Photo by Roger Erickson

“Dilla was the only cat whose music gave me goosebumps in the last 10 years,” Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson wrote on his blog on February 15, five days after his friend and producer James Yancey a.k.a. J Dilla a.k.a. Jay Dee died. That was five years ago today, and three days after the Detroit native turned 32. His last birthday also marked the release of his last album , Donuts—his swansong, if you will—that Dilla worked on from his hospital bed, severely unwell due to complications from the blood disease lupus. His funeral, held the day that Questo wrote his post, was attended by the high priests and priestesses of hip-hop/soul/R&B, such as Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, D’Angelo and the Roots. Thompson said that Erykah Badu cried. Most of them did.

Dilla’s music was, and still is, overwhelmingly admired by so many of his peers. If you haven’t heard of the producer/MC, one of the producers that you know and admire has probably taken influence from Dilla, or at least one of his tracks. When Pharrell appeared on 106 & Park in 2004 he gushed to a clueless crowd that Jay Dee was his favorite producer. Kanye West and Just Blaze are said to feel the same way and Busta Rhymes recently told SOHH, “Dilla is the greatest producer that I’ve ever met.”
Dilla originally came to light in the ’90s via his work with highschool friends and MCs T3 and Baatin as Slum Village. While the trio’s Fantastic Vol. 2 received acclaim in 2000 (with Dilla-produced smoky cuts like “Fall In Love” and “Players” quickly canonized in the hip-hop songbook), it was fellow Motor City resident Amp Fiddler who helped him reach wider recognition years before. The Funkadelic collaborator saw incredible talent in Dilla and introduced the young beatmaker to Q-Tip backstage at the 1994 edition of Lollapalooza. “I just though his music was so crazy; it spoke loud to me,” Tip said at last year’s Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival.
Dilla was invited to become a part of Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad’s production group, the Ummah (Arabic for “community”), and produced a number of A Tribe Called Quest tracks under this name. He became an extremely prolific producer, working with a slew of artists on originals and remixes. While his discography is too hefty to go into great detail, some of the more recognizable projects include work with the Pharcyde (“Runnin”), De La Soul (“Stakes Is High”) and as part of the Soulquarian collective along with Questo and James Poyser. His collaborations fared as well as his solo work, such as his partnership with Madlib under the name of Jaylib that resulted in Champion Sound (“The Red” is particularly ridiculous).
After he passed in 2006, people continued to pay tribute to Dilla and his music. The reinterpretation of his work by composer/arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and the Suite For Ma Dukes Orchestra was particularly poignant, turning his multi-layered beats into chamber music for a 40-piece orchestra. One of those closest to Dilla—his mother, Ma Dukes—set up a foundation in her son’s name with a focus on progressive music education.
At last year’s Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, Ma Dukes explained that Dilla created his beats using the “tempo of the heart”. “His mission was to do all the music he could, and to get it out to the world,” she said. “I believe he was here for this purpose alone.”
Stream J.Rocc’s mixtape Thank You Jay Dee, Part I here.