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J Dilla's Ma Dukes on "Welcome 2 Detroit" at 20, 5 Things to Know

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Friday, February 5, 2021

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The late J Dilla was a lauded hip-hop producer and remixer well before he struck out on his own, with credits including A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots, the Pharcyde, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and many more -- plus his work as a member of Slum Village.

But it was his debut album, 2001's "Welcome 2 Detroit," that gave the world a true earful of his own artistry.

Following Slum Village's "Fantastic, Vol. 2," "Welcome 2 Detroit" showcased not only Dilla's songwriting and production work but also vocals from fellow Detroiters such as Dwele, Phat Kat, Frank-N-Dank, future Slum Village MC Elzhi and more. His career as both artist and producer continued to ascend from there, insuring a legacy that's lasted well after his death in 2006 at the age of 31 from a variety of health issues.

"Welcome 2 Detroit" will be celebrated with the Friday, Feb. 5 release of "The 20th Anniversary Edition," a 7-inch vinyl box set whose 12 discs contain the original album plus outtakes, alternative mixes and two new song interpretations, with book featuring an oral history of the sessions. And Dilla's mother Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey, who established the charitable J Dilla Foundation after his death, has nothing but happy memories about that period of her son's creative life, noting that "it was one of the grandest and most profound, classic pieces that Dilla ever did was that project...

• Yancey says that while it took Dilla (real name James Dewitt Yancey) a minute to step out with his own album, "I remember how happy he was doing it. It was a more personal collaboration for him. For the first time he was allowed full creative control, so that was huge for him. It wasn't about the money for him. It was just that someone (Britain's BBE Music) had that confidence and felt that sure about what he would bring to the table. It meant a lot, just the freedom and encouragement and boosting of morale that came with it."

• She adds that the relationship with BBE (aka Barely Breaking Even) and particularly co-founder Pete Adarkwah was something Dilla valued throughout his life. "He never lost that personal friendship with Pete. Even when he wasn't working on a project, if he had a minute he'd go and spend time with him, go and do some record shopping or something. (Dilla) almost never left (the studio) -- he was always working and crafting. But he took time out to spend time with Pete and BBE."

• Yancey -- who operated a child care center during the days while Dilla worked overnight in his basement studio -- remembers well hearing the music that was being created for "Welcome 2 Detroit" in real time. "I enjoyed it from the very beginning. I would hear it whenever he'd take the headphones off and play it on (the speakers), or he'd take me to the store and play it in the truck. He had special woofers and bass instruments built into the back seat, and we used to bounce off the road. I used to think it was so ridiculous -- until I got the opportunity to drive it. He would always go in and play it (in the truck) to make sure it was right. He played me a lot of things until he felt it was right and (the album) came out."

• Dilla was also disciplined in the studio and expected the same from those who worked with him. "If you weren't on time and weren't totally serious about the business, it was over," Yancey recalls. "You had a time to be with him. It was about commitment and honor. He was a stickler for that. If you disrespected him and didn’t have respect for the music, he was not gonna be bothered and that's all there was to it."

• In addition to posthumous releases for Dilla's vaults, the J Dilla Foundation is also continuing its work, primarily with youth education and including the J Dilla Tech Grant program, which has expanded to middle schools around the country and recently added Detroit's Central High School. "It's always an ongoing thing," Yancey says. "Dilla never stops. The annual celebration (for his Feb. 7 birthday) has run through July the past couple of years, and with the pandemic we'll do what we can virtually. It really never ends."

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