Putting J-Dilla’s fifteen year career into perspective is like trying to contextualize Michael Jordan’s impact on Chicago, Nike and the NBA. It’s an insurmountable task really, and while I was preparing for my interview with Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, mother to Dilla and executive producer of the Jay Stay Paid album, I couldn’t help but wonder what more can be asked that hasn’t been asked already? Better yet, how do you address Dilla’s life and death with a mother, who is now suffering at the hands of the same debilitating disease that took the life of her son just three short years ago? In the brief hour long interview Mrs. Yancey managed to set me at ease by answering my questions in ways that left me informed, inspired and believing that the rhythm that traveled through Dilla is something that is inherently born in all of us. Sure it’s difficult to believe that the average joe, music producer or not, could actually share something in common with arguably the greatest beatsmith of all time, but believe me it’s true. It was as much tragic as it was touching, and a feeling best summarized by Ma Dukes herself, “Love is the strongest thing in the world and it ties all of us together, and I don’t care who we are or what we are about we all can be changed and touched by love”.
Since James’ passing, you seemed to have inherited a lot of attention-some good, some bad-have you had time to sit back and let everything digest? Have you had time to mourn?
I just began to realize this year that I didn’t mourn, but I do have a broken heart. At my home there are pictures everywhere [laughs], it’s like a museum here, on all walls, on every shelf, on top of the TV, anything that moves and even on my bed-stand is Dilla. So I have pictures of Dilla in every capacity, and it helps me because I talk to these pictures at times. I just realized how difficult it can be, I do have a broken heart. We were like one because I was with him for the last couple years, but I didn’t mourn because of the suffering he had, and because he had so much music here. I have a confidant because my husband and I get in the car and we put on some of his music and it just makes us feel real good. We talk about things and feel better, so no, I haven’t mourned.
His spirit is till resonating.
It is! And the way it has affected them is that they share.
Dilla’s passing helped shine a light on Lupus, a disease that you’re now battling. Could you tell me a little bit about the disease and what a typical day is like for you?
A typical day…it’s random you never know what to expect [laughs]. It’s an autoimmune disease. A cold wind blows or you turn the wrong way, and then you end up with a bad flu. And even though they can use a flu or pneumonia shot you’re still susceptible to just about anything. I don’t go out much in night- air because I know crazy things can happen, and because I have rheumatoid arthritis. I have a severe case of that, and it’s sort of like in the same family but I cannot distinguish when I’m being attacked by that or Lupus. That was the cause of the heart attack I had in December, not anything Lupus related, but the rheumatoid arthritis aggravated that. One would think it would never affect the heart, but I’m finding that it happens often. So I had to learn to thank God, and I really paid attention to my diet after that. So I do a cardiac diet as a rule, and I don’t really go too far because I have to really think about what it is I do. Life with lupus is hard because so many things come into play. The medicine I take, it’s meant to treat Cancer, and it kills bad cells, but in the process it also kills some good ones. You’re constantly trying to kill the body to prevent being broken down all at once. I’ve been blessed because being with Dilla and watching and working with him in his treatment taught me naturally how to do some things. I’ve really been blessed by that.
Well, it opened my eyes. Anything I look at and the things I experience through this illness really serve as a point of contact. It reminds me of how my son felt, which I think is very very important. And it brings me closer to his spirit; I believe that his whole work here was about love. I was telling everyone it’s not just about the good things, but it makes you aware of the bad types of love. We need to be aware of what’s going on in our lives, and he brings his vision to us in different phases of his music. For instance with Donuts he breaks it down to variations, he wants us to be conscious of what we’re doing and be able to think about the things that we do and to make it mean something in our lives.
It’s [lupus] an eyeopener it makes me more aware, more conscious of the love and the care that I wish to help and that I can give to children with Lupus. You know anything we can do to bring a smile to the face of a child with lupus whether it be a sunshiney day of camp where they can do these things to make the pain go away. It’s so important because you don’t know from one day to the next if you can move or if you’re going to be on a machine all day. See you don’t know how long you got to live and that one day of sunshine can mean so much. I just wish we can be more conscious of what we do in our time and what we give and say with the people we come in contact with because you never know. It can be one or two words that can make someone’s day, and it can make them think how blessed they are.
It seems like doctors are still having trouble diagnosing Lupus.
They really do, Dilla had been in and out of the hospital for four years before they even found out that he had Lupus. He was having all sorts of bouts with everything; his kidneys shut down several times…everything. And even though he was in the hospital for three or four months at a time they didn’t check him for Lupus. I think that because he was male might have had something to do with it because for the longest time it was believed that males couldn’t get the disease. But without knowledge of family history, I just don’t know-it could be something in the genes. Three or four people in a generation with autoimmune disease is not normal to me. I mean we were never sick other than my sister being diagnosed with Lupus no one was ever sick and she never got hospitalized.
What’s the status on the J-Dilla foundation?
Yes, yes we were forced to take it down because of the estate problems. It was a tricky situation because they weren’t adamant about taking it down they just tried to be a thorn in our side. It was done as professionally as it should have been. We even went through attorneys before we even set things up, and it was done legally in the state of California. We got things going and I had no reason to believe that we couldn’t work together with the estate. They told me they were going to set it up in a better way and I would run the foundation while they helped run it with me, and I would be an intricate part. And I was like okay we’ll do that, and I had no reason to believe that they weren’t going to try and do that [laughs], and they had no intention.
So I said well that’s alright, because of my illness I was not spiritually able to fight and I’m not going to give in to myself, and trying to fight these people was too much. So I just decided to let it roll and try to get my strength together, but now that the tide has turned I’m going to restart the foundation but this time I’m going to go international. So I’m very happy, and I take my hat off to’em even as a block they gave me for a couple of years, it’s gonna be good because we’re gonna go bigger-where all of his fans will take part.
What stage is it in now?
We’re in the early stages and there are so many individuals…oh my god both abroad and here that are waiting and we are going to work together. We’re probably going to have a forum probably within the next month, the people from Suite for Ma Dukes are some key organizers in it, and then we have people from Australia and Germany. Oh my goodness everywhere people are taking a part in this.
I wanted to talk about Suite For Ma Dukes. That album really took hip-hop appreciation to another level.
You’re right about that, there’s something about people who don’t know or understand hip-hop-it’s because they don’t listen. The album made other listeners aware to the fact that they can get so much from hip-hop there is so much there. I mean not every artist is gifted or knows how to deliver to every ear, but there is certainly a message. The writing, I mean there just not jotting down lyrics they’re taking their time, months and months trying to get what’s in their heart on paper. And so it’s another avenue and it opens the eyes and ears of the people who have never been there before and people begin to realize that there’s a lot to hip-hop it’s not like they thought. Unfortunately we hear some things that are not good for hip-hop and we just have to close our ear [laughs].
In the song “Antiquity” the rain hitting Carlos’ bomb shelter studio was left in because Miguel and Carlos felt that it was Dilla making his presence known. Does Dilla still speak to you in his own way?
Yes, he does! And it’s funny because it’s just not in the music there’s certain things I see or hear in my mind. There was a time when I woke up at 4:00am to total outrageous sunshine in my window. I was wondering [laughs], I thought I had overslept! But the sun doesn’t shine at 4:00am in the winter time in Detroit. I got up out of the bed and outside it was pitch black, but in my window the sunshine came in. And it’s just like the music in your mind that you can’t get it out of your head: confirmation.
I know you’re still very fond of Detroit, and I’ve read in interviews the urgency behind programs for the youth.
There are no real recreation areas in the neighborhood that I lived in. There is one that’s maybe a mile from me that is never open; I guess the city doesn’t have the funds to keep it open. There were two others in the area but both those are shut down. The area is so torn. To give you an example one of the photographers that does a lot of work for Stones Throw, said that when he came down to Detroit it reminded him a lot of Katrina. It wasn’t downtown Detroit where the neighborhoods are nice this is in the hood and it does look like Katrina; boarded up, burned up, vacant lots and houses with no windows no doors, open air holes, it’s just horrible. Places are so unsafe for youth. I remember there was a time in Detroit when they had a vacant building the city would get them boarded up or torn down so nobody would get raped or use drugs in there, but I actually can tell you there are no less than sixteen vacant houses on my block. You have to come down to the neighborhoods to see how people are really living. I mean if it wasn’t for a guy like Amp Fiddler, Dilla may have never been discovered. He didn’t charge anything to teach Dilla how to work the board.
Can you tell me about the Jay Stay Paid album?
Well the experience has been spiritual in a way because it was like a gift. Pete Rock was a gift-he was Dilla’s idol. [Laughs] It’s funny because Pete would always say that he idolized Dilla. Dilla had a profound love for Pete and his work, he meant everything to him. The love he had for Amp in guiding him was the same love he had for Pete. It was like Pete was way up there and Dilla just wanted to be in that area. I know Dilla’s smiling from Heaven at Pete who knows Dilla’s work and knows what he was feeling. It’s just short of Dilla coming down and finishing the work himself.
Will the proceeds of this album go to the J-Dilla foundation?
It’s my hope that when the proceeds go to the estate some will come our way, which will help Dilla’s children. This will keep their education going and much of the proceeds will go to the Lupus foundation as well.
I know music is something that is part of you, weren’t you going to make an album?
Yes, I had promised Dilla [laughs] two little jazz albums. It was supposed to be me recording some standards that he wanted me to work on. And I hadn’t gotten to those yet and of course I was going to write some, and I guess I was so overwhelmed with his passing then I got sick and I just decided to put it to the aside. I don’t know if I was feeling sorry for myself or what, but I don’t feel that way anymore and I told my husband that I would do it toward the end of the year. And I told my husband he better get ready because he plays the upright bass. I intend to see it through because it’s something I promised Dilla, and it’ll be a tribute to him.
You’ve been a fan of music before and now after your son’s life. What sort of impact have you seen him make on the world and what sort of imprint has that left on you?
The imprint it left on me was that I have to open my eyes, and I can’t sit around, but to make it big and spread it as wide as possible because it’s a message not just for Detroit but for the world. You know he made a statement during the time he was in ICU, it was sort of an out of body experience, but the statement he made was “I need more time. I want to give my gift back to the world”. And I will never forget it because when he came to, and was able to come out of the hospital he was with us almost year after that, and I realized he was talking to the master and he was given the time he needed to complete the work he needed to complete. The fact that he wanted to give his gift to the world he has done that, and I want to see that all his work is given back to the world, and I can’t let anything go. I have to keep a promise not just the promise that he made, but for his fans.
We must acknowledge that love stands, and to be able to receive it through music is so personal…it’s such a beautiful thing. When Dilla was in that hospital he was tied to like fifteen different machines at one time and each one of those had monitors making all types of music. Beeps and horns all going at the same time. And all I can think of is he’s listening to all this hour after hour day after day what type of beat is he coming up with now [laughs].