We’ve all heard the throbbing drum patterns, the galactic chords, and of course the exotically chopped vocal samples. But J Dilla’s overwhelming impact on hip-hop music is not only based on the groundbreaking material he left behind. It’s knowing that he could have done so much more if he was just given the chance to live another day.
Three years after the producer’s untimely death due to complications from lupus, his legacy is still evident in all aspects of the hip-hop community, big and small. Artists continue to yearn for his unused beats, fans show their support through tribute tees, and classic records such as The Pharcyde’s “Drop” and Common’s “The Light” are treasured by many. In fact, J Dilla’s younger brother, Illa J, a recording artist himself, released his debut album last year titled Yancey Boys, entirely produced by his older brother.
Despite J Dilla’s recognition as one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all-time, his mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, has been struggling to make sense of the dilemmas involving her son’s complicated estate. Ma Dukes has never received any proceeds from J Dilla’s assets and there is still growing controversy regarding the use of her son’s beats today. The many memorial events held in J Dilla’s name also didn’t help her family’s difficult financial situation, including two young granddaughters left behind to support for.
J Dilla was first diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease, and TTP, a rare blood disorder which causes blood clots to form in small vessels throughout the body, in January 2002. For over three and a half years, the Detroit-native battled his troubling health issues and continued to craft and perform beautiful music for the millions who listened. It wasn’t until the end of the summer in 2005 when J Dilla’s health quickly deteriorated and he was forced to be hospitalized in Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Slowly but surly, J Dilla was dying.
It was here where the influential producer fought the odds and worked tirelessly to complete his first instrumental album, Donuts, despite loosing his ability to walk and nearly being unable to talk. Ma Dukes refused to leave to her son’s side and as a result, she and her husband lost their home after failing to fly back to Detroit in time to file for bankruptcy. Donuts was released on J Dilla’s 32nd birthday, February 6, 2006, on Stones Throw Records to universal acclaim, a presumed classic. The excitement was short-lived, however, as J Dilla died just three days later.
J Dilla’s will called for his estate to be distributed among his mother, two daughters, and brother, but the estate’s executor, Arty Erk, claims that payments weren’t made immediately because of Dilla’s heavy six-figure tax debt. Erk is also facing the problem of rappers who are continually using J Dilla’s unreleased beats without legal permission. Erk and Micheline Levine, J Dilla’s attorney, are trying to settle business negotiations with these artists so Dilla’s estate receives the proper payments it deserves. This predicament is exemplified in rapper Termanology’s track titled “Pay Jay” off his recent mixtape, If Heaven was a Mile Away, which is fully composed of already existing J Dilla beats.
Furthermore, a group of entertainers and individuals were notified about their restriction from using J Dilla’s name or likeness for commercial purposes, including Ma Dukes. Ma Dukes, who is now suffering from lupus herself, had hopes of starting a foundation in J Dilla’s name but now plans using her own. She has stopped communicating with Erk and has since hired an attorney.
J Dilla’s youngest daughter, Ja’Mya, 7, has recently been receiving payments from her father’s estate after a petition was filed by her mother, Joyleete Hunter. Monica Whitlow, the mother of Dilla’s oldster daughter, Paige, 9, is being represented by Ma Duke’s attorney. Erk hopes that Paige should be receiving payments by the beginning of 2009.
While the problems surrounding J Dilla’s estate linger on, the man’s enchanting music becomes more significant as time takes its course. J Dilla was undoubtedly ahead of his time and although his name was relatively unknown to casual hip-hop listeners, his music definitely didn’t go unnoticed.