Ma Dukes Talks J Dilla: "He and His Friends Rehearsed at My House Every Day"
Ma Dukes and J Dilla gear donated to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Courtesy of Leah L. Jones, Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture
Since the 2006 death of James "J Dilla" Dewitt Yancey, her iconic beat-making son, from a rare blood disease, Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey has worked tirelessly to keep his legacy alive, with the J Dilla Foundation and annual Dilla Day celebrations.
"No mother would ever think that they would be here and their child would be gone," Ma Dukes says. "And it wasn't of anything tragic that happened on the streets but simply because of illness in life."
For 2015, Dilla Day has become J Dilla Weekend. And it's moved to Miami for three days of music and memories, hosted by Maureen Yancey and headlined by many of Dilla's friends, from Slum Village to Madlib, Talib Kweli, and Pete Rock.
See also: J Dilla Weekend 2015's Miami Schedule
Ma Dukes has also persevered through hard times in the Yanceys' hometown of Detroit, her own tumultuous health issues, the passing of other family members, and a bitter, highly publicized battle with the former executor of Dilla's estate to ensure that all of her son's music gets into the hands of his fans. This past year, she received a treasure-trove of unreleased Dilla tracks from an altruistic record store owner and insists that "fresh," unheard work will be trickling out for years.
Despite all of her troubles, Yancey remains one of the most intensely positive people you could ever hope to meet, and she always makes sure to politely ask about your day and give advice about eating right. She has spent most of her life caring for others -- working in day-care centers, looking after her family, and now managing the J Dilla Foundation. While nursing her son in his last few years, she, understandably, neglected to focus on her own health issues. She suffers from lupus, type 1 diabetes, and arthritis.
"Any wind that blows down the street, I could catch something," she says. "When I first heard I had arthritis, I didn't believe the doctor. I said he was a quack and wasn't going back. But then when I would take care of children at the day care, just one field trip to the zoo would cripple me for a week."
These days, though, she is feeling better than ever and credits her new life partner, Tony, with encouraging her to change her diet and focus on her own health. So no doubt, Yancey will be bringing a refreshed motherly energy to festivalgoers when she hosts this year's J Dilla Weekend memorial festival in Miami.
See also: Ten Best Miami Rap Anthems Ever
Born in Detroit on February 7, 1974, Dilla was only 32 years old when he died. But the producer and rapper had already established himself among rap and hip-hop's greatest minds by crafting timeless tracks with A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, MF Doom, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, the Roots, Slum Village, the Pharcyde, Madlib, Common, and many others.
Ma Dukes loves to reminisce about being around Dilla and his friends, some of whom will be playing at this year's fest. "They rehearsed at my house every day," she says. "His sound system and studio could be heard right from my bedroom. I heard the rough lyrics, but I knew he was a great kid who was courteous and mannerable. He was home and happy and an excellent student. Why complain?"
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While there isn't a song of her son's that she doesn't like, she reveals that her favorite is a remix he did of "Eve" by Steve Spacek. "I'd wake up in the morning, listen to it three times in a row, back to back, and feel good all day. There was no such thing as hearing it too much."
She is grateful and excited when the festival comes around every year, because she gets to hang out with Dilla's friends and share memories. "I enjoy just being among the people and getting a chance to touch base with some of the artists again," she says. "Just being with T3 of Slum Village, he's like my son! He was at my house every day. He brings with him a piece of Dilla whenever I'm around him. He and Dilla were truly like brothers."
As any mother would, Yancey's also got plenty of unexpected, intimate, and nonmusical memories of her boy. "Dilla loved bowling," she laughs. "But he loved roller skating more! I had a carpool of Dilla and his friends, and I would take them to the skating rink and drop them off. Dilla and Frank-N-Dank would skate religiously. And Dilla loved to dance. He was a great break dancer."
When asked if the estate would be interested in building a Dilla-themed roller rink to complement J Dilla Weekend, Ma Dukes says it might be a good idea.
The world can only hope.
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J Dilla Day Weekend 2015. Hosted by Ma Dukes. With Joey Bada$$, Mobb Deep, Madlib, Talib Kweli, Slum Village, Pete Rock, Dead Prez, and others. Presented by III Points, Nature Sounds, Addicted Affairs, and DNA. Thursday to Sunday, February 5 to 8. Various locations, Miami. Weekend passes cost $80.62, and single-show tickets cost $16.13 to $37.63 via squadup.com. Visit JDillaWeekend.com.
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