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.