A few weeks back, I wrote a brief piece looking at the short life of Jun Seba, and the timeless musical legacy left behind after his untimely passing. What I desperately wanted to mention at that point – but ultimately left out as it didn’t seem to fit anywhere – was that Nujabes was not the only hugely influential producer born on February 7th 1974.
James DeWitt Yancey was born in Detroit, the son of an opera singer and a jazz bassist and the oldest of four children. With such musically-inclined parents, it was little surprise that the young Yancey displayed a similar affinity, and at 16 years old he teamed up with two high school classmates to form Slum Village. The group garnered their fair share of notoriety on the Detroit scene, but it was Yancey’s production skills – honed over countless hours spent in the basement with just a tape recorder and a bunch of vinyl for company – that really got people to pay attention.
By the mid-90s, Jay Dee had done production work for some huge names (Janet Jackson, De La Soul, and ATCQ amongst many others) and the years that followed only saw his star rising higher. 2001’s Welcome 2 Detroit marked the first appearance of the J Dilla moniker, and set the stage for a handful of subsequent releases across various smaller labels that showcased his obvious talent. Before too long, though, it became tragically apparent that all was not right, and just three days after his 32nd birthday in 2006, Yancey passed away after struggling for some time with both thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura and lupus.
There is so much to admire about J Dilla that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps it was the sheer intensity of his love for the music that was most endearing, and nowhere is this more evident than his incredible work ethic. The nine EPs/LPs from before his death have since been joined by a staggering 15 posthumous releases, not to mention the dozens of production credits. This tireless graft despite the increasing severity of his ailments reached its pinnacle in late 2005 as Yancey toured Europe in spite of the fact that he was now confined to a wheelchair.
Indeed, such was the strength of his creative energy that not even the gradual sapping of his life force was able to stop him from bringing his ideas to fruition. During a lengthy hospital stay in the summer of that year, Dilla recorded what many consider to be his magnum opus. Donuts is worthy of a blog post all of its own (although Jordan Ferguson’s book for the 33 1/3 series discusses the album far more eloquently and thoroughly than I ever could), but suffice it to say that it is the perfect microcosm of the Dilla oeuvre.
Across its 31 tracks Yancey demonstrates his remarkable ability to find useful snippets in even the most obscure of samples, crafting a gloriously experimental sonic collage that even today, 11 years later, stands completely unique. Something I have always found particularly fascinating is the way that it functions as an instrumental album, as opposed to an album of instrumentals; these are not beats designed to be rapped over but songs that are whole and interesting enough to exist alone.
As worthy of praise as Donuts is, it would be remiss of me not to draw attention to some of Dilla’s other work. In contrast to Donuts, first posthumous album The Shining is a more ‘traditional’ record, solid production work paired with an extensive list of features that above all else serves to highlight just how revered Dilla was by his industry peers. 2003’s Jaylib (a joint effort with – as you may have guessed – Madlib) and 2016’s The Diary both showed that Dilla was able to hold his own on the mic, even if the more aggressive style was somewhat incommensurate with the tone of much of his beat work.
It’s a curious tragedy that both Dilla and Nujabes were born on the same day, drew significant praise for their unique approaches to hip hop production, and died at such young ages. James Yancey would have been 43 yesterday, and it’s difficult not to wonder what else he might have given us. Sadly, though, wondering is all we can really do now. Wonder, and enjoy the lasting musical legacy of a man who, when all is said and done, will truly go down as one of the best there ever was.
James DeWitt Yancey: February 7th 1974 – February 10th 2006