J Dilla’s Mother Ma Dukes Tells Her Favorite Stories About Her Son
One of the main people that carrying on Dilla’s legacy is his mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey. Ma Dukes is the chairman and spokesperson for the J Dilla Foundation, an organization that looks to introduce inner city children to the arts. She stopped by XXL offices last week to talk about some of her favorite memories of her son, the immortal J Dilla. —Emmanuel C.M. (@ECM_LP)
On Her Earliest Memory Of J Dilla's MusicMa Dukes: Everybody started to come, begging for Dilla to come out. He was very sheltered. We didn't let our kids visit. We don't know how people started hearing his music. I supposed he would take it to school or whatever. They tried to get him to come. I'm still in the same home that he started doing his first beats. Springtime through summer, there was some parents who were very active with children. They would be with all the kids. You got a whole alley full of kids. They got the cardboard out there, they're break dancing, they're singing, they're doing everything. Its like a concert in between the houses. Dilla would ask me, "Can I go out?" I would say, "No, we don't know them out there or what they do." Even though they were friendly and spoke with everyone, I was a more reserved, in-the-house mom and they weren't in my Cub Scouts. They could come to my house, but he couldn't go out there.
So finally, one summer a parent was compelled and came and asked. So this boy's dad, I seen him out there with the boys all the time, he saw what was going on and he came and asked, "Can [Dilla] come?" And he said he's going to be out there the whole time and ask if I [would] come with him. I don't think [Dilla] went that first time, but he did the next. They never gave up, they came back and would ask. Dilla had been, during the time, I guess recess at school, dancing with some of the kids. A kid name Carlos was with him. He used to come by the house and they would play downstairs in the basement; I didn't know that they had been practicing doing routines. He danced like he had no bones in his body. He perfected it by the time he was a teenager. When they had the dance contest, he used to win it every time he went. But that's not something he was free to do at home. [Laughs] His dad didn't want him going out.
It was a few times he was able to go. But that's like giving a kid a candy apple and saying, you can't buy it. When i think about it, we took him to see Breaking. We took him to see all the break dancing movies over and over. We thought it was nice, clean fun, nothing to worry about. We even got to know Turbo. We never thought he was going to take it to another level. We thought it was just entertainment. I didn't know until a little after that, that he was talented in dance and music. I didn't know that he was doing beats and giving them out and kids were rapping on it.
On Dilla's Early CareerMa Dukes: I said, "You need to stop spending so much time on this." I said, "You need to be studying this history." My kids never had to study, they always did their homework. It was never a problem. But I remember seeing his books on the kitchen table for days, and I asked whose it was, and they say it was James'. So i told him, "You need to get in these books." He told me, "Ma, I got that, I just want to do my music." He wanted to go to Amp [Fiddler, producer and early Dilla mentor]'s, and I'm told him no. I didn't know Amp then.
It was a group of them, a lot of them—seven or eight. It was early, during the day, on a weekend and they came back early. No problem, but then he wanted to go back again, so that was like too soon for me to even comprehend. Dilla said, "He's good, and he teaching us how to spin records." He [taught] them how to engineer and everything. But I was still, "You got to go to school for something beyond that." My fear was that, because his dad was an artist, I knew that it wasn't guaranteeing a future no matter how good he was. There's always somebody who is great but never got into the industry. I don't want him to be the one, like the guy on the corner that has two Master's Degrees but he's on the street because he snapped because he didn't make it. You think about all the worst things that can happen when you're a mom. You don't want that. You want something that can guarantee a job.
So I'm trying to guide him. He said, "It don't matter what I do, because at the end I'm going to do my music anyway." I looked at him, it was early in the morning. I said, "What do you mean? You're not going over today." I'm already mad now because he got smart at me. He said, "I'm going to do my music, I just have to suffer the consequences." I'll never forget it. I said, "Are you a fool?" [Laughs] I don't know what I said, probably a profanity. I know I was not happy, and I said something back but I couldn't tell you what it was. But I know he left out the door mad, and I sent his brother Earl out to get him. I thought about it; by the time he got to the corner, I said, "Earl, go get him." Because I must have been real salty in the mouth, because my heart was heavy. We don't argue. He was the most obedient and compassionate child, but he touched a button that day.
Earl went outside, and when he looked down the street, he didn't see [Dilla]. So now I'm like, really worried then, like, what did I do? Because something in me knew that music was all that I ever embraced, and that was my everything. So how dare I take it and try to block it from him? Because thats the only thing that kept me sane. Music was what I needed. So how can I take that from him when i know the healing power of music?
On Dilla "Making It" In MusicMa Dukes: First [time] he heard a song that he made, he came running up the steps. I was in the basement. I had daycare down there, and he would use it after, and I had a small TV in the kitchen. It was Friday, I was collecting daycare receipts and he was running up the steps. Now there's parents here and a lot of the parents are professional people. So I was a little upset that he's hollering and running up the steps. I'm looking at him like, what's going on? [This is] not like him, he never wants to be seen or heard. He's hollering, "The TV, that's my song, thats my music." It was music playing during a commercial. A commercial that was playing for over two minutes. It was a ski commercial. Who ski's in the house? Nobody.
So I'm looking, counting the receipts, and he says, "That's my music, that's my music." It was going on for a while and I'm like, "Wow, they put in a lot of money in that commercial. That's your music? That's huge." And from that moment on, doors had opened for him that I never would have imagined or dreamt about. And I think when I first got the call from Q-Tip's attorney, when they first decided to sign him. He got real excited, but he was reserved. He was the kind of person that [didn't] want to get too excited and [have] something go wrong; he was always apprehensive. He said, "I got a car, I got to go to New York." I said, "For what?" "Well, [the lawyer] going to call you then." I'd heard that before. But she called and she said, "Congratulations, your son is going to make a lot of money." She said, "We're going to fly him out and choose his attorney."
When he did that, I was amazed. Really? An attorney? This is for real. It was insane.
On His Later CareerMa Dukes: As far as music, a year before he passed, when he was in a semi-comatose-like state. He had this dream over and over [for] two days. It started like a fever, but after the fever he was still wasn't himself. He said, "I just want to give my gift back in the world." At the time when he said it, he was in a state where he was on so many monitors and machines and it didn't look good. We didn't know if he was going to make it to tomorrow. So I'm stuck to his bedside. When he said it, he said it more than once. It wasn't back to back, but he [was] in and out of conscious and [would] repeat it. I think that was God's way of letting me know that, despite everything, he wasn't afraid. He was on a mission, and everything in him was for the purpose of giving music for the world.
[That] is what moved him; to see people's faces happy when he spins records. He looked at your face, and if he sees smiles from people or people request to hear a song again, that did everything for him. I felt like it was near the end, and he asked [God] to give him more time so he can give his gift back in the world. This is exactly what I felt in my heart. It was what he loved. It was his one love.