James Yancey, better known by his future moniker J Dilla, was captivated by music from an early age. “He was so obedient when it came to learning,” remembers his mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, of her son who passed away in 2006 after battling a rare blood disease and lupus. “He was formally trained in keyboard and piano and was almost five when he started. He was so ahead of his age and was never satisfied with the basic lessons. He wanted to excel and play everything.” As a result, the future producer dabbled in everything from the cello to percussion. “He had an early desire to play drums, but we couldn’t afford a whole set at the time but said I’d do my best. So that Christmas, he got one snare and a really great pair of brushes. It wasn’t a couple months before he was playing them gracefully.”
It was from that bedrock that the young Yancey went on to become one of the most influential producers in modern music, cited as an influence from powerhouses ranging from Diplo to Kanye West for his innovative techniques. West once stated, “We gotta make music and think, ‘If Dilla was alive, would he like this?'” It’s a sentiment widely shared across genres and generations, including by Henry Donahue, the executive director of the Save the Music foundation. “I’ve heard it said that what John Coltrane was to harmony and Louis Armstrong was to melody, Dilla was for rhythm and beats,” explains Donahue. “Everyone from producers to drummers have been profoundly influenced by the music Dilla made.”
Donahue and Save the Music created the J Dilla Music Tech Grant to bring electronic music equipment, software and curriculum to a range of schools nationwide. Created in tandem with i am OTHER (the creative collection spearheaded by Pharrell Williams) and Arizona State University associate professor of music education Evan Tobias, the grant is meant to celebrate Dilla’s legacy by igniting a creative spark in young people who might not otherwise have access to music production tools. “It’s a unique program and we were thinking about how we can structure it so it has the maximum possible impact with kids, musicians and artists,” says Donahue of the thinking behind naming it for the late producer. “i am OTHER came up with the idea that we should have a patron saint for the program, and it had to be someone that when you said that person’s name, people got it immediately. J Dilla was the obvious choice.”
According to Ma Dukes, it’s a way to honor her son’s childhood and the indelible impact of Dilla’s prolific legacy, not to mention his production work for a laundry list of hip-hop luminaries (Common, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots and Busta Rhymes among them) and an avalanche of posthumous material. “In schools, we manage to forget that if you’re not in the top 10 percent you fall in between the cracks if you don’t have someone that watches out for you,” she says.
“We’ve taken everything that would inspire a young person to do something special away, with no thought about what we’re going to do to replace that. I know for myself that it means a ton because it’s made a difference in my own life.” If there is a creative gene, it was no doubt passed on from Ma Dukes (a former opera singer) and Dilla’s father, a jazz bassist who frequently worked with the Harlem Globetrotters, to the young Yancey. “I never knew (if Dilla’s initial foray into music) was his passion from my own desire, since I never learned an instrument,” she says with a laugh. “But it was all easy for him. Growing up, he’d read a music book and within ten minutes he’d come down and play the whole thing. He showed us that he was in love with it.”
The grant traces back to when Donahue was getting feedback from previous Save the Music recipients about the impact of the foundation’s work, which began in 1997. “We wanted to really sit down and hear from the people in the communities we were working in about what they were excited about,” says Donahue. “They said they loved all the stuff we were already doing, like our classic Save the Music grants for band, but there really wasn’t anybody filling this demand for electronic music production, audio engineering, beat-making or DJing.” For Donahue and his team, there was one story that was often repeated. “Kids would come into music class with their headphones listening to hip-hop, and then take a French horn lesson for example, but then they’d put their headphones back on and resume listening to hip-hop on their way out of class.” Thus, the Dilla grant was born to teach the creative process of music today’s students actually listen to. “We wanted to create a solid music curriculum but be about how modern music is created.”
Along the way, the endeavor will enlist artists to provide a bigger push, including recruiting Pusha T, who narrates a new video overview of the mission. In addition, the fruits of Save the Music’s labor will take centerstage at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards, which will officially anoint the grant for the producer and reveal J Dilla-specific content in seven schools nationwide “I have no idea what they’re going to do on the show, but I know it’s going to be magnificent,” says Ma Dukes, who’s grateful that her son’s creative legacy is living on 13 years after his death. “What this means is that even if you’re gone, you’re not forgotten. It’s a way to celebrate the gifts he was given, which continue to be shared among young people. I’m at a loss for words, but just thinking about it fills me up. I know he’d be so proud. He’d be so proud.”