james dewitt yancey

In just over 10 years, James Dewitt Yancey aka Jay Dee aka J Dilla accomplished more in terms of recorded output than most artists do in a lifetime. From producing GRAMMY award-winning songs to earning the adulation of his peers and creating a signature sound that altered hip hop and soul music forever, Jay did it all while being the most influential “unknown” producer in the business. At a time when hip hop producers were more recognizable than the artists they worked with, Jay shunned the limelight and humbly revolutionized the sound of hip hop with his meticulous, soulful productions.

Jay’s music mirrored his fastidious nature. Nothing ever sounded out of place in his beats. This quality along with a mathematical sense of order was reflected in his personal life and appearance: clothing and records kept in plastic, shoes neatly stacked in boxes, crisply pressed jeans, and the ever-present feather duster never far from hand. Yet it was the imperfect, the mistakes in music that excited him. His signature sloppy, off-beat drum programming gave his tracks a feeling of freshness and spontaneity, standing in stark contrast to the mechanical, perfectly-quantized beats, which characterized much of hip hop at the time.

Jay was a stylistic innovator who was never content to stay in the same pocket. From the airy fender Rhodes and handclaps that defined his early sound with Slum Village and Tribe, to the eclectic genre melding of Welcome to Detroit and the back-to-the-breaks style ofDonuts, his music continually evolved at a dizzying pace. Once a particular style was mastered, he felt little need to repeat himself, preferring to push boundaries beyond what was expected or easy for him. Unlike so many innovators who wouldn’t recover from their work being co-opted and commercialized, Jay never ceased to experiment and push his music to new heights.

Combined with his sheer wizardry on the sampler, this artistic restlessness placed Jay at the vanguard of hip-hop production where he was viewed as the “producers producer,” someone who fellow musicians looked to for inspiration. Pharrell declared him his favorite producer. Kanye called him a drum god. Questlove stated that Jay’s music was the only thing to give him goose bumps in the last ten years. His sound distilled the best qualities of hip hop into a potent mixture that encapsulated where hip hop production had been and pointed to where it would head in the future. Along the way, Jay stood at the forefront reminding everybody to “Turn It Up!"

Jay Dee was born James Dewitt Yancey on February 7, 1974 in Detroit, Michigan to Maureen and Beverly Yancey. From the onset, music was intrinsic to Jay’s life. His mother Maureen was an accomplished singer and lover of classical music and opera. His father Beverly was a gifted vocalist and bass player fond of vocal harmonies and jazz, who played professionally for 25 years before taking a job at Ford. A two-year-old Jay would gurgle along in perfect pitch to the sound of his father practicing on his upright bass until it lulled him to sleep.

Especially aware of the dangers that faced unoccupied youths growing up in their Detroit neighborhood of Conant Gardens, the Yancey’s set out to keep their children as busy as possible between cub scouts, music lessons, youth choir, and any other church activities. Nurturing their son’s early passion for music, Jay was always enrolled in some kind of music class, excelling on the piano, violin and cello, before moving on to the drums. But it was the lure of the boom-bap, which ultimately moved him from the church pews to the studio.

“When I heard Run DMC’s ‘Sucker MCs’ and Whodini’s ‘Big Mouth’, it made me curious to how the beats were made. Those songs were the first time I heard the beats that weren’t melodic - just drums. Being someone who was taking drum lessons at the time, that made me real curious. That led me into deejaying, which slowly led to me deejaying parties and that eventually led me into production.”