The Evolution of J Dilla
In the next of our hip-hop retrospectives we look back over James Dewett Yancey's trailblazing career.
Illustration by Dan Evans
It's been seven years since the death of James Dewett Yancey, one of the most revered music producers of the last twenty years. The importance of the man known to his fans and peers as J Dilla has remained steadfast since his passing in 2006; his music and its impact on the work of others untouchable. Dilla's work with artists such as Madlib, Erykah Baduh and The Pharcyde (to name but a few) led to his becoming one of the most sought after and well-respected hip-hop producers of all time.
No retrospective of Dilla's success would ever be able to fully encompass his prolific catalogue, but here You Need To Hear This looks at a few especially notable parts of his career, exploring his collaborations, production work, and solo albums.
Introduction to Joseph “Amp” Fiddler
Born in Detroit in 1974, Yancey famously expressed an interest in music from an early age. As a toddler he would sit in the park with a Fisher Price record player and play the records his mother, Maureen ‘Ma Dukes’ Yancey would buy him– his first 45” being “The Wiz” by Michael Jackson.
Hip-hop became a major part of Yancey’s later school years. He met rappers T3 and Baatin, and formed a rap crew called H20. The trio would stay friends and later became known as Slum Village.
Inspired to start making beats by the 1984 track “Big Mouth” by Brooklyn trio Whodini, Yancey began to associate with Detroit based musicians and producers who would quickly come to help shape his career.
His most important early friendship was with Joseph “Amp” Fiddler, who mentored the young Dilla in what it meant to be a music producer. It was through his sessions at “Camp Amp” (the name given to Fiddler's studio) that Yancey mastered the art of digital programming, and encountered the drum machines that would make up part of his multi-layered, chopped up production sound. Fiddler's 'no books' learning method meant that Dilla's technique was almost entirely self taught, as he explained in his final interview with Scratch Magazine.
What Amp did, he’d play some stuff out the MP but he was like, “I’m not going to show you how to work it. You gotta learn on your own.” He was like, “Don’t use a book.” Ever since this day I never read the books to samplers and all of that, I just try to learn them... A lot of people say, “Oh, Amp taught you how to work the MP.” No, not really.
Early projects and success with Slum Village
Yancey became involved in numerous musical projects during his formative years as a young producer in Detroit, meeting friends and peers through Amp Fiddler and also at rap battles in Detroit’s Rhythm Kitchen.
An early collaboration saw Jay Dee (as Yancey came to be know) join up with rapper MC Proof to form the Funky Cowboys, where he showcased his growing talent on drum machines and samplers like the Akai MPC60 and E-mu SP-12. “The Fizzo”, an unreleased track by Dilla and Proof was made in 1994 and features Slum Village rapper T3.
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