Steve « Spacek » White déclara au magazine Fader en 2006 « avoir rencontré un ange sur terre», cet ange n’est autre que James Yancey DeWitt, rappeur et producteur, plus connu sous les pseudos John Doe, MC Silk, Jay Dee ou J Dilla. La plupart des gens l’ayant côtoyé auront tendance à parler de lui de la même manière. La majorité de ses productions musicales étant considérés comme « angéliques », Jay Dee laisse derrière lui un large et varié héritage.
Il était aussi bien un artiste pour ceux qui ont eu la chance de travailler avec lui, qu’un fils, un père, un mentor et un ami, ses qualités allaient bien au-delà de l’univers musical et c’est également pour cela qu’il laissa une telle empreinte sur l’univers du HipHop. Yancey était humble et généraux, il était des rares à louer une limousine pour les périodes de noël et à embarquer tous ses proches pour du shopping. Outre ses talents musicaux, c’est également son honnêteté et sa sincérité, si rare dans le milieu musical, que les « fans » adoraient en lui, lui permettant ainsi de créer sa légende dans le milieu.
J-Dilla et sa mère avait une relation quasi-fusionnelle, qui ne cessa. D’ailleurs il n’hésitera pas à demander à sa mère de lui rouler ses blunts, lors de sa maladie, car il ne pouvait plus assurer lui-même la préparation de son « traitement ».
DJ Jazzy Jeff : «Qu’est-ce qui a permit à Jay-Dee de se démarquer ? Il était totalement féru de connaissance musicale, et était totalement décomplexé quand il s’agissait de produire sa musique. Beaucoup de producteurs se savent « industrialisés », ce qui signifie qu’ils sont esclaves de l’industrie musicale. Ils produisent quelque chose que la radio va trouver crédible, ou la communauté hip-hop attend. Alors qu’avant la radio était un espace libre, elle programmait de la musique dans le but de faire vibrer et non pas de la musique faite pour vendre. Cette musique là était créée par des « savants-fous » dans leur sous-sol qui expérimentaient. Jay est un retour à cette époque-là. Il est le gars dans le sous-sol».
Yancey est né le 7 Février 1974, à l’Hôpital Zieger à Detroit dans le Michigan (USA), il est l’aînée des trois enfants nés de Beverly et Maureen « Ma Dukes » Yancey. Sa famille possédait un fort bagage musical : sa mère Maureen était une adepte de la musique classique et d’opéra tandis que son père Beverly était un bassiste et chanteur. « Le jazz était la musique avec laquelle il a grandi et a été élevé », dit sa mère, Maureen Yancey. « Lorsqu’il avait quelques mois, il n’allait pas dormir sans avoir entendu du jazz, chanté et joué par son père avant d’aller dormir. C’était sa berceuse. »
Dès l’âge de deux ans, la vie de Yancey tournait autour de la passion musicale de la famille, il faut dire qu’en plus de ses parents, son grand-père William James Yancey était un pianiste dans l’industrie du cinéma muet, et son oncle, Clemmer Yancey, était un célèbre écrivain, arrangeur et chanteur dans la région de Détroit.
Il commencera par pratiquer la musique sur sur un piano et un violoncelle. Puis il apprit à lire le solfège et se mit à la batterie, la flûte et la guitare. La famille vivait dans le quartier Conant Gardens de Detroit, lorsqu’il ne s’adonnait pas à la musique, il était très souvent à la chorale de la paroisse du quartier. Durant son enfance il fût également louveteau et scout, et était également membre actif de la jeunesse de la chapelle de Vernon.
Après des études à la « Farwell Middle School », Yancey est inscrit à la « Davis Aerospace Technical High School », se provoquera des tensions avec ses parents. « Il ne voulait pas aller à Davis, rappelle Maureen, mais il était tout simplement doué en physique, alors j’ai pensé que peut-être c’était fait pour lui et qu’il serait à la hauteur, mais il était trop intéressé par la musique. A chaque fois que je prêtais moins d’attention, il filait faire le DJ dans des fêtes ».
The technical curriculum at Davis helped Yancey develop a mathematical approach to music composition, but he found other aspects of the experience stifling, particularly the attire. “He hated wearing his Air Force ROTC uniform,” says Maureen, who went back and forth with her son in a “three-year fight about him being at Davis.” The conflict grew when Yancey began working with musician Joseph “Amp” Fiddler, who lived within walking distance from the Yancey home. Fiddler was an accomplished keyboardist, producer, and composer, best known for his tour work with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars. His home studio—Camp Amp—was training ground for many of the neighborhood’s young musicians. “That’s where we bumped heads,” Maureen explains, “because he was supposed to be at school early for lab class, but he was at Amp’s all night in the studio.
“I didn’t realize that Amp was doing sessions at that time. Dilla didn’t tell me he was helping Amp. Amp would let him engineer certain sessions, but he never told me! His dad and I didn’t have a clue that he was as involved as he was, and that he was learning that much. He didn’t talk about it because he wasn’t supposed to be at Amp’s. He was supposed to be at school—at a school I wanted him to excel in!”
Yancey was stubborn, but above all, was “a great kid,” says Maureen, who eventually understood the nature of her son’s resolve. At times, adults may underestimate or overlook a child’s ambition due to his or her youth, but in many instances, children have a clear idea of their life’s path at an early age. At two, Yancey knew his mission was to make music, even though his mother had other plans for his future. “When you know that music is in your heart,” she says, “you have to follow that, and it helps if you have your parents’ support.” The Yanceys were a close-knit family, and Beverly and Maureen both open-minded caregivers, so Yancey was ultimately awarded their blessing.
“My husband and I had many different interests…we did a lot of different things,” Maureen explains. “But James was totally into his music. It was like it ran through his veins.”
“Jay was cool; he was quiet,” Amp Fiddler recalls. “Jay was raised well by his parents. Maureen and her husband are good people, and they lived across the street from the church I went to.” Yancey began spending time at Fiddler’s home the late 1980s, digging through the extensive record collection Fiddler shared with siblings and advancing his skills in live instrumentation. Under Fiddler’s tutelage, the youngster was also gaining his first experience with drum machines and digital programming. “He learned the sampler real quick,” says Fiddler. “I’d show him how to quantize, how to freak shit, how to change the time signature, make the feel different, [and] make it fall ahead or behind the beat. He loved that.”
“Amp’s influence on James was wonderful,” says Maureen. But Fiddler was just one of the people in Yancey’s circle, a unit that the reticent teen kept small. A common refrain from those who knew him best is, “Dilla didn’t fuck with a lot of people,” although family—nuclear or extended—were family for life. Frank Bush and Derrick Harvey (Frank-N-Dank) were such figures in his life. Best friends since elementary school, “We used to sing in the church choir, Boy Scouts, all of that,” says Dank. “We had a really interesting childhood, and music always played a part in that.” Yancey befriended Ronnie Watts (Phat Kat) during hip-hop open mics at the weekly Rhythm Kitchen; Humberto Andres Hernandez (DJ Dez) was a fellow musician and regular at Camp Amp, plus a member of the Ghost Town collective of which Yancey was a part; the late DeShaun Holton (MC Big Proof) grew close to Yancey post-Ghost Town, forming the Funky Cowboys as the budding producer was outgrowing his pause-and-record method of beat-making and moving on to his early instruments—the Akai MPC60, E-mu SP-12, and Akai S950 drum machines and samplers.
“This was me pre-Hip-Hop Shop, pre-D12,” said Holton in early 2006 “We go back on some real-life shit.”
Rappers R.L. Altman (T3) and the late Titus Glover (Baatin) met Yancey in the late 1980s. The two were also from Conant Gardens, and later, classmates of Yancey’s at Detroit Pershing High School, where Yancey would transfer for his senior year. In a predominantly Black, middle-class district like Conant, hip-hop in the late ‘80s was paramount, and the initial relationship between the three was based on word-of-mouth and the pursuit of neighborhood MC supremacy. Altman and Glover were part of one group and Yancey was one-half of a duo with Frank Bush. “Jay Dee wanted to challenge us in rapping,” said Glover in 2006. “He was like, ‘I can beat both of ya’ll.’” What began as competition, however, turned into camaraderie, as throughout their many rap battles, the trio showcased such individual talent that they became fans of one another’s respective styles.
Like Yancey, Robert O’Bryant (Waajeed) was a promising young producer and also a talented visual artist who had been friends with Glover since they were of single-digit age. O’Bryant and Glover—along with Yancey, Altman, and Yancey’s cousin Que. D as crew dancer—formed a quintet called Ssenepod. As O’Bryant’s art studies began to take precedence and the appeal of hip-hop dancing lessened, Ssenepod was reduced to a trio, and then to a pair as one of its members found his way into street life.
“Baatin had started selling drugs,” says Altman, “and we went to confront him about it. He was like, ‘Man, fuck that….I gotta do what I gotta do.’ That’s when we started Slum Village. Slum Village started as rebellion against Baatin, to get him to fall back into hip-hop again.”
With Glover in the streets, Yancey and Altman continued to cultivate the Slum Village sound, recording with Fiddler before signing as artists with a management company run by R.J. Rice and former Detroit Pistons basketball player John Salley in 1992. Rice had long been a fixture in the Detroit music community as the founder of local R&B outfit R.J.’s Latest Arrival, and like Fiddler, provided a home studio setting for Yancey to further his training. Both men recognized Yancey’s tremendous potential, but it was Fiddler—performing on the Lollapalooza tour with P-Funk in 1994—who was able to help the star-in-the-making reach his potential by introducing the music of Yancey and Slum Village to Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest.
Says Fiddler: “I was fulfilled just by seeing him reach his goals and being exposed to the world of hip-hop like he should have been, because he had exceptional talent. I knew Q-Tip could take him there.”
Free of his business with Rice and Salley, Yancey’s production career began to blossom under Q-Tip’s direction—traveling, networking, and doing credited and uncredited work for artists such as Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, and The Pharcyde. Yet on the home front, Slum Village was stagnant. Glover had returned to the fold, but “we were still broke,” Altman admits. “We were happy for our boy, but at the same time, me and Baatin were broke.”
But Yancey would never forget his friends. “He was loyal to his people,” says Altman, to which Fiddler adds: “I knew he would be back. They were his boys. He and T3 went too far back for him to run off and not come back. And when he came back, he came back with a vengeance. I think he realized that he needed to represent Detroit again, and he came back hard. He made some badass music during that time.”
Among this music was Slum Village’s seminal debut, Fantastic, Vol. 1. The widely bootlegged album sparked a stylistic movement in both the underground and mainstream hip-hop communities, and established Yancey as one of the genre’s brightest young artists. Prior to its initial 1996 release, Q-Tip’s status as an industry icon—and the clandestine nature of the Ummah production team, i.e. Q-Tip, Yancey, and Tribe DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad—overshadowed Yancey’s individual accomplishments. But with Slum Village finally in the forefront, the real Jay Dee was headed towards prominence.
If Q-Tip and Yancey’s Detroit family were influential in the early phases of the producer’s career, then Roots drummer and hip-hop town crier Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson—with help from soul marvel Michael “D’Angelo” Archer—was his fiercest advocate as the ‘90s came to a close. “The night that Q-Tip finally let D have a copy of Fantastic, Vol. 1,” Quest recalls, “D played five cuts on my telephone. Then I had him play the cassette through the phone onto my answering machine, and that’s all I did when I was on tour in Europe. I’d call my machine just to hear the third ‘Fantastic’ interlude. D was in love with ‘Estimate.’” The Roots and D’Angelo were at the center of one of the more creative collectives in hip-hop and R&B history—a group that included Common, De La Soul, Erykah Badu, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Bilal, James Poyser, and Jill Scott—and Yancey’s reputation among his peers began to grow in spades. His workload also increased, and the combination of greater professional demand and differences in focus led to distance between him and the other members of Slum Village.
“It was more the expectation of things [to come] that made Dilla want to leave the group,” says Altman. “He wanted to put more of a street edge on Slum Village, which was cool, but we weren’t living the lifestyle that he was living.” Not to mention that Yancey was very much an individualist; he was selfless, but also a private man who didn’t desire a lot of attention. Press, label politics, and the overall life of a hip-hop superstar wasn’t his calling, so by the time Fantastic, Vol. 2 was released in 2000, he was largely a member of Slum Village in name only, although continuing to produce for the group on its next two albums.
In 2000, Yancey also produced ten songs on Common’s gold-selling Like Water For Chocolate LP and contributed to Erkyah Badu’s platinum Mama’s Gun. This earned him two Grammy nominations for Common’s “The Light” (Best Solo Rap Performance, 2001) and Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know” (R&B Song of the Year, 2001). The following year saw the release of Yancey’s solo debut Welcome 2 Detroit—the first artist album to be commissioned by and released on BBE Records. 2001 also brought the “Fuck the Police” single, which became one of the more popular entries in his catalog.
”That song was totally true,” says Maureen Yancey. “He caught so much flack from the police for being a clean young man. The police department was down the street from where we lived, and every time he pulled off they’d stop him and harass him. They even tossed the car once looking for something; because he was young and clean-cut, they thought he was selling drugs.
“Proof was at the house one evening when James had another run-in with them. He had only gone to the gas station which was three doors away. I told him not to get upset because he was hurt to tears. He was so angry and just tired of being harassed, so I told him, ‘Look, this is what you do—you go downstairs and make a song about it, and you laugh in their face.’ And that’s when he came up with the ‘“F” the Police’ thing. And people are still singing it today! Every time I go somewhere, that’s one of the songs they play.”
Ironically, as a teen, Yancey’s first job was a junior police cadet with the Detroit Police Department. But over the course of his adolescent and adult lives, his opinion of law enforcement gradually became more contemptuous as he experienced persecution for simply being young, black, and liking his clothes wrinkle-free. Thankfully, the profiling didn’t deter his professional growth. In the years following “Fuck the Police,” he extended his collaboration with Busta Rhymes to an unprecedented five consecutive albums in addition to signing a production contract with MCA Records. As MCA was in the process of folding into Geffen Records, an undaunted Yancey released his second solo effort, the Ruff Draft EP.
Yancey briefly toured Europe in January 2003 in support of Ruff Draft. Upon his return to the States, he took ill. Exhaustion and malnutrition were initially considered possible causes, but a trip to the emergency room revealed thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), a rare blood condition. Despite ailing health, Yancey remained a creative force throughout the year, teaming with renowned Los Angeles producer Madlib for the landmark Jaylib LP and crafting a blistering remix of Four Tet’s “As Serious As Your Life.” At the urging of longtime friend Common, Yancey relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles in the spring of 2004, a year that also brought a return to his musical roots. One such effort was his work on mentor Amp Fiddler’s Waltz of a Ghetto Fly, and another, his interpretation of Jack McDuff’s “Oblighetto” for the Blue Note Revisited LP.
“The Blue Note remix was something he was proud of,” mother Maureen recalls. “It touched something deep in him because it was in a different vein, and it was also the music he grew up with—jazz. It was his lullaby music as a child when he went to sleep in his nursery, so it meant a great deal to him. He probably got more out of that than any gold or platinum plaque.”
Sadly, Yancey’s health began to worsen. Maureen moved to L.A. in November of 2004 to be closer to her son, who became seriously ill as the year came to a close. He would eventually be diagnosed with Lupus, a condition wherein the body’s immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissue. The Lupus led to kidney failure and repeated dialysis treatments and hospital visits, yet Yancey wouldn’t let his physical state keep him from reaching out to fans. His work output slowed; Steve Spacek’s “Dollar,” and “Love Is” and “It’s Your World” from Common’s Be LP were notable 2005 productions. But his spirit was strong enough to allow him to tour Europe for a few weeks from November to December with Frank-N-Dank, DJ Rhettmatic, his mother, and friend and confidant Dave “New York” Tobman. “He wasn’t supposed to go,” says Frank, who had been friends with Yancey and Dank for nearly his entire life. “But he said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it…I’m going to go and rock in a wheelchair.’ It was like this was going to be the last time for him and his niggas to bring this shit full circle.”
Yancey spent his final months doing what he loved the most—creating music. He released Donuts, his third solo LP, on February 7, 2006 before passing away three days later at the age of 32.
Maureen Yancey was extremely close to her son, and he left her with his guidance on how he wanted to be remembered. “We shared the same dream and worked towards it together,” she says. “He prepared me for what I have to do. He accepted his condition, and in order to make me strong and make sure I did what I have to do, he had to instill some things in me.
“So I’m great. I haven’t mourned. I’m not mourning, I’m celebrating, because I’m just so excited about him getting the credit he worked for and deserves; [We’re] letting the world know just how great he was with what he did.”
Bio originale de Ronnie Reese
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