J Dilla's Mom Ma Dukes Talks Forthcoming Children's Book & Son's Hip-Hop Legacy: 'He Never Put Out Any Trash'

Renita Clarke
Timothy Ann Burnside and Maureen Yancey-Smith (aka Ma Dukes).

Last month, late producer/hip hop artist Dilla's MPC was put on display at the grand opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C. After making a huge splash with his Detroit-based rap group Slum Village in the '90s, Dilla shifted gears to pursue a solo career in 2001. Despite being diagnosed with TTP (the blood disease thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura) and lupus in 2003, he spent several years churning out his magnum opus with 2006's Donuts. An avid lover of samples, Dilla’s eclectic project was glazed with funky sounds and instrumentation that earned massive appeal from music pundits and rappers alike.

For a decade-plus, J Dilla (real name James Yancey and also known as Jay Dee) served up soulful beats for many reputable artists, including Common’s "The Light," D’Angelo’s "Feel Like Makin’ Love," Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know” and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Stressed Out.” After his death in 2006, many artists paid their respects to Dilla through special tributes and projects. In 2007, Busta Rhymes released a collaborative mixtape with DJ Mick Boogie titled Dillagence, featuring unreleased Dilla beats. On Q-Tip’s 2008 offering The Renaissance, the Tribe rapper showed love to Dilla on tracks like "Shaka" and "Life Is Better."

While many artists have kept Dilla's memory alive, no one has been able to match the efforts of his mother, Maureen Yancey, otherwise known as Ma Dukes.

Dilla's mother has played an integral role in maintaining her son's legacy through their family's donut business, Dilla's Delights -- which opened last May in Dilla’s hometown of Detroit -- and her new children's book titled The Life Story of J Dilla. A standard printed version and audio version of the book will be out Nov. 22. The book will highlight Dilla's meteoric rise to music savant through the eyes of Ma Dukes, who also narrates the story. Portions of all proceeds of the children’s book will also be donated to the James Dewitt Yancey Foundation. With a fond appreciation for music and knowledge, Ma Dukes is on a mission to provide a glimmer of hope to inner-city kids with her son's story. 

Billboard recently caught up with Ma Dukes to talk about her son's inclusion in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and her favorite Dilla tribute.

Congrats on Dilla's inclusion in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History. With you and your husband both having musical backgrounds, were you surprised that he turned out to be genius in the realm of production?

No, I ain't ever had a doubt that he was gifted. I was just worried about the world as it stands with being a black man. We have a lot of talented and brilliant black people in every facet of music that have never gotten out the gate. We know that you can be the very best, and something can hold you back as simple as not being the right complexion. But it's a wonderful feeling that he gets to be a part of something that he didn't live to see. Now I understand how hard he worked. He used to always tell me, "You don't know who I am, do you?" But now I do.

Was there a moment during Dilla's childhood when you realized he had a gift in music?

Sure. He would do perfect pitching. I already had classical music lessons so I have an ear. I never learned to play instruments but I can sing in any genre of music. His dad played the black bass, woodwind, and keys. When he played the bass, it soothed [Dilla] enough to go to sleep because he was nocturnal. We didn't get any sleep for a few months. It took us a long time to realize that so many times, he'd fall asleep when his dad was playing the black bass. He'd play it and he would verbalize the perfect pitch. We'd switch it up. We thought it was funny. We didn't think about it in an educational way. He'd switch it up again to try to trip [Dilla] up and he still did it. He mastered the perfect pitch. Anything that he heard, he could do.

Are you surprised with the success he's had even after his passing?

I was shocked at first but then I thought about the person he was. He was a very compassionate person. He didn't seek the limelight or fame. All he wanted was people to appreciate what he did and he never put out any trash. He never liked a quick anything. He had a lot of music that's not even out that's mind-blowing. 

A lot of artists have done tributes to Dilla. Was there one that stuck out to you in particular?

I don't usually judge them because most of them have their own pattern. None of them have touched me to where they had it mastered because they're all creative in their own way. I respect that. What I'm impressed with is people like Robert Glasper who does the work and you can hear all Dilla. He really has embodied that. There's no show that he does without doing a segment for Dilla. He's very serious. A lot of people will still do albums and they make sure that Dilla is on every album like Busta [Rhymes], Erykah [Badu] and The Roots. There was a relationship with Questlove and Dilla as far as how they worked patterns and drums, and they have such a deep respect for each other, even though Dilla is not here.

You have a children's book on the way in honor of Dilla titled The Life Story of J Dilla. What made you decide to go that route?

I'm so excited about it. The world needs to know about Dilla and they need to know what an encouraging young man he was. The fact that he started spinning records at the park at two years old means that there's no age too young [to do what you want to do]. Being a child development associate, I know what gets children's attention and how they love when someone reads to them. For parents that don't have time [to read to their kids], the audio book will take care of them and we have illustrations that are wonderful. It talks about different things. The illustrations were done by a young man named Tokio. He's done beautiful African American illustrations. 

I narrated the book myself. I take great pride in reading the book to the children. We talk about me singing and reading to Dilla before birth and the influences that it took because Dilla mastered every instrument. The one thing [about the book] is to encourage young people to pick up an instrument because that's something that's been taken away from the schools.

You recently opened a donut shop in Detroit named Dilla's Delights. It sold out three times in one day.

Oh my God! We had no idea that people would be lined up around the block. These donuts are completely organic -- there's no preservatives, no sugars, they're healthy, and delicious. When my baby brother made a donut for me while I was getting over an illness, he said, "I'm going to make you a broccoli and cheese donut." I was with my sister, sitting there, and said, "What?" [Laughs] "I don't what no broccoli donut." So when he saw me about a week later, he said, "I got your donut ready." I wasn't ready to pick them up and try it but let me tell you, that was the best donut I've ever had. The broccoli was fresh. The donut was not heavy. It was light. You could taste the flavor of the cheese but you couldn't see it. It was awesome.

What's the best advice you would give to parents who are currently raising kids interested in pursuing music as a career full-time?

Believe in your child. Listen to them when they tell you that they have a passion for something. Don't be afraid because they came with that gift. We were blessed with Dilla at birth. Believe that they've come to bring a great gift to the world. Nurture it. There are no words that can install the pride you'll have and that they'll feel. They'll be a complete individual. You can't raise a whole child if you haven't let them be who they came here to be. Who they came here to be is a gift that God gave them to spread to the world. 

What would you tell your son today?

Thank you. Thank you for looking out for me and your family. We'd be sitting in the couch and we spent three-fourths of the last two years of his life at Cedars-Sinai [Medical Center in Los Angeles]. People thought I worked there. I refused to leave the hospital until he left. Over a dozen times, I was told he wasn't going to make it to the morning. I wasn't taking a chance on leaving. I know he needed me. He was very particular. He wouldn't take medications from anybody -- I had to give it to him.He had to learn how to walk three times because his body would shut down completely. His kidneys were going to failure and everything. Three times. It was a task but he did it. He had to learn how to speak because he would lose his ability to speak. The first time was crazy because he couldn't speak and couldn't write down what he was trying to say. He was so frustrated. I had to just look at him to kind of get an idea of what he wanted to say. That's how it had to be for a few weeks until he learned how to write the letters again.

The last tour that he did from his wheelchair, he said, “I'm going to do this tour. I didn't learn how to walk this last time because I was just tired and in too much pain but I'm going to do this tour." His body was frail. You could tell, but he did it. We went to 14 countries. We toured Europe on trains, plane, and you know, vans, but we did every city that he had promised. It was bitter cold in the U.K. but he still did it.