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'He started collecting records at the age of 2.' ...

'He could've been a Kanye.' ...

'He was totally about the music, 100 percent. It was his great love.' ...

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— by Corey Moss

Jay Dee, a.k.a. J Dilla, had a lot of fans in high places.

Pharrell Williams describes him as "before his time" and "the illest."

"I aspire to be as great as him," Pharrell said.

Kanye West remembers the time he gave Jay a beat as one of the best days of his life. "I was so honored," West recalled. "He inspired me so much."

?uestlove of the Roots said he was "the only cat whose music gave me goose bumps in the last 10 years."

Jay Dee's extraordinary talents landed him collaborative gigs with some of hip-hop's hottest artists, but he rarely received the recognition he deserved. Here are a few tracks he worked on:

 A Tribe Called Quest
"Stressed Out"
Beats, Rhymes and Life

 Busta Rhymes
"Woo-Hah! Got You All in Check" (Jay Dee Bounce Remix)
The Coming

"Come Close" (Remix)
Electric Circus

"Untitled (How Does It Feel)"

Jay never had the riches or the fame of his peers, but he had something that many value more: their utmost respect — and for good reason. Through his landmark work with A Tribe Called Quest and his own group, Slum Village, not to mention the tracks he produced for Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, Ghostface Killah, D'Angelo and many more, Jay spearheaded a new style of soul-permeated hip-hop perhaps exemplified on one of his most popular tracks, Common's "The Light." He had everything he needed to become a superstar — the talent, the work ethic, the connections — but chose to march to his own beats. All he really wanted was to make music, and he did just that until the day he died.

James Dewitt Yancey was born on February 7, 1974, and raised on the east side of Detroit. The city was not only the birthplace of Motown Records, it has long been an incubator for soul, rock, techno and, not least, hip-hop. His middle name comes from his father's: a songwriter, jazz musician and doo-wop singer for a Detroit group called the Ivies. Jay was born with music in his blood.

"His older brother, Earl, was a regular boy — the toys, the trucks — but with James, if it wasn't music or someone playing music or talking about music, then he didn't associate much with it," recalled Jay's mother, Maureen. "We did everything together, but the crux of what we did as a family always involved music. Everybody was in choirs and the children learned to play instruments."

Altogether, Jay learned some 20 different instruments, from drums to cello. But he loved listening to music even more than he loved playing it.

"He started collecting records at 2," Maureen said. "We would go to the shop every week and he would request certain things. Anything that James Brown did, he had to have."

Jay obsessively listened to and studied his records, wearing out one set of headphones after another.

"No matter how many thousands he had, he knew where every record was, he knew the cuts on the records, he knew what year the record came out — and I'm talking about records that came out in the '50s," Maureen said. "He spent every waking moment with music, every minute."

Jay's fixation with his records was typical of his personality, which bordered on obsessive-compulsive. If someone moved something in his room even a few inches, he would notice and move it back. His wardrobe was always perfectly neat; his pants creased like they'd just come from the cleaners. "He would iron his own pants and he would spend maybe 20 minutes on one pant leg," his mother laughed. "And he was a freak about lint."

Perhaps because of those idiosyncrasies, James was a loner who rarely said much. "When he was a kid he would stutter when he talked, so he was shy because of that," remembered RJ Rice, a Detroit producer, manager and record label owner.

"I think he was basically quiet because he was trying to figure out ways to make music," added Elzhi, a Detroit rapper and latter-day Slum Village member who earned his first industry check (for $1,000) rapping on Jay's 2001 solo LP, Welcome 2 Detroit.

Jay's quietness was perceived in different ways. Amp Fiddler, a veteran Detroit producer and musician (he's worked with Parliament-Funkadelic and Prince) who mentored Dee, considered it a testament to his happy upbringing.

"He was one of the best kids that I ever met," Fiddler said. "He was very respectful, always called before he came, very honorable. You could do nothing but help a guy like him."

Slum Village rapper T3, however, saw it differently. "Dilla was my man, but he was moody," he said. "There were times when he wouldn't answer the phone for three weeks. When he was in the mood, he felt like talking. When he not, you might as well forget about it."

"He didn't like people telling him what to do," Rice added. "He would never argue; he just wouldn't show up for two or three weeks. Then he'd be like, 'Yeah, you're right.' I don't think anyone could say they really understood Jay Dee."

By high school, Jay had built a reputation both as a beatmaker and an MC. After hearing buzz about him on the streets, T3 challenged Jay to a battle. Upon meeting, though, they quickly decided to join forces and form the group that became Slum Village.

His skills soon became apparent: Astonishingly, as a teenager Jay made all his tracks on a cassette recorder. "When you was looping up samples, you would have to change the pitch, but we didn't have the equipment to do that, so he somehow opened up the tape deck and changed the pitch," T3 explained. "He would do incredible stuff because he was a brainiac type of guy."

One of those cassettes eventually landed in the hands of Fiddler, one of the top local hitmakers at the time. "I was surprised — it was tight," Fiddler said. "I mean, you could hear in some places the loops were off, but for the most part it was pretty dope."

RJ also heard something in Jay's tracks and opened up his studio for the producer to work in overnight and loaned him some sampling gear. Amp Fiddler showed him how to use it, and within days Jay was taking his Beatles and Michael Jackson records and reconstructing them into unrecognizable tracks.

"Once he learned how it was done, I would see him smiling every day," Amp said. "He had a God-given gift of rhythm and a precise way of chopping up music. He was great at putting a collage together that was magical."

NEXT: 'He could've been a Kanye.' ...
Photo: Stones Throw Records

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