Ma Dukes is slang for anybody's mother. But when you talk to hip-hop heads, only one matters.
J Dilla was a hip-hop producer from Detroit whose life was tragically cut short in 2006 by a rare blood disease, but his momma, the Ma Dukes, continues to travel the world in support of her youngest son's legacy.
In honor of his enduring influence across genres, Detroit hip-hoppers have set aside his birthday, February 7, as Dilla Day. From London to New York, rap fans in other cities have picked up the tradition, and Ma Dukes makes it to every celebration she can.
On Thursday, February 13, she's hosting Miami's Dilla Tribute at Bardot. So we here at Crossfade chatted with her about this holday honoring her son.
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"It was remarkable that he first got that day," she said over the phone. "It's global, and it's mind blowing, and that's not to mention the fact that it seems to last longer every year. It's turning into a couple months!"
Ma Dukes and Dilla were very close. She used to manage his professional affairs in Detroit when he hit the road. And whenever he was at his home studio with his buddies, she was right there watching his back.
"I'd prepare snacks and meals that would accommodate them, because they'd go at it so hard," she said, noting Dilla was particularly fond of her homemade mac and cheese. "It might be days before they finished any particular session."
Dilla was 32 when he passed, but he churned out 16 albums worth of music and so many production credits his discography needs its own Wikipedia page. With Ma Dukes behind him, he could focus every moment on his craft - and he did.
"He was known to go three days without taking a nap," she said. "He never let anyone go past their deadline. He had no time for himself, and that was the only thing that probably annoyed him at times, but he loved what he was doing in the end. He was very selfless at times."
He was so focused and obsessed, Ma Dukes says, that strict rules ordered every aspect of his life.
"If it was a red apple in the drawer, every apple behind it should be red," she recalls. "If you wanted a golden apple, you put it somewhere else in a line. If you wanted a Coke or Sprite or whatever, it had to be in succession, all facing the same way."
His methods may have been odd, even extreme, but the product was well worth it. And almost eight years after his death, aspiring producers across the musical spectrum continue to idolize his body of work, his dedication to hip-hop, and his foresight.
"I believe that the music may be timeless because it not only was good for when he was there, but he might have been a little bit ahead of his time," Ma Dukes suggests. "And I think that he leaves things open enough that an artist can get in there, work with it, and create his own thing. Dilla was really conscious of that."
Inspiring others was a major part of Dilla's personal mission, and Ma Dukes keeps that alive with the J Dilla Foundation. Having teamed with many of his colleagues, such as Busta Rhymes and Amp Fiddler, the organization funds inner-city music programs and helps aspiring artists. In short, Ma Dukes is still busy mothering the scene.
"I just enjoy it," she says. "When you have creative people, even if they're not relaxed, they bring such warmth and energy with them. It can't be anything but good."
She looks forward to "excitement beyond compare" at Miami's tribute. She knows she's biased, but she expects nothing less than a "grand hip-hop event." And since it's scheduled for the night before Valentine's Day, Dilla's productions are a perfect fit.
"Most of the time he was writing about love of some type," Ma Dukes points out. "And it doesn't always have to be about a good love. It could be about something gone wrong. It could be something that we plan for or wish for or hoped for. Love has a lot of facets. Sometimes, it makes us smile. And sometimes, it makes us hurt. But we all go through it."
Jay Stay Shining: A Tribute to J Dilla. Hosted by Ma Dukes. With Slum Village, plus DJ sets by Ynot and friends. Thursday, February 13. Bardot, 3456 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The show starts at 10 p.m. and tickets cost $25 to $60 plus fees via showclix.com. A portion of proceeds will benefit J Dilla Foundation to fund inner-city music programs. Ages 21 and up. Call 305-576-7750 or visit bardotmiami.com.
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