcomed our team with open arms and made us feel extremely comfortable. She is extremely down-to-earth and has so many interesting stories to tell. My only regret was not being able to sit down and chat with this incredible woman even longer. I personally developed an even deeper appreciation for J. Dilla’s production by viewing this concert documentary. To see an orchestra perform his music with such passion and without being compensated proves that Dilla was a well respected artist. If you are a fan of music period, this is a must see documentary.
reposted from October 17th, 2011*