James DeWitt Yancey “came across like an angel on earth,” singer and songwriter Steve “Spacek” White told Fader magazine in 2006. Most people tend to speak of him this way. His contributions to music were indeed felt as angelic, no matter the alias—John Doe, MC Silk, Jay Dee, or J Dilla. But the James Yancey legacy is wide-ranging. What he contributed to the lives of others was duly as significant.
He was an artist to those who worked with him, but also a son, a father, a mentor, and a friend, with interests beyond music. When he began dating a girl who worked at Detroit’s Dutch Girl Doughnuts, it was the best of both worlds. “He would bring home at least two dozen doughnuts every night after he had already eaten one [dozen],” says his mother, Maureen Yancey. The chances of him bringing home two girls were just as great as him toting his favorite confection. “One won’t do and two is not enough for me,” wasn’t just the chorus to one of his songs. “He was honest, though,” Maureen says with a laugh. “He never lied to a girl. He always told them where home was and who he was with, and let the chips fall where they may.”
Yancey and his mother were a team. It was his mother, as well as his father, Beverly Yancey, who instilled the importance of truth at a young age. “My children grew to detest liars,” says Maureen. “So this is how it was with Dilla. If you promised him something, he expected it. If he was going to be honest with you, he expected the same thing.” Honesty remained a theme in their relationship until his death; Yancey even taught his mother how to roll blunts after he fell ill and his fingers became too swollen for him to prepare his self-described “medicine” for himself.
Yancey was humble and generous, known to rent a limousine during the holidays and take his friends Christmas shopping for their families. He was an honest man, making him an anomaly in a music industry where honesty is ordinarily in scant supply. It was this musical sincerity that attracted fans from around the globe and made him a legend among his peers.
Among these peers was DJ Jazzy Jeff, who recalls, “What separated Jay was that he was uninhibited in his knowledge of music, and he was uninhibited when it came to making his music. A lot of producers say they are, but a lot of us are ‘industrialized’ as I like to call it, meaning we’re slaves to an industry, even when we don’t realize it. We have to do something that radio will find credible, or the hip-hop community is going to understand.
“When radio was a freer space and played music that people liked instead of what people paid for, the music that we heard was created by somebody in their basement being a mad scientist. Jay is a throwback to that time. He’s the guy in the basement.”