Local Current Blog

Twin Cities Dilla Day: Local musicians celebrate an underrated hip-hop genius

J Dilla, as seen on the cover of 'Donuts'

This year marks the tenth anniversary of rapper and producer J Dilla’s death, as well as the release of his seminal album Donuts. This weekend, Twin Cities Dilla Day events will honor the legendary Detroit beatmaker, whose work continues to live on through his dedicated fanbase.

“People were starting to do Dilla Days around the world in honor of J Dilla, but without contacting his mother, the sole controller of the foundation and the head decision maker,” said Reies Romero, the chair of the local Dilla Day committee and an official representative of the James Dewitt Yancey Foundation in Minnesota.

The first Dilla Day in the Twin Cities occurred in 2007, but didn’t happen here again until 2013. This year, there will be four events in honor of J Dilla spread throughout the Twin Cities. Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, Dilla’s mother, will attend all of them.

“I feel he should be represented as the genius he was, not by a nickname of sorts,” Ma Dukes said of the establishment of the foundation. “He should go down in history as a full-grown educated genius.”

For the uninitiated, James Dewitt Yancey began his prolific career under the name Jay Dee as a member of the hip-hop group Slum Village in the 1990s, but quickly grew a reputation in the underground scene for his soul-sampling, hypnotizing rhythms. It’s a sound you feel in your bones that compels you to tap your foot or nod your head along to the beat.

“Dilla was exposed to all genres of music from birth on,” Ma Dukes, a classically-trained singer, said. “His introduction to classics was daily in the womb.”

Of Dilla’s work ethic, Ma Dukes said, “What sticks out most was his love for his craft and his refusal to dish out incomplete work. Dilla’s work was his God-given talent, and you don’t offer seconds to passion.”

After gaining recognition among his collaborations with the likes of Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes, and Q-Tip, Dilla was invited to become a member of the production collective the Ummah, which produced almost all of A Tribe Called Quest’s fourth and fifth albums. Dilla was also a founding member of the Soulquarians, a neo-soul and hip-hop collective including Erykah Badu, Questlove, Common, and D’Angelo. He began his solo career under the name J Dilla in 2001 as to not be confused with Jermaine Dupri, who also goes by the name J.D.

“He set the bar very high for production and producers,” Romero said. “His mindset, and the passion that he had — that you could feel in [his music] — is motivation for social change, is motivation for social justice, is motivation for self-determination and self-consciousness.

“His beats and his production were very unique and eclectic, and something that would really break your neck,” Romero said as he described Dilla’s stylistic touches. “He’s a superhuman being if you ask me. He brought the beautyness of hip-hop back, and he influenced a lot of different artists and people on to perfect their craft in such a way that they wanted to do the best they can.”

Suffering from complications brought on by lupus in his final days in the summer of 2005, Dilla produced the majority of Donuts while hospitalized, with just a sampler and record player. Considered by many to be his magnum opus, the result is a spiritual, joyful message that manages to blend humor, emotion, and his farewell to the world among 31 purely instrumental tracks, none over 2-minutes long. Each sample is recontextualized from a nostalgic era under Jay’s control. The title simply refers to Dilla’s love of donuts, but its circular structure mirrors that of life itself (the record begins with an outro; its final beat is “Welcome to the Show”).

Romero began organizing Dilla events from a place of steady, deep love. “I have been riding with J Dilla since he was known as Jay Dee. I’ve been DJing for 25 years, and I would specifically look for that name on production credits,” he said.

Dilla has a dedicated, cult-like following of people who appreciate his music. Even though it’s been a decade since his passing, hundreds of unreleased tracks and beats continue to come from his estate. Last year saw the release of Dillatronic, a collection of 41 unreleased beats, while this April, what was supposed to be his 2002 major label debut on MCA Records, The Diary, will finally see the light of day. Yet in mainstream circles, Dilla rarely receives credit where credit is due.

“Our youth need to know who J Dilla is. He’s up there with all the great emcees in hip-hop, the pioneers who have passed away, the Biggies, the Pacs,” Romero said. “J Dilla needs to be talked about as much as all of those others.”

“That’s why I do this,” Romero went on to say. “We could have Tupac Day, or Biggie Day, but Jay doesn’t get as much recognition. I think it’s my duty, and we do this to keep his legacy and his memory alive. We’re doing this to teach youth how to use hip hop in a positive way to change their lives in their communities.”

“Dilla’s work will be timeless and reach the minds and hearts of people throughout eternity,” Ma Dukes said, “just as other classic composers.”

Beginning Friday, the weekend events will take place at Augsburg College, 7th Street Entry, and Bedlam Lowertown.

“The Legacy of J Dilla” will be held at Augsburg College this Friday, from 5-7 p.m. in the Christensen Center building in the East Commons. It will feature an in-depth panel discussion featuring Ma Dukes, RDM, Chadwick Miles Phillips, followed by a premiere film screening of the documentary “Twin Cities Loves Dilla.”

“Dilla Day Minneapolis Edition – Day 1,” the night party, will be held at the 7th St. Entry from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. It will feature beat wars, Carnage the Executioner, Niles, OSP, Princeton Brown, DJ D. Mil, and DJ Francisco. 18+, $10 adv., $12 at door.

This Saturday, 2:00 to 4:30 p.m., at the same location at Augsburg, there will be a hip-hop power yoga workshop, done to all Dilla instrumentals, led by Vie Boheme. Afterward, there will be a Traditional Hip-Hop Movement class.

“Dilla Day St. Paul – Day 2,” that night between 10:30 p.m. and 2:00 a.m., in the Bedlam Theater in Lowertown, St. Paul, will also feature Vie Boheme along with Gene Poole, JaysoCreative, Voice of Culture, Kapulli Yaocenoxtli, and DJ Dan Speak. Hosted by Truth Maze, there will also be live painting by St. Paul Slim and Lady D. 21+, $10 adv., $12 at door.

Peter Diamond is a senior at the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities and a sound and vision editor of The Wake Student Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @repetediamond.