With the 15th anniversary of his untimely death approaching, we spoke with J Dilla’s mother, Maureen Yancey, better known to Dilla fans and friends as the beloved “Ma Dukes.”
Since his passing in 2006, J Dilla has become one of hip-hop’s most revered producers. He’s immortalized as a beatmaking legend: the man who crafted smooth instrumentals for everyone from A Tribe Called and Erykah Badu to De La Soul and Common. His legacy continues to live on in the countless artists he has inspired.
But maintaining and preserving a legacy can be challenging and complicated. Maureen Yancey, better known to Dilla fans and friends as the beloved “Ma Dukes,” has been trying to do such despite facing countless hurdles since his passing. For a time Ma Dukes didn’t control his estate, restricting her from using his name or likeness for commercial purposes. Now, she’ll be controlling it alongside her youngest child — and Dilla’s younger brother — Illa J, where she hopes to expand on the foundation she’s created in his name, with chapters existing in Detroit, Minnesota, Atlanta, Chicago, London, Las Vegas, Australia, LA, NYC, Miami. There’s also the J Dilla Music Tech Grant, a program that funds electronic music creation, recording, and production training for public high school students. Ma Dukes also plans to share more unreleased music from the late producer, which includes music not just from The Lost Scrolls but tracks she was recently given from Detroit’s Studio A vaults.
Speaking with Ma Dukes, there are so many memories she has of Dilla, most notably helping him craft what would be his last album before his death, Donuts, which would release just days before his death on February 10, 2006. From helping transform his hospital room into a makeshift producers studio to going record shopping with J. Rocc to find records Dilla could sample, Ma Dukes understood how necessary it was for him to still make music.
“I couldn’t even imagine how he would feel because every day since he was two, he was bumping music. And that’s what he lived for,” she said. “So, I was like, ‘In order to keep him from keeping his mind on this pain and everything that’s going on inside of him, I got to keep him busy. And music is the only thing that he’s going to do.’”
Losing Dilla is something Ma Dukes has mourned for years, something she didn’t realize until recently.
“I was writing the Dilla Letter [for Motor City in 2017] And I broke down trying to read it to myself before I sent it. I couldn’t get through a paragraph. It just hurt so bad,” she said. “But through the events and the people’s love and outreach and the good that it’s doing for children, that is the only reason that I’m still here, I’m sure.”
Despite having her own battle with lupus — the same illness that led to his death — Ma Dukes is determined to keep Dilla’s legacy alive in more ways than one. We spoke with Ma Dukes for an extended interview. She talked about Dilla collaboration that never came to be, having to stop Dilla-related projects from happening without her approval, her favorite Dilla beat, and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Something I’ve always wondered about — and that Dilla had talked about before his passing — was a collaboration he was working on with *NSYNC. Do you know how that came about?
Ma Dukes: Really, I’m not certain. I know that they had respect for one another. For him, he had to remind me, it’s never about the dollar sign or what the look was. For him, it was like, “This is Grammy stuff”…his heart had to really be there. It had to be something that he felt was worthy of putting other people to the side. He was this kind of person that he would never let anyone that he worked for have a deadline that they would have to worry about.
I know he personally went through it with Common. He realized the stresses that Common had trying to get stuff done, and the meetings that he had to have before trying to get the label to want to do what he felt his work had accomplished without adding to it. And [Dilla] never wanted anybody to have to deal with that. So, he personally made a vow to himself that nobody would wait if they had a deadline. He definitely wanted to be comfortable and have the tune before, just in case there was any last minute changes. But they still could make the deadline. It was very important to him to be beyond prompt. He wanted them to have that confidence and good feeling about their work, and not to be pushed.
In a previous interview you had talked about how Eminem also wanted to collaborate with Dilla. How did that come about?
When it came up — to my understanding — everything was cool beans until Dilla got bogged down with work and was experiencing a little bit of the illness but we didn’t know what it was. But during that time, Eminem was on a regular coming to the house. He’d usually come down at 6:00 PM and I was using the basement for the daycare from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM. So, when Eminem would be planning to come, Dilla would let me know he’s taking a nap before or he would go out and get something to eat and say, “Em’s coming by.”
Eminem was always punctual. They’d be there at 5:45. Paul [Rosenberg] would pull up in front of the house and park, and they had free reign to come in if Dilla was late. They were the only people that — besides Frank n Dank — could come in and go into the studio and get started without him. Nobody else had that open door. Em could do it.
Did you have a favorite guest that came through?
I loved everybody that came through. My whole family had adopted Q-Tip by proxy and Questlove was always our favorite. Let me tell you, that kinship was a true brotherhood and Dilla was very — he wasn’t warm to everybody. I’d say, outside of Frank n Dank being my own sons that I almost raised in the house, Questlove was, I think, the very closest. Even closer than he and Common were.
Are there plans to release more material from the Lost Scrolls?
Oh yeah. I can’t wait for the pandemic to be over. I’m waiting to release some instrumentals and also waiting to rerelease some of the things that he did in [Detroit recording studio] Studio A in the ’90s. I’m also planning to break the mold and put out the next Yancey recording vocalist and that’s my granddaughter.
I’m looking at maybe giving her a little bit of everything of her intro into the world, but also doing her vocals over some Dilla beats. Not rap vocals, but more jazzy or something like that. I think it would be good for her to grace one or two of his tracks with a melody that’s right for it.
How much more unreleased material would you say you still have in the works?
Oh my gosh, there’s so much. It’s years of music. I knew that when The Lost Scrolls came that was not the end about how much music had not been touched and had not been released. Then when Studio A closed up in September 2019, [Studio A owner] Marilyn called me and said, “Lorraine… Dilla has stuff here and I want to know if he has a relative here or somebody that could come get it.” And I’m like, “Well, Marilyn, I’m living in Puerto Rico right now. I’m not in the States… Let me find somebody.” I had a friend of Dilla’s, [Proud Detroiter owner] Robert Burston… go there for me.
So I thought he had a little box to pick up… He got there and he called me back. He said, “Ma, it’s not a little box…I got to get a storage unit.” So he got the storage locker for me, and I made the trip out within a couple of months. I got another storage unit because I had to get one climate-controlled and store everything. But I got stuff for every format that Dilla ever did starting in the ’90s up to like 2001.
So the Studio A stuff is completely different from The Lost Scrolls stuff?
Oh yeah. What I’m excited about is the fact that, in the early days, Dilla didn’t do a lot of sampling. He did a lot of playing himself, just like when he did the Frank N Dank 48 Hours stuff. There’s so much more. And so Illa J and I are just waiting but trying to figure out how to do this. So many people coming down the pipeline for film and everything. There’s been a lot of push and rush to try to do something — people trying to sneak something in on us and act like we had known about it.
Wow. Someone was working on a film?
Somebody trying to pass a film down the pipeline. Yeah.
But we definitely caught that in time, and I’m so glad because that would’ve had to been a lawsuit and something ugly. So Illa J and I are working very close together, just waiting. It’ll be a lot of things coming.
Is everything now good with the estate? You and Illa J are in control of it?
Yes, we will be controlling it, but we’ll also have individuals that are helping us. We went to court a little over a year ago and everything was closed. But paperwork hasn’t come down the pipeline yet. They’re still behind the paperwork. So it’ll be a couple more months, I guess. Illa J tells me… whenever it’s court anything, he goes. So, the paperwork that should have been done last year in April, they’re just now getting around to doing that. I’m just trying to get it in the right format and working with it with Illa J. I’m in my 70s — I got to be sure I paved the way for Illa J to make a smooth transition.
How did “Workinonit” become the theme music for Dave Chappelle’s 2017 specials? Did he speak with you about that?
No, not at all because I would have made it happen. But I don’t think that they realized — just like something else that had been done. While Dave New York was still alive, he mentioned… he had talked to Questlove and was telling him that something had attempted to be done by somebody and they had reached out to me.
Questlove thought they were contacting us whenever someone would approach these things and they hadn’t. Egon [Alapatt] had taken it upon himself to make decisions, and then he had his attorney not working for us but against us. He had her behind him, so he did what he wanted to do. And he should have always contacted the family to let us know something was coming down, or somebody wants to do this, that or the other.
The only time that he reached out and said anything was after we shut down that movie thing that I was telling you about. I’m in Puerto Rico. I sent that overnight express telling them “No.” I was not playing with that. They had done so much that hurt the family over the years. This is 15 years, you know? I was kind of upset about it. I said, “Well, Mr. Yancey didn’t live long enough to enjoy anything, and it’s so unfair because it didn’t have to be handled like that.”
So, we struggled. And with him being sick for that many years and then going to hospice for a couple of years, I caught hell hand over fist trying to make things happen. But that’s how it is sometimes when you don’t know and you trust people that are not trustworthy. So I can’t blame anybody but myself on that end. If Dave [Chappelle] had called me I would’ve did something myself to make sure that paperwork went through, or I would’ve called ahead of time and requested it for myself. But they took it upon themselves to do that and probably tried to police him on top of it, and then it still wasn’t right.
So was it more of a bittersweet kind of thing when you saw Dilla’s music in it?
Well, no. I love the fact that it was there. For me — somebody like him, Quest, or Busta [Rhymes], they were there for Dilla for real, for real. When Dilla was still alive, when he was in Cali, couldn’t walk and was just in that wheelchair. Dave and Questlove were the first people that were there at the house when Dilla passed and I had come from the hospital. It was less than an hour after his passing, and the hospital was only 10 minutes from the house in Cali. I’ll never forget as long as I live.
Do you have a favorite beat Dilla made for someone, and do you have a favorite beat he made for himself?
[Q-Tip’s]”Vivrant Thing” used to be my favorite.
Yeah. I cannot listen to that and not be up. By the third beat I’m up dancing. I remember going to a Dilla event in Toronto, and they played it because they knew it was my favorite, and I could not sit down. I love, love, love that song. [Common’s] “The Light.” That’s everybody’s favorite. That song is going to go on forever and ever. “Stakes Is High.” I can sing that song every day, all day.
Are you familiar at all with the internet sub-genre of music called lo-fi hip-hop?
I’ve seen it. I seen the name on something but no, I haven’t listened to it, no.
It’s like a mix of old school ’90s sounding hip-hop with jazz instrumentation, but a lot of fans and artists associated with it consider J Dilla its godfather.
Oh, wow. Well, I’ll have to go tune in. I’ve seen it but I didn’t understand it, and you’re the first person that asked me about it. I was wondering, “What the heck is lo-fi?” I didn’t know what it was.
What is a question that you wish people would ask you about Dilla?
I think I wonder sometimes if they think that he did anything other than music, which really he didn’t, but were there any other things that he liked in his life? Like, did he ever fall in love or why didn’t he get married, or what is his favorite place to visit? Something that hasn’t been asked much is what type of young lady did he admire? What were some of the attributes of a woman that he admired? Because they were distinct and everybody would probably assume that it was girls in a strip club, but it wasn’t. While he was sick, he was hoping to get well again after all these years with the lupus thing, and he wanted to get married and there was a young lady that he used to date. He met her on tour with Slum [Village]. She was a student at Michigan State and after he passed she was just distraught. She was very much not OK and reason being is they would correspond through letters. He had hoped that he would get over this illness and he told me that, had he got well, that he was adamant that he was going to marry her.
Banner Illustration: @popephoenix for Okayplayer