Ma Dukes on her son Jay Dee (aka J Dilla) living through music

Ma Dukes used to take her son James Yancey (later known to the rest of the world as Jay Dee, or J Dilla) to Harmonie Park in Detroit.

Other children would run around, play, and get into mischief, but not James. At two years old, James wanted to DJ. Back then, his arms would fit through the center of the 45 records. He’d play jazz, R&B, soul – the records he’d later sample on the records his generations of fans would pine after.

James Yancey was born on February 7th, 1974, and died on February 10th, 2006. Like she brought two-year old James to share his music in Harmonie Park, Ma Dukes continues to share his music with the rest of the world. “The Fantastic Sounds of Jay Dee AKA J Dilla” would not be possible were it not for Ma Dukes’ graceful participation. The entire Splice team is indebted to her candor, openness, and many memories and stories we heard along the way in bringing these sounds to life. Thank you Ma Dukes. Watch and read our interview with the matriarch of the Jay Dee legacy below.

Can you tell us about hearing “The Fantastic Sounds of Jay Dee” for the first time?

I just listened to the Jay Dee pack and it was awesome. Yes, it brought back many memories. A lot of beats that I had not heard in a while and some that I’m just never getting enough of. When I’m out at an event, you know how the song’s almost over and you’re ready to keep extending it and some of the beats are so rich and heavy on the bass, and that’s what I like most about it. I think for young people, it’s gonna encourage them to want to be more than what they already have. What they have in their head that they won’t be afraid to experiment with. It gives them a foundation that they won’t be left out there long. Dilla’s beats will still be there and they can just add to it and compose something of their own – so that’s a beautiful part about it.

When Dilla sampled, he took what he thought would interest him, and then he figured out a way to add something to it to make it better. Not necessarily the way most artists would have it – but to put his own spin on it. This is something that he always wanted artists to do – not to mimic his sound but, but he would say, “Do you. Don’t copy my work. Just as it is… but do you. Put your spin on it. Make something original for yourself ’cause you don’t know how good it can be.” There are a lot of artists out there that made it just by listening and experimenting and taking it to another level, thinking outside the box. I’m really excited about that pack, about the Jay Dee pack. I really am.

I’m like a nonstop Dilla listener and there’s no Dilla event that I don’t attend. There’s no Dilla song that I don’t listen to, and from my lullaby music to even my wake-up-in-the-morning music, it’s Dilla. And Dilla all year. ‘Round every day, Dilla in my life, and yes I can definitely go along with the people that say, “J Dilla changed my life,” because he certainly changed mine and he’s with me every day through his music.

Were there any memories or anything specific that came to mind when you heard these sounds in the sample pack for the first time? 

Yeah, it reminded me of a few songs that I would hear from my kitchen, and I’d wanna go downstairs so bad and tell ’em how I liked what I was hearing – but I wasn’t allowed to come down there because he didn’t want me peering at him while he was working. Sometimes I would tiptoe and he would hear. I don’t know how, with the music playing, but he would hear me trying to tip down to the middle stairs and he’d catch me by the third step and be standing there looking at me like, “Lady where you going? Uh-uh, back upstairs!”

It’s really astonishing, the little pieces of music that I would hear and the beats that I would hear, and to hear it as a full song is incredible. It’s so exciting and it’s just a great feeling and a good vibe. It reminds me of when he was at home playing the songs and the music I would hear. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Dilla beat that I wasn’t crazy about.

How did it feel hearing a lot of these artists create these companion packs, like this metaphorical ‘passing of the baton?’

Sure, because that’s how music is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be done and it’s universal. But we’re supposed to pass the baton even when we make it in anything outside of music. You don’t just hold onto it and don’t pass the torch. It has to be carried on and I think this is what Dilla would want. He’d want children to educate themselves, young people to educate themselves, and become more than what he was.

Many young producers who will use this pack looked up to Jay Dee. Who did he look up to for inspiration?

Oh my God. Well, at one year old it was James Brown. He liked Bill Weathers and geez… he liked the Beastie Boys. He was really strange in what he liked and the thing of being open and exposed to all genres of music gave him a broader expansion of mind, what to do with music.

He was raised up on The Manhattan Transfer ’cause that was the Yancey family must. Everybody had to be able to listen to and sing their part on any Manhattan Transfer song because it was just how it had to be. Just from those different types of acapella singing and notes and being in a church choir, he was an altar boy and in the choir and cub scouts and all that kind of stuff, so you learn and you have different sounds.

My mother liked country so he was exposed to that. I liked opera, he was exposed to that. His dad was a jazz musician, he was exposed to that – it’s endless. But every flavor gave him something to build upon and he spun records in the park at two years old, playing adult music. It was nothing foreign to him. It was just this feel-good thing and something that he gravitated to, when he never wanted anything else in life but the music.

What do you hope young producers will create with Jay Dee’s pack?

I hope that it’ll build on their self-esteem because I think that they’re already artists. They’re gonna want to be greater artists and maybe become recording artists. You can’t do it staying home in a basement like a ‘basement artist’ – there are some very good artists singing and producing, but afraid to step out of that basement into the real world. I think the pack is gonna make them comfortable in what they’re doing.

“The Fantastic Sounds of Jay Dee AKA J Dilla” is available now.

November 9, 2018