It's a cold, wintry night on Detroit's east side, and Maureen Yancey is packing her bags for the type of overseas trip that normally would make anyone jealous. She's tying up loose ends and crossing items off her to-do list before she's set to hop on a plane and travel across Europe on a short, seven-day jaunt hitting music venues, theaters and nightclubs like a rock star on tour. Just listening to Mrs. Yancey — her voice fatigued yet uplifting — talking of the cities she'll visit, it's hard not to get excited with her.
"Ooh, let's see," Yancey says, trying to accurately recall her itinerary, "we'll be in London, well, actually be in Manchester on the third at the Ruby Lounge, then Brighton at Sticky Mikes on the fourth, then we head to London for a really big affair, then we'll be in Moscow, then Copenhagen, and then we'll be back in Detroit for the event here."
Bands on major labels selling lots of music don't often get that type of treatment but Yancey's presence has been requested in all of these cities plus scores more. Within hip-hop circles, Yancey is a mini-celeb treated with respect.
Of course, it was her son, James "J Dilla" Yancey," who was the famous musician, not her, but each year Yancey travels the globe in order to honor the legacy of one of hip hop's most revered and prolific producers of all time. That he was born and raised in Detroit makes it even sweeter when you consider some of the most well-known songs by artists like Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots, Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson, Common and De La Soul — to name but a few — were produced by a hometown savant who attended Pershing High School.
For many in hip hop, February is known as Dilla month, which recognizes both J Dilla's Feb. 7 birth and Feb. 10 death in 2006. Since J Dilla's passing, various cities such as London, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Berlin and others have staged thrilling tribute concerts each year befitting of a Dilla's genius and caliber.
But the concerts aren't always of the same magnitude in Detroit — previous tributes have been at smaller venues, such as the Shelter and St. Andrew's in Detroit, and at the Bullfrog in Redford. This year, Dilla Day is slated for the Fillmore, a space that is considerably larger and seats roughly 2,200 people (depending on the setup) and typically sells out for well-known national acts. Late last year, Yancey, along with her new business partner, Jonathon Taylor, posited that if Dilla is internationally revered, why shouldn't he be honored at a space that reflects that.
"It's time to raise the bar in terms of how we celebrate J Dilla's life in this city," Taylor says. "People should be coming in from all over the world for Dilla and Detroit. This should attract the attention of people all around the region. The reason we chose the Fillmore is that there are great events all over the world representing this man. It's time for the world to see we love our hometown hero too."
And compared to previous years, this Feb. 10 celebration already feels like a more organized and elaborate affair. Headliners include Busta Rhymes, Phife Dawg of the legendary Tribe Called Quest, Jay Electronica, Guilty Simpson, Phat Kat and Danny Brown as the mainstays, plus J-Rocc of the World Famous Beat Junkies is flying in from Los Angeles to DJ along with Detroit's DJ Dez and Dilla's longtime friend, Bandmate T3 of Slum Village, is co-hosting the event. Oscar-nominated actress Taraji P. Henson was scheduled to be master of ceremonies but had to cancel but will deliver a video message instead. Some of Dilla's longtime friends and associates won't be on hand for several different reasons, and their absence won't go unnoticed, including that of DJ House Shoes.
At any rate, the show still reveals a kind of star-power that Yancey and the organizers wanted, and hope to maintain, at future Dilla Days.
"My goal is for Detroiters to really recognize his name," Yancey says. "Did you know they teach classes at the Berklee College of Music on Dilla? There's even a J Dilla ensemble that travels and plays shows on the East Coast. Other folks seem more knowledgeable about Dilla than folks in Detroit, and that hurts at times. We want Dilla Day to raise awareness here."
One of J Dilla's longtime friends and music mates, Frank Nitt, of the group Frank N Dank, agrees that Detroit needs to properly celebrate Yancey's life.
"I've always felt Detroit didn't recognize his talent and greatness as much as places away from the D, even before he passed," Nitt said in an e-mail. "I think it's dope that Detroit is becoming aware and graduating to bigger venues and a bigger production to honor his legacy. I have mixed emotions though. Because he was my best friend and I watched him work till he had blisters on his fingers, I wonder what took so damn long."
A quick answer is that there's considerably more risk involved with a venue switch like this. Because Dilla as an individual never received significant media attention in Detroit while he was alive and the seminal hip-hop group Slum Village, which he was a part of, never enjoyed much radio play locally, the reality is getting 2,100 people inside of the Fillmore at $25 a pop is a tough sell. It shouldn't be. The headlining acts alone are worth the price of admission — and when you look at the full lineup as a whole — $25 is a steal but it's yet to be seen if fans will come out and show that a leap to a venue this size is financially worth it. Barry "DJ Butter" Yett II feels that, even if the numbers don't shake out by the end of the night, it will still be worth it.
"Dilla needed this ... think of all the people driving down Woodward Avenue seeing his name up on the marquee," Yett says. "This is a big deal and it's long overdue. Whether we fill it up or not, it's about setting that tone where you can put on dress clothes and celebrate Dilla. This is a wake-up call."
Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson, a longtime Dilla pal, spends much time in Europe, seeing Dilla fanatics in each city, put things in a kind of perspective.
"I've noticed other cities have made bigger celebrations in his name and it used to make me upset, but now I understand that this is the way it is," Simpson says. "The true celebration is his music and the impact it has. To travel and see his impact is a true gift though. Dilla is loved worldwide."
Friday, Feb. 10, at the Fillmore, 2115 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-961-5450; featuring special guest Busta Ryhmes, Jay Electronica, Phife Dawg (A Tribe Called Quest), Phat Kat, Danny Brown, Guilty Simpson, Nick Speed Orchestra, DJ J-Rocc, DJ Dez, Chuck Inglish (Cool Kids), Fat Ray and Boldy James; doors at 8 p.m.; $25.