The late James "J Dilla" Yancey has been compared to icons whose names normally wouldn't be mentioned in the same paragraph as hip-hop artists. Legends like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. It's both intriguing and fitting, then, that Mos Def is coming to Ann Arbor on Martin Luther King Day, to perform in a big band tribute to Dilla.
Let that sink in: big-band hip hop. Mos Def, the award-winning actor and highly respected hip-hop artist, has been known to push the creative envelope. Turns out he's been performing lately with a big band that he pulled together last year. Also turns out that he had a relationship with Dilla. Both were members of the late-'90s collective the Soulquarians, which included the Roots and Common, among others.
"I wanted the concert, all along, to be authentic and inclusive of students and the Detroit hip-hop community. To me, Mos Def was an artist who could deliver that," says Mark Jacobson, program manager for the University Musical Society, which is behind the show along with U-M's Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives. Jacobson got the idea after seeing Mos Def's big band at Lincoln Center in New York a year ago. He happened to be a fan of Mos Def, and J Dilla's Donuts album was a favorite. It didn't take long for the idea to gel.
Dilla's own circle of friends also played into the planning process for the event. Members of Slum Village, old friends like Amp Fiddler, artist Phat Kat and a host of others participated in an advisory committee. Notes from a meeting of guest emcees and producers were passed on to Mos Def, who incorporated them into his rehearsals.
A portion of the proceeds will go to the J Dilla Foundation, which was created by Maureen Yancey, Dilla's mother, to help underprivileged children in the arts and to support research into lupus (the autoimmune disease that claimed Dilla's life).
Dilla, however, is remembered more by how he lived than how he died. He was introduced to music by his parents, and to production by Amp Fiddler in their east side Detroit neighborhood during the late 1980s. He formed Slum Village with friends Baatin and T3 in 1988, but his career as a producer began to take off when he was introduced to rapper Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest in the mid-'90s. By 1996, he'd worked with Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and Los Angeles crew the Pharcyde. He went on to produce for such artists as Common, Janet Jackson and Erykah Badu. Slum Village took off. Dilla produced two complete SV albums before leaving the group in 2001.
Then, about two years later, after embarking on a successful solo career, his health began to decline. He completed Donuts, an instrumental album, from his hospital bed, before dying in February 2006. Longtime friend and producer Karriem Riggins completed Dilla's last official album, The Shining, after his death. Now, thanks to Jacobson, Mos Def and the others behind this show, some of the most important music to come out of Dirty District (Dillaspeak for Detroit) can echo on campus.
At 7:30 p.m. Jan. 21, at Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-764-2538; ums.org.