Jay Dee, a.k.a. J Dilla, the Detroit producer and rapper revered by his peers for his work with A Tribe Called Quest, Slum Village and Common, died Friday (February 10). He was 32.
Tim Maynor, Jay’s manager since 1999, said he died Friday morning in Los Angeles. According to The Associated Press, Dee, born James Yancey, died of complications from lupus. He was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease about three years ago. Dee had been battling kidney problems in recent years, but Maynor believed he had recovered.
“He was the best ever, and very underappreciated,” Maynor said. “Dilla was very reserved, quiet, all he wanted to do was make beats, make music. It wasn’t about the glitz and glory. He wasn’t doing it for the spotlight at all. He’s a dinosaur who will be missed.”
“I am devastated at the world’s loss of a musical genius of Charlie Parker proportions,” Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots said. “Too often we bestow the ‘greatest’ title upon those who have the attention of the press and the charts and radio. But if you were to secretly ask the most praised hip-hop producers, if given a top three, who they fear the most, Dilla’s name would chart on everyone’s list, hands down. I am fortunate to have known this man. He inspires me to perfect my craft in every way. Dilla was and will always be my hero.”
“Me and Jay Dee were very, very, very, very good friends,” said D12’s Proof, who got his first tattoo with Jay Dee, an “FC” for Funky Cowboy, their pre-Slum Village/ D12 group. “He produced my first demo. As a producer, he is one of the most influential producers ever, even up to Kanye West or Just Blaze. Jay Dee had a signature sound that a lot of people were influenced by. People will never understand his genius. It’s a shame that he didn’t get the light of a Dr. Dre or Timbaland or Neptunes, but he took more of a jazz-musician approach to the whole game. He was truly a mastermind.”
As J Dilla, the rapper released an album titled Donuts just Tuesday and was scheduled to release another one, The Shining, in April. Maynor said he was also two tracks away from finishing a third release for 2006. “He never stopped working,” he said.
In December, Jay toured Europe performing in a wheelchair, due to problems with his knees, Maynor said. When his manager suggested he postpone the trek, the producer said it was something he had to do. “Maybe he knew something we didn’t,” Maynor said.
Jay came to prominence in the mid-’90s producing tracks for the likes of Common, D’Angelo, De La Soul, Pharcyde and Busta Rhymes, as well as working as part of Tribe’s production team, the Ummah, and in his own group, Slum Village.
“He was a trendsetter, the soul sound [in hip-hop] is really Jay Dee,” RJ Rice, founder of Slum’s label, Barak Records, said. “I don’t know if he’ll ever get credit for it or not, most people just copied him.”
Jay was born and raised in the Conant Gardens neighborhood of Detroit, attending Pershing High School with his eventual Slum Village mates Baatin and T3.
“I’m f—ed up, my n—a just passed away,” T3 wrote on his MySpace page Friday.
After recording 1996’s underground Fantastic, Vol. 1, Slum Village signed to GoodVibe Recordings and released 2000’s Fantastic, Vol. 2. After releasing Best Kept Secret under the alias J-88 the following year, the group returned in 2002 with Trinity (Past, Present and Future) featuring Jay in a limited role.
Dee left the group that year and released Welcome 2 Detroit, kicking off U.K. indie label BBE Music’s “Beat Generation” series. He also formed a group with Madlib called Jaylib and released Champion Sound in 2003.
He spent 2004 working on a variety of albums, including Common’s Be, as well as his underground instrumental “beat tapes,” but also spent some of the year hospitalized.
“What happened was that the doctor told me that I’d ruptured my kidney from being too busy and being stressed out and not eating right,” Dee told Urb magazine in 2004. “He told me that if I’d waited another day, I might not have made it.”
“Sometimes that fixation can be a good thing and sometimes it can be bad. There’d be days when I wouldn’t eat at all because I’d be in the basement working all day,” he said in the interview. “This is definitely my second chance, my wakeup call. I still love the music, but I wouldn’t put it first in my life. It’s family first, and then everything else.”
Proof said Jay always told him he was feeling fine, but the close friends seemed to only talk on the phone in recent years. “It didn’t hit me until today, but I think he just didn’t want his friends to see him in that light,” Proof said. “He wanted us to remember him how it was.”
[This story was originally published on 02.10.06 at 7:04 PM ET]