J Dilla rose through the ranks of Detroit’s underground hip-hop scene in the 1990s to become one of the most respected producers in hip-hop history with his eclectic beats. He was a member of Slum Village along with T3 and Baatin as well as a member of The Ummah production crew with Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad and the Soulquarians with ?uestlove, D'Angelo, and James Poyser among others.
Born James Dewitt Yancey in Detroit, Michigan on February 7, 1974, his father, Beverly Dewitt Yancey, was a bass player and his mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, was an opera singer. Initially going by Jay Dee, he met T3 and Baatin in high school, and after Jay joined a few other crews, the trio formed Slum Village in 1996. Prior to the formation of the group and as they began working on material, Jay Dee already had production credits on several projects such as The Pharcyde’s 1995 sophomore album Labcabincalifornia—which included their hit single “Runnin'”—De La Soul’s “Stakes is High” and a few tracks on Busta Rhymes‘ debut solo album The Coming in 1996.
Producer Amp Fiddler introduced Jay Dee to Q-Tip after Amp met him on the Lollapalooza tour as he played keyboards for Funkadelic. This meeting led Jay Dee, Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad to form the production crew The Ummah and the trio produced on A Tribe Called Quest’s fourth album Beats, Rhymes and Life released in 1996 and their fifth album The Love Movement released in 1998, which included the hit single “Find a Way.” He also remixed several songs, including Janet Jackson’s hit single “Got ‘Til It’s Gone” and The Brand New Heavies single “Sometimes” in 1997.
Slum Village released their debut album Fantastic, Vol. 2 in 2000. Around this time, Jay Dee produced several songs such as Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know”, several songs on Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, including the hit single “The Light,” as well as the singles “Vivrant Thing,” “Breathe & Stop,” and “Let’s Ride” from Q-Tip’s debut solo album Amplified. In 2001, Dilla became a solo artist and officially changed his name from Jay Dee to J Dilla in order to avoid confusion with producer/rapper Jermaine Dupri, who is also known as J.D. In 2002, Dilla connected with fellow abstract producer/rapper Madlib for their Jaylib collaborative album Champion Sound where they rapped solo over each other’s beats.
In 2003, J Dilla was suffering from health complications related to lupus and the rare blood disease thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), which were both breaking down his body and caused him to be confined to a wheelchair and hospitalized frequently, causing him to end up in debt. He moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and at one point even lived with Common, who would later document this on his 2014 track “Rewind That.” Dilla passed away on February 10, 2006, only three days after his 32nd birthday which also coincided with the release of his final album, Donuts, a collection of instrumentals and samples that Rolling Stone ranked #386 on their list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Several posthumous projects were released, including 2008’s Yancey Boys where Dilla’s younger brother Illa J rapped over his beats.