James Dewitt Yancey (February 7, 1974 – February 10, 2006), better known by the stage names J Dilla and Jay Dee, was a hip-hop record producer who emerged from the mid-1990s underground hip-hop scene in Detroit, Michigan.
In 1992, he met experienced Detroit musician Amp Fiddler, who was impressed by what Jay Dee was able to accomplish with such limited tools. Amp Fiddler let Jay Dee use his MPC, which he learned quickly. In 1995, Jay Dee and MC Phat Kat formed 1st Down, and would be the first Detroit hip hop group to sign with a major label (Payday Records) - a deal that was ended after one single when the label folded. That same year he recorded "Yester Years EP" with 5 Elementz (a group consisting of Proof, Thyme and Mudd). In the year 1996, he formed the group Slum Village with T3 and Baatin, and recorded the group's debut, "Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1)" in his home studio. Being released in 1997, the album quickly became popular with fans of Detroit hip hop, as well as gaining the attention of Q-Tip, who hailed the group as successors to A Tribe Called Quest. However, J Dilla felt uncomfortable with the comparison and often voiced it in several interviews.
By the mid-1990s Jay Dee was known as a major hip hop prospect, with a string of singles and remix projects, for Janet Jackson, Pharcyde, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip's solo album and others. The majority of these productions were released without his name recognition, being credited to The Ummah, a production collective composed of Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest, and later Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné!. Under this umbrella, Jay did some of his most big name R&B and hip hop work, churning out original songs and remixes for Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, Brand New Heavies, Something For the People, trip hop artists Crustation and many others. This all came off the heels of Jay handling the majority of production on The Pharcyde's album "Labcabincalifornia", released in the holiday season of 1995. Jay Dee's largest-scale feat came in 1997 when he produced Janet Jackson's Grammy winning single "Got 'til It's Gone" from "The Velvet Rope". The song-writing credit and subsequent Grammy were both given to Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
His debut as a solo artist came in 2001 with the single "Fuck the Police", followed by the album "Welcome 2 Detroit", which kicked off U.K. Independent record label BBE's "Beat Generation" series. In 2001, Jay Dee began using the name "J Dilla" (an attempt to differentiate himself from Jermaine Dupri who also goes by "J.D."), and left Slum Village to pursue a major label solo career with MCA Records in 2002. Although J Dilla was known as a producer rather than an MC, he chose to rap on the album and have the music produced by some of his favorite producers such as Madlib, Pete Rock, Hi-Tek, Supa Dave West, Kanye West, Nottz, Waajeed, Quebo Kuntry (J.Benjamin) and others. The album was shelved due to internal changes at the label and MCA. While the record with MCA stalled, Dilla recorded the uncompromising "Ruff Draft", released exclusively to vinyl by German label Groove Attack. Although the album was little known, it signaled a change in sound and attitude, and his work from this point on was increasingly released through independent record labels.
J Dilla's illness and medication caused dramatic weight loss in 2003 onwards, forcing him to publicly confirm speculation about his health in 2004. Despite a slower output of major releases and production credits in 2004 and 2005, his cult status remained strong within his core audience, as evident by unauthorized circulation of his underground "beat tapes" (instrumental, and raw working materials), mostly through internet file sharing. Articles in publications URB (March 2004) and XXL (June 2005) confirmed rumors of ill health and hospitalization during this period, but these were downplayed by Jay himself. The seriousness of his condition became public in November 2005 when J Dilla toured Europe performing from a wheelchair. It was later revealed that he suffered from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood disease, and possibly lupus.
J Dilla died on February 10, 2006, three days after his 32nd birthday and the release of his final album "Donuts", at home in Los Angeles, California. According to his mother, Maureen Yancey, the cause was cardiac arrest.
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