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Jay Dee: A Hip-hop Production Genius Is Remembered
Written by Ifè Oshun and Donna Prima   

jdillapubFormer Tribe Called Quest producer/emcee Jay Dee, aka J Dilla, passed away February 10, 2006.

A native of Detroit and, considered by many, a production genius, Jay Dee first showed his passion for beatmaking while still in school. 

The budding producer utilized the “pause” and "record" buttons on his tape deck, until he met eclectic R&B musician Amp Fiddler, who taught him how to work an MPC-60 MIDI production system. In addition to the producing, Dee had also collected a vast amount of records and explored his emcee side by starting a group called Slum Village along with schoolmates T3 and Baatin around the age of fourteen. 

The production side of Dee really took off, though, when word of his skills spread throughout the hip-hop music industry. By 1996, Jay Dee had a production tracklist that included artists such as De La Soul, Busta, The Pharcyde and Keith Murray. It was then he began what would prove groundbreaking work with A Tribe Called Quest on their 1996 album Beats, Rhymes and Life. As part of TCQ's production team The Ummah (which included the group's Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed), Dee was responsible for firing up the mainstream with his signature soul clap, boom bap beats.

Dee's unique soulful sound became very popular and earned him even more collaborative adventures with the likes of Macy Gray, D’angelo, N’Dea Davenport and Erykah Badu. Meanwhile, Slum Village's much-lauded, rare, bootleg Fantastic Vol. I earned them a permanent place in the annals of hip-hop music history. In 2000, the trio released their critically acclaimed Fantastic Vol. II through Goodvibe. By now, TCQ had broken up and Dee formed the The Soulquarians along with Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, James Poyser and D’ Angelo. Dee also produced a large part of Common’s critically acclaimed 2000 set Like Water For Chocolate and went on to secure a distribution/recording deal with MCA Records for his McNasty label.

By now, Dee was acknowledged by many to be one of the most important producers in the industry but he didn't rest on his laurels. A textbook workaholic, he debuted as a solo emcee in 2001 with the single "Fuck the Police" and his album Welcome 2 Detroit, which also served as the flagship recording of U.K. indie label BBE Music's "Beat Generation" series. In 2002, Dee started using the moniker "J Dilla" and left Slum Village to pursue a major label solo deal with MCA. He worked on his debut solo album from 2002 to 2003, but not only was the project never released, Dilla went more into the underground by releasing through independent labels.

Dilla hooked up with underground titan and fellow producer/emcee Madlib to form the duo Jaylib in 2002. Their Champion Sound dropped in 2003 before their tour in 2004. Dilla continued collaborating with Common for the latter's experimental Electric Circus and Be and continued to stock up production and performance credits through 2005.

In 2005, word of a sever but mysterious illness circulated and became public in November when Dilla toured Europe with
fellow Detroit artists Phat Kat and Frank N Dank, while performing in a wheelchair accompanied by his mother, Maureen Yancey. In an interview with XXL, Dilla denied alarming Internet rumors that he had been in a coma, but according to Wikipedia, Dilla had been diagnosed earlier with a rare blood disease known as Thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura or TTP. Unfortunately this condition causes kidney failure, and that, coupled with a 2005 diagnosis of Lupus, spelled imminent death for the young artist.

As if determined to give the world that final taste of his delicious sonic, Dilla worked harder than ever on his craft, barely stopping to eat and sleep, and managing to complete his last album, Donuts, from his hospital bed, utilizing portable production devices brought to him by visitors. 

Donuts dropped on Dilla's 32nd birthday. Three days later, on February 10th, 2006, he died at his home in Los Angeles.

At that point, Dilla had been on dialysis for almost two years. Those closest to him say he faced the end of his life in good spirits.

"He was optimistic about working on future projects and doing future shows," said longtime manager Tim Maynor to Associated Press. "We went over to Europe in December (to tour). He was sickly but at the same time, he wanted to be there. I told him, I'm prepared to carry you, if I have to carry you down stairs and put you on stage."

Many, including this author, agree that during his life Dilla was not given sufficient credit for the enormous sonic contributions he made to hip-hop music.

RJ Rice, founder of Slum's label, Barak Records, said, "He was a trendsetter, the soul sound [in hip-hop] is really Jay Dee. I don't know if he'll ever get credit for it or not, most people just copied him."

"He produced my first demo," said D12's late Proof. "As a producer, he is one of the most influential producers ever, even up to Kanye West or Just Blaze. Jay Dee had a signature sound that a lot of people were influenced by. People will never understand his genius. It's a shame that he didn't get the light of a Dr. Dre or Timbaland or Neptunes, but he took more of a jazz-musician approach to the whole game. He was truly a mastermind."

"I am devastated at the world's loss of a musical genius of Charlie Parker proportions," Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots said. "Too often we bestow the 'greatest' title upon those who have the attention of the press and the charts and radio. I am fortunate to have known this man. He inspires me to perfect my craft in every way. Dilla was and will always be my hero."

"He was the best ever, and very underappreciated," Maynor said. "Dilla was very reserved, quiet, all he wanted to do was make beats, make music. It wasn't about the glitz and glory. He wasn't doing it for the spotlight at all. He's a dinosaur who will be missed."

Dilla's posthumous work includes The Shining, was released on August 8th, 2006 by BBE Records. Jay Love Japan does not have a release date as of yet, and the re-issue of his rare classic Ruff Draft is set for March 2007.

RIP Jay Dee.

Additional reporting by Henry Adaso 

Click for more R&B/soul and rap/hip-hop dearly departed in 2006


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