If you have been to an underground Hip Hop show in the past three years odds are good that it included a tribute to James “J-Dilla” Yancey, the legendary producer who died of Lupus early in 2006, leaving behind a staggering legacy of great music, timeless beats and devastated fans and friends.
In death J-Dilla has been elevated from a beloved cult musician to a bona fide icon, a musical martyr. Dilla has been eulogized by everyone from The Roots to Bun B to Little Brother. Termanology, Busta Rhymes and Dilla’s close friend and Jaylib partner Madlib have put out entire albums dedicated to the late rapper-producer. Busta Rhymes put out the essential mixtape Dillagence, a collection of his released and unreleased collaborations with J-Dilla, Termanology followed suit by rhyming over nothing but Dilla beats on the recently released mixtape If Heaven Were a Mile Away and Madlib created the fifth and sixth installment of his Beat Konducta series in his late partner’s honor. Dilla’s younger brother Illa J recently released another powerful Dilla tribute in the form of his debut, Yancey Boys, an album that finds the younger Yancey brother rapping and singing over beats left over from Dilla’s Labcabincalifornia days.
This tidal wave of heartfelt emotion and honest appreciation for a Hip Hop pioneer has warmed my black and shriveled heart. Alas, this culture-wide outpouring of love towards Dilla won’t feed his children or his mother. Neither, alas will the royalties to Dilla’s music. According to a Vibe articled linked to on the Stones Throw website , Dilla’s estate is a mess.
Yancey left behind a stack of unpaid IRS bills in “the healthy six figures” and an ugly morass of clearance issues regarding the songs he sampled and a mother and two children who have only recently started to see a tiny trickle of money from Dilla’s estate. In the eyes of Andrew Irk, Dilla’s accountant and the executor of his estate, all those loving tributes are just unauthorized uses of Dilla’s intellectual property. Irk sent out cease-and-desist letters to musicians using Dilla’s beats (expect one soon, Termanology), recently ended litigation with Rhymes for not properly clearing the tracks featured on Dillagence and put out an ad in Billboard asking people to stop using Dilla’s music without payment or authorization.
To make matters worse, Dilla’s mother, lovingly nicknamed “Ma Dukes” was diagnosed with Lupus herself and lives in an impoverished neighborhood after losing her home while caring for Dilla in his dying days.
It’s easy to single out Dilla’s accountant and lawyer as the bad guys in this sad saga but it’s a lot trickier than that. It’s an ugly situation with no clear winners and lots of losers that casts a morbid pall over Dilla’s loving legacy of beats and rhymes.