Jay Dee/J Dilla/ James Yancey Happy Birthday to the Wizard of beats!
What can you say about a genius?
As a producer DJ, and avid record collector, I have studied many creative forces in my time. In the early 90’s, I was living in Detroit when I started cultivating what is now known as the "Prescription Records Sound" alongside my production partner, Chez Daimer in KMS studios. We worked tirelessly on Gratiot Ave. and travelled between Chicago and Detroit, fully immersed in perpetual recording and experimentation. We managed to secure a loft space, tucked away in the eastern market area, directly across the street from the studio. Chez, my girlfriend at the time, and I lived in a split-level loft space. My passion for record collection never wavered and I quite often lost track of time discovering record stores in Detroit and on the outskirts. My girlfriend, a native to Detroit, knew exactly where to go and introduced me to hidden gems like Car City Classic and Record Grave Yard, just to name a couple. I couldn’t possibly disclose my other secret spots ;-) While many have since closed, they bring me back fond to memories of an organic sound. Like a warrior of sound, my hunt for vinyl could last for days.
Having come from the Chi, the days of digging and finding cheap records were few and far between. I would go to the D and uncover cheap records - in abundance! I would turn to my Bro, Theo Parrish a Chicago native, later a Detroit transplant, onto a few of these record stores. Melodies and Memories, I discovered around 1993-94 and was there so often, I became tight with the owner, Gary. We spent a lot of time in deep conversation about music and life. He had formally been a Disco DJ and he shared stories of his old DJ gigs and clubs. In exchange, I would speak to him about the current DJ culture. Melodies and Memories was a true testament to music with wall-to-wall CD's and vinyl and record bins overflowing in every direction. I spent endless hours digging which didn’t go over well with my girl but I would always walk out of there with something serious for a sample or to play in my sets. A large part of the Prescription sound was built on cutting up loops and taking samples from old drum pieces (snare, foot, hi-hats) and lacing that with heavy production and keyboard work. All of these elements came into fruition through my MPC 60 and later the MPC 3000. KMS was a million dollar facility and we made every effort to maximize on new technology to create something new. At that time, we knew that the UR crew, Kevin Sauderson, Derrick May, Carl Craig, and Moodymann, were doing their thing on the Dance/Techno side of Detroit . Little did I know that simultaneously, there was another creative force powering up on the Hip Hop tip. J Dilla and the likes of my Bro, Wajeed, were busy in their labs developing their craft. Wajeed and I met in Melodies and Memories earlier on and became tighter after the passing of Jay Dee. Wajeed had put out a series of Jay Dee's beats, which have now become legendary...
I would later find out that this Brother, J Dilla and I had one degree of separation. We knew the same people, shopped at the same stores, but never had the opportunity to build with one another. After leaving the D and moving on with business life in Chicago, I continued to carry out the same habits. Back and forth to the D and overseas gigs that always lead to crate diggin’ somewhere. I had always been a big fan of the Native Tongue Crew, especially a fan of Tribe and De La Soul. They all played a major role in contributing to the soundtrack of my later high school years. I paid very close attention to Tribe Called Quest because of Q-Tip’s production and break selection. Through a introduction made by my Bro Amp Fiddler to Q-Tip, Jay Dee started to produce for The Ummah, his musical approach, sample selection, and layering technique immediately caught my ear. I recognized the intricate level of creativity; especially his technique of layering which created a whole other moody plateau when blended together. I could relate to what he was doing because I was into the same technique during my creative process. The rhythms he created were aggressively soulful and unique, suffice to say, I quickly became a fan of his art.
Dilla's production on Janet's joint ... SOOOOO dope to me! There was nothing on the radio that sounded anything like that, let alone the video for the track was flavour as well! I recall hanging with my Bro, Spinna in his Brooklyn house and talking about Jay’s sound. I needed a copy of it so I could play it out and asked Spinna to throw in on a CD along with some of his newest production. This happened to have been his club hit "Space Rider" by Shaun Escoffery. Spinna was a big fan of Dilla and knew a lot about his body of work. Being a big record collector and Hip Hop beat maker himself, Spinna knew all about Dilla's samples and skill set, which from his perspective was nothing short of praise worthy. This conversation confirmed my previous sentiments, Dilla = Dope!!!! From then on, Dilla's BBE album, Slum Village, Common's albums, Dwele mix tape, Beat CD's and anything I could get my hands on – all became a part of my repertoire. My musical taste was never limited to a genre. I grew up loving Disco Rap and as I mentioned before the "Golden Era" of Hip Hop, which was more conscience. Much of the 90's Hip Hop lost me, especially when it became less about messages and art and more about money and lies. I love DJ Premier and Pete Rock productions but Jay Dee reinstalled my faith in the sound of Hip Hop, REAL TALK ...
It was Grammy week and I was in LA for my boy Marques Wyatt's party "Deep", which I played pretty regularly. While I was out there, I was asked to do a birthday party for my Lil Bro’s Albert and Thomas, aka DJ Gmel from LRG along side JRocc from The Beat Junkies. I ended up staying in Cali for a week longer and was told Jay Dee would be attending the event, I would finally get a chance to meet the Brother. I knew Jay Dee had been battling health issues throughout the previous years but I was not aware of the severity. The seriousness of his condition became clear when I considered going to his “Donuts” record release party. It was my girl, an LA resident and industry person, who informed me that Jay might not be there. Of course when she said this, I grilled her for further information. She explained that Dilla’s health had deteriorated and was now in a wheelchair. I was like "wow"... I trusted her word because of her close relationship with Madlib, one of Dilla's best friends. With this information, I didn’t go to the event – but I wish I did. I figured, "hey I’ll just meet Bro at the gig I was playing along side JRocc." Some days later and the day of the birthday party arrived, February 10. It was a normal day in Cali as you would expect it to be - beautiful weather as usual. Around 3 p.m., I received a call from my Lil Bro Thomas, the host of the event I was destined to play that evening. Thomas was also cool with Dilla, due to his history as a Hip Hop turntablist in the LA area and his industry affiliation. He knew I was a fan of Dilla's work and prospect of potentially building with the Brother was what prompted me to stay the extra week and play his party. The call I received from Thomas is not what I expected, "Yo Ron I just got off the phone with JRocc, Dilla just passed"....Heavy exhale. Talk about being blown away!!! A lot of things passed through my mind at that moment. I was numb and the entire news was surreal. I remember getting off the phone and staring into the sky. My first thought was "what a loss". In the back of my mind I was hoping this was misinformation. Then, the sobering thought of realizing that, once again, I was one degree of separation away from Jay kicked in. I received this devastating news directly from his inner circle, so it was "truth". As the day progressed, more information came to light and I really began to realize how sick this Brother really was. Later that night, the party went on but there was a sober element in the air. No one expected JRocc to show up, but he did. Eyes red from tears and all, he played a tribute set to his Brother Dilla that night. I will never forget it. These are the kinds of scenarios that play out in movies but, by chance, it all went down in one trip to Cali.
I was slated for my Japanese tour a couple days prior to Jay Dee’s funeral. Despite never meeting him, I was compelled to stay and pay my last respects. I felt as if I had lost a family member – a Brother. He and I came from some of the same bricks, knew a lot of the same people, dug in the same record shops. I felt him and his music greatly. Thomas, a Chicago friend of mine Jay, Spinna and I went to J Dilla's service. “Donuts” was our soundtrack for the day. Once we arrived, we did the final walk around the casket and caught a glance at his black MPC 3000, which was displayed on a table beside the casket. The internment portion of the service was on a hillside, facing the city. We gathered around his gravesite as they said a few words and prayers. As we stood there, heads down in prayer, my Boy nudged me and said, "look up". I looked up and there was small plane writing a heart in the sky - right over all of us. Eternal love. Phenomenal...
Later, we headed back to Dilla's home which he shared with my old high school mate, Rashid aka Common Sense. Spinna, Thomas, and I stood in the living room for a while. Leaning against a wall between the living and dining rooms, I observed Dilla’s workspace, filled with various tools. It was untouched, as if Dilla had never left and was going to walk through the door. I was greeted by Wajeed, Geology, Asya, and of course, the owner the home Rashid. The who's who of Hip Hop soul was there and you could see that these people had genuine love for Jay Dee. All in all, this experience left a mirada of feelings that fluctuated between between honor and sadness. I also felt I was apart of something special. There was a common thread. In the music industry, quite often, we are separated by our differences. The truth is, we are a part of the most powerful family system there is, "Music". We are connected by this force. There is a spiritual council that guides us all in this work. When you are elected to be a leader in the Music movement, your voice will be heard. Dilla had and continues to have a powerful voice. His sound touches the chords inside of the aware and the unaware. Prophets bring messages and change prospectives. The message here is in the music. So, in more ways than one, I acknowledge and honor who Jay Dee/Jay Dilla/James Yancey is. A leader, an innovator, and a messenger in the sound.
I flew back to Chicago on a redeye the next day, had a few hours to gather my things together and make my flight for Japan. I left the United States feeling like I played a role in a surreal movie. Life is stranger in fiction. There is a sobering sense of acknowledging and valuing my own accomplishments, my own life and my own voice. Jay Dee was only a year younger than me. I was in my 30’s when he transitioned and looking at Jay Dee's time on earth, the immediate thing that came to mind is mortality. We, as creative forces, are ensconced in creation. We try to bend time in between the metronome of rhythm and tone. Time holds great value but the world’s clock holds less value when you live in the realm of melody and rhythm. What matters is the quality of the work, the importance of your message, and the vibration created (and felt). I have the utmost respect for the Yancey family and their strength. Jay Dee's Mom, affectionately named "Ma Dukes", is dedicated to keeping Dilla's music alive and protected, is inspirational. She understands that, beyond anything, Dilla's work will always be important.