This piece was penned by rapper Skyzoo, who was hit hard, emotionally, by the the passing of J. Dilla. He pens his reaction to the news, and remembers the fallen legend.
Everything happens for a reason. On the afternoon of February 10th, 2006, I began a mini vacation (which I haven’t done in at least 3 years) out of the country. A three day stay turned into three days of confusion. I was at a hotel, which had absolutely no cell phone reception, and is exactly how I wanted it.
After checking in and killing a little time, I decided to check my messages (via the expensive hotel room phone), and then the room felt dark. “You have 10 new voice messages” was the first sign of what would be the beginning of the end. Familiar voices ranging from hip-hop celebrities to close friends and family members of mine all filled my Nextel inbox with the same tone, same words, same darkness. “Yo homey, I know you gonna take this the hardest outta everybody, but, (pausing, deep breath), Dilla died today man. 9th [Wonder] was the first to tell us. It really happened. No rumor. Hit me back.”
Words from my good homey Chaundon (of the Justus League), followed by more celebs and then friends and fam of mine. By the sixth repetitive message, I just hung up. I figured I’d check the rest later. I sat on the edge of the bed, folded my arms, and began to stare at the floor. After five minutes of space staring, I got up and walked over to the laptop I had set up in the room and searched the web for proof of the situation. After reading one headline proving my voice messages to be right, I began to cry … hard. I balled, and balled, and balled some more. My superhero had permanently lost his powers.
In 1999, I was properly introduced to the sounds of someone who would be known as a musical genius (deserving every letter of every word in that title). Prior to that year, the world had become aware of such sounds via The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, and Janet Jackson’s albums. The aforementioned musical genius had generously blessed some of hip-hop’s elite with soul-filled landscapes, but it wasn’t until 1999 that I realized who and what we as a people had on our hands. 1999 birthed a single by a “back packer” (I hate that term) turned “commercial” (I hate that term too) legend named Q-Tip. That single was aptly titled “Vivrant Thing,” and that single was revered nationwide as the song of the year. That was the start of unbelievable magic performed by a metronome magician. The bass lines, riffs, and quirky sounds that became a classic song were complimented by the classic hook and verses (you get the feeling that the genius in question probably wrote the hook. Not to take anything away from Tip, but it just sounds like it). In one word: classic.
“Vivrant Thing” became the most rewound, most remixed, and most freestyled over beat of 1999; and just when we thought it was over, in came “Breathe And Stop.” In two words: classic, again. I was easily convinced that I HAD to get Q-Tip’s LP when it dropped. When the date in question arose, I made my way to Beat Street Records downtown Brooklyn and copped. Within 3 stops on the 2 train back home, I was floored. Excited and anticipating to see who this beast of a beatmaker was, I opened the CD booklet and began to investigate. By doing so, I got my first glace at a group of words that would be happily married together for years to come: “Produced By Jay Dee.” There it was, the mystery had been unfolded. My next question became “Who the f*** is Jay Dee and where has he been hiding?!” Songs like “Higher,” “Let’s Ride” and “Things U Do” left me going to bed that night in serious neck pain due to the nod factors of the beats. F*** the media’s perception of the LP, in my eyes, Amplified equaled ridiculous!
Soon after came more kick-snare fights (beautiful wars on disc), more speakers blown, more of my mother screaming “the walls are shaking from all that bass” (sorry ma), and more neck-aches. I never followed a comic book character/ superhero or an idol, but suddenly I had one.
In 2000, the world was undeservingly blessed with a slew of beats by Jay Dee. Given to artists such as Common, Erykah Badu, Phife Dawg, D’Angelo, The Roots, and tons of others, Jay single handedly saved peoples careers. Common’s “Like Water For Chocolate” showed the world as a whole that Jay had another musical side. Truth be told, he was a BEAST on the mic — period end. Common’s “Thelonious” showed Jay lyrically showing up a dude who is easily a legend in his own right, as he closed out Common’s song harder than Common (not taking anything away from Com, his resume is phenomenal). Then came Fantastic vol. 2, an album displaying the smoother side of the Detroit streets that raised Jay and his Slum Village brethren T-3 and Baatin. Fantastic was looked at as a bed of music with mammoth proportions (see “Climax”, “Get Dis Money”, and “Once Upon A Time”). Along with 3 and Baa, Jay’s leadership had done it again.
More beats and more 16’s meant more problems for more artists. Jay was on a winning streak, and 2001 became possibly Jay’s strongest year to date. That year saw him leave Slum V and create a new sound, a new identity, and a new name even. Out went Jay Dee, in came J. Dilla. A solo album named Welcome To Detroit was released by the newly named “Dilla,” written and recorded under the influence of Detroit’s finest greenery, strip clubs, and unheard talent. The disc introduced us to the OTHER side of Detroit — the grittier side, not really displayed on the beautiful Fantastic Vol. 2. This time, Dilla took us to the dirt, and we fans happily dug our hands in it all. Artists such as Elzhi, Phat Kat, Dwele, Bleu, and Frank-N-Dank were given an outlet to capture the world via Dilla’s concoctions. This album proved that Jay Dee (or J Dilla) was just as hood as he was musically inclined. J was now batting 1.000.
The upcoming years saw Dilla take a slight downward turn. Musically, he was still better than your favorite beatsmith, but his health became an issue, as an out of the country tour sent him back state side and he checked into a Detroit hospital due to malnutrition. Health aside, he still knocked out songs for Slum Village, Common, The Roots, and a gang of others while working with a new partner in crime named Madlib. Thus came another sound created by Dilla when he explored musically with ‘Lib. The two became the dynamic “JAYLIB.” The result: “Champion Sound,” and it was just that.
Producer after producer followed these two monsters’ work as they acquired fans worldwide — from kids in Stockholm to the likes of Just Blaze and Pharrell Williams (“My favorite producer and inspiration is Jay Dee from Detroit. Y’all may not know him, but you should” stated Pharrell on BET’S “106 & Park”). Dilla was slowly beginning to get the recognition he deserved. Funny thing though, the more recognition he got, the worse his health became. Dilla began to frequently “visit” the hospital due to his illness, but it never stopped him from wowing some, putting fear in others, and inspiring ALL.
With Stones Throw as his new recording home, he began to try travel more and more. Everywhere from Brazil to Japan saw Dilla’s footprints on there grounds, and they loved every minute of it. The Japan tour spawned a possible new sound (Did he ever run out? Wow!) from Dilla as he was inspired to begin crafting Jay Loves Japan (Peanut Butter Wolf, pleeeease release this later this year. Hip-hop needs it). Being a genius and then some, this as well as the follow up to Welcome 2 Detroit, titled The Shining, were both quickly and carefully completed, along with a little something Dilla simply named Donuts.
The 31 track opus is just as sweet as the name it was given. This is possibly Dilla’s best work ever. Donuts is an album that doesn’t follow hip-hop standards or rules. It shows Dilla’s mind in the state he was in musically. Sometimes geniuses aren’t understood right away. The average mind may not be able to keep up with what the genius is doing. In this case, if you aren’t an avid Dilla fan or you don’t understand instruments and sounds, you may not understand this creation right away (hopefully you do though). Donuts is just as complex as it is simple. Just as clean as it is dirty. Just as street as it is soulful, and just as uncommon as it is familiar. Dilla proved on this album that he inspired EVERYONE who made a beat after his arrival onto the scene. This is an album that your favorite platinum plaque owning, chart topping, top 10 hit having producer dreams he could create; and Dilla made it in the hospital. On his deathbed at that.
If you listen to this masterpiece of an album, between the samples, song titles, and arrangement of the tracks, you can tell that Dilla knew his last days were coming. So he did what any genius would do; he did as much as possible to satisfy his followers and leave his mark. Donuts is Dilla’s swan song, his tie breaking 3 pointer at the buzzer, his last call for alcohol. So after the crowd roars, after the last sip is swallowed, here we are.
J. Dilla was more than a mere beatmaker. He was a producer, a musician, an emcee (don’t sleep, Dilla had bars for realla), an inspiration, a leader, and to me, a hero. I met Dilla in NYC in 2004 for the first and only time. At 4 a.m. outside of B.B. King’s after a Madvillian show, I waited. In 35 degree weather, I waited. In the middle of Times Square with no money to get home that night, I waited. Knowing Dilla was there despite the “Nah, he bounced already” comments, I waited; and then I met Superman. Wearing a tan Pelle Pelle leather jacket, tan Tims, a tan and white Pistons fitted, white tee, and his infamous star-circle platinum chain, there he was. No red cape though, haha.
I began to shake, and smile, and think a million things at once. Mind you, I’ve been in meetings, been at parties, and gotten compliments from your favorite gold and platinum legendary rappers without losing my cool. And here stood a man who could walk down any street in the country and not get recognized, and I was losing it as if he was MJ (pick one…). I approached Dilla with one goal in mind. Not to try and get a deal or spit a million 16’s in his ear, but to do something this industry never genuinely did for him the way he deserved, show him my appreciation.
“Yo Dilla, whats good my dude? My name is Skyzoo. I’m from Brooklyn. I’m a huge fan homey.” Dilla replied, “Oh word? No doubt. Thanks man.” I came back with “Yo real recognize real, you’re the greatest to ever do it my dude. None of these other producers is f—ing wit you.” His reply was “Wow, thanks man. That means a lot to me.” I then quickly showed him a few of my mixtapes and handed him one for him to check out, and told him that I rock his instrumentals all the time. “Yo, if theres anyway I can get at you to get some work in for the near future or whatever, that’d be dope. If not, it’s all good. I know you’re busy.” My sentence was followed by six of the sweetest words I’ve heard to date: “No doubt yo, take my number.”
I was instantly floored. I pulled out my 2way and nervously typed in the letters “J-D-I-L-L-A”. My hands trembled in excitement as I typed. I blurted “This is your office number right?”, and he went “Nah. It’s my direct cell.” I almost passed out. We switched numbers, dapped up, and he jumped in a cab with Madlib and Peanut Butter Wolf. 10 seconds after he left, I had that 313 number memorized; still do. A few days went by and I built up the nerve to call Superman. I dialed the numbers, heard the ring, and then “Hello”. My mind almost went blank. “Yo wassup Dilla, this is Skyzoo. Remember we met at B.B. Kings the other day.” “Oh yeah wassup Sky, whats good?,” said Dilla. We kicked it for a good three minutes and he said to call him later in the week and we can set something up for tracks. I called a week later and he said something a lot of you reading this would’ve died to have said to you, and I almost died when he said it to me. I called him and when I asked about some beats he said, “I got you. I don’t wanna send you the same CD I send to everyone else. I wanna make you your own personal sh– to pick from. Maybe like 20 joints to pick thru.” WOW! That sentence was one of the greatest groups of words ever heard by my ears. We continued to keep in touch.
The death of J. Dilla is not an easy pill to swallow, but the life of his that we are celebrating is one worth a million rounds of applause. He was a genius from the bottom of the “D.” His music embodied what his turf represented in everyway, but was relatable to any and every surrounding city. His level of creativity was one for the record books (instead of using a snare from the Korg or Motif, the dude made people go in the booth and clap their hands together, record it, and used THAT as his snares. Think about it…). His ears were precise, his melodies were perfect, his drive was inspirational, and lets not talk about his bass lines (words don’t do them justice). Dilla is survived by his mother (Maureen Yancey, who left a breath taking, heartfelt mp3 on the net to help Dilla’s fans cope with the situation), his father, and his daughters (Ja-Mya Yancey and Ty-Monae Whitlow), as well as his fans, musical peers, and if no one else, me.
If I had been home when the word got out about Dilla’s death, who knows what I might’ve done. If I didn’t wait outside of B.B. Kings ’til 4 a.m. on that jack frost night, who knows where my inspiration would be. If I hadn’t copped Q-Tip’s solo set back in ’99, who knows if I would have an idol, a reason to make music, a hero. Which brings me back to my first sentence: everything happens for a reason. Maybe Dilla left us because he knew he was on the verge of his biggest breakthrough yet, selling beats for a quarter mil’, three songs on “106 & Park’s” top 10, parties with Diddy and Paris Hilton, mobbed by fans everywhere he went; but that wasn’t what Dilla was about. Dilla was about the tunes, the jams, the music. Touching people was what meant the most to him, quietly though, just like the superhero he was. So, maybe the story was supposed to play out the way it did, and we shouldn’t be sad or upset (easier said than done, I know), just thankful that God blessed us with a Nike dunk walking, Detroit swagger talking, hydro burning, Red Vine eating, drum stick banging, guitar plucking, violin stringing, punchline throwing, hook referencing, crowd rocking, trend setting miracle. So in memory of the greatest, I’m knocking “U-Love,” while I walk to Dunkin’ Donuts for two maple frosted joints with the rainbow sprinkles. I need my fix. Rest In Peace James Dewitt Yancey, you were and still ARE the greatest of all time.
According to www.bbemusic.com, James Yancey donations can be sent to:
132 N. Sycamore Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Bank Wires can be sent to:
Wells Fargo Bank of Los Angeles, CA
Routing Number: 122000247
Account Number: 6043250676