Remembering J Dilla: Hip hop artist’s legacy inspires hope in troubling times

jdillaDebut story for new Motor City Muckraker reporter Adrienne Ayers.
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It’s been 8 years since the passing of native Detroiter, hip hop artist, producer, and innovator, James Yancey, who was better known to the public and hip hop world as J Dilla.

Declared a musical genius by Slum Village’s T3, who started the group with Dilla while they were teens attending Detroit’s Pershing High School, J Dilla helped change the outlook of ’90s hip hop and Detroit’s success as we know it.

Dilla Day started three years ago and is celebrated throughout the city of Detroit every year on Feb. 7, the date of Dilla’s birth. It gains success every year.

This year, tribute was paid to the fallen artist whose life was cut short due to thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood disease, and lupus, in the form of another annual concert which took place at Detroit’s Fillmore Theater.

Gracing the stage this year were hip hop legends, such as J Dilla’s former group Slum Village, De La Soul, Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, Pete Rock and Dj Premier. The artists, who have all worked with and been influenced by Dilla, came together for a one-of-a-kind concert that took fans back to the days of ’90s hip hop and presented them with plans for keeping Dilla’s legacy alive through new projects, such as the release of “Dillatroit” by another Detroit artist, Moodyman.

Before the legacy was established that led to a citywide celebration, Slum Village artist T3 recalled days when the driving factor for Dilla and the rest of the group making it out of the blighted city was their music and how living in Detroit never discouraged them from making something of themselves.


“Most of the thing was, we just wanted to make it out the inner city,” T3 said. “The music is what kept us out of trouble and the hardships are what kept us focused; it didn’t discourage us.”

The group, who got their start growing up in Detroit’s Conant Gardens, could also relate to the sense of loss and hardship that faces many in the city. They lost losing two founding members. 

When asked about Detroit’s future in the next decade, T3 said it’s important for Detroiters to support each other and foster an environment for business development.

“I see big things for Detroit,” T3 said. “I see businesses being built downtown. We’re in a transition state, and we’re actually not just talking about change; it’s actually being done. People are starting to invest into the city, which brings the city back to its glory.

“I see it happening with my eyes, and it’s been a long time coming.”

Dilla DayAlong with the Fillmore, other venues that participated in Dilla Day included the Detroit 5E Gallery, which presented its Dilla Youth Day Detroit event. 

Maureen Yancey, J Dilla’s mother, attended the event and gave it her official seal of approval as the only official J Dilla Youth Event in the City. 

Attendees, including many young people, were greeted with a full day of J Dilla-related exhibits and workshops. The J Dilla Interactive Experience, for example, included printmaking, scratch 101, and a J Dilla-centered film. There also was a youth showcase that allowed young Detroiters to show off their artistic and cultural talents through poetry, rapping, and break-dancing.

Though Dilla Day may be over until next year, one can look back and say the day was a complete success filled with positive vibes, good music, and community in the name of true Detroit hip hop and the legacy of J Dilla.

Adrienne Ayers

Adrienne Ayers is a senior at Eastern Michigan University, a native Detroiter and graduate of Cass Technical High School. While not busy studying electronic media, film and social work, Adrienne volunteers in Detroit volunteering to improve life for many of the city’s disadvantaged residents.