3 Questions With Ma Dukes Yancey-Smith, the Torchbearer of J. Dilla’s Legend

By Sameer Rao Nov 25, 2016

Despite his influence on their catalogs, James "J. Dilla" Yancey did not reach the popular heights of creative peers like Common, The Roots and D’Angelo during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the Detroit-bred artist’s 2006 death from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (a rare blood disease) and lupus that J. Dilla’s production prowess became legend. His distinctive style, characterized by rich instrumental layers and off-kilter drum patterns, made him an icon to beat makers and artists across genres and solidified his place in hip-hop history. It’s an honor that was cemented by the inclusion of his production equipment in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey-Smith knows Dilla’s highs and lows better than anyone. A classically trained vocalist, his mother raised him in a home filled with a variety of music. When he pursued hip-hop full-time, she helped manage his career, both as a member of Slum Village and as a solo artist. When he fell ill, she became his primary caretaker. Now, she is the primary steward of his legacy, the head of the J. Dilla Foundation and the author of a newly-released children’s book about her son’s life: “The Life Story of James Dewitt Yancey.”

We spoked with Ma Dukes about her son’s legacy, his illness and his career. Here are three key excerpts from that conversation. 

You and Dilla’s father are both musicians and surrounded your son with music. When did you first understand the depth of your son’s talent?

I knew how talented he was when he was a couple months old, because of his ear, which is paramount for any musician. He had an uncanny ability to be able to follow, on perfect pitch, random runs on the upright bass. My husband would do that, and Dilla would gurgle in perfect pitch, even though he couldn’t speak. We would laugh about it and record it on a reel-to-reel tape because we thought it was funny! [laughs].

Describe the book. What do you hope people, especially children, will get out of reading it?

The first page tells the story of the music playing and songs I’d sing to him while I was still carrying him. The book goes all the way through the early years of his career, and focuses on the person he would become. 

I hope that the book will offer a closer look at who he was as an individual. He was a child that, from the age of two-years-old, already knew his passion. He did what he was told, didn’t miss a Sunday at church, played every instrument in the school band—I think he was beyond what a mama believed he would try to do. Dilla taught me to follow my dreams, and I want children to read this and dream to do something [of their own]. I did not expect to go back to college in my 40s, but Dilla said I should do that. 

Dilla’s MPC and synthesizer are now enshrined in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Did you know, when you were watching his career evolve in his lifetime, that he’d be canonized like this? 

Smithsonian curators and I worked to get his MPC into the Smithsonian for six years before I finally said, “Okay!” [laughs]. I was stagnating because I was still in mourning, and I didn’t know I was still mourning.

I was blown away on the first tour I went with him—his last tour—by the profound fanbase he had. We would go somewhere, and they didn’t speak a bit of English but knew every word to every song, and that was a sign of the love and respect he received. I couldn’t cry, I had to be strong and be his 24-hour nurse, but if I could have laid on a spot on the stage I would have [laughs], because I never experienced anything like that. I didn’t realize how much love he had for the fans when Dilla and I talked prior to the tour. He had just learned how to walk again—he had to learn to walk three times during his illness. He was in severe pain throughout the time on stage, but he managed to do the tour, and his fan base knocked me off my feet. I’m talking about love that you could feel, and that’s what came from that hip-hop. 

“The Life Story of James Dewitt Yancey” is now available to order in printed and audio via the official J. Dilla Merch website, Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It is co-authored by Ma Dukes, CQ Wilder and Diana Boardley-Wise with drawings by Tokio Aoyama. A portion of proceeds from book will benefit the J. Dilla Foundation.