Dilla Day was created to commemorate the legendary production skills of Detroit-born James Yancey, who died Feb. 10, 2006, from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood disorder, and lupus. This time every year, Dilla's peers and friends take time to share their memories of how Dilla touched their lives. It's in that spirit that Phife Dawg of the pioneering group A Tribe Called Quest reached out to Metro Times for a heart-to-heart exchange.
Phife's and Quest's introduction to Dilla came because Detroit-born musician Amp Fiddler gave them some of Slum Village's demo tapes. "Basically we were on Lollapalooza tour in '94. Beasties and P-Funk were on tour. Amp Fiddler [then in P-Funk] kept telling us about J Dilla, and that we needed to meet," he says. "So when we hit Detroit at Pine Knob, he came on our tour bus and played mad beats, and the rest was history."
Tall tales of Dilla clocking long studio hours have grown into hip-hop lore. "Watching his day-to-day operation on how he worked: wake up, shower, eat breakfast, run to the record (store) for a few hours, come back, pick the record he wanted to sample, and make a beat in 10 minutes flat — it was crazy," Phife says. "I just remember begging him for 'The Light' beat he gave Common. Once he said Common, I let it go. That beat was perfect for Common and my favorite that he played that day."
Phife says his two favorite Dilla tracks are "Find a Way" and the Rodney Franklin-sampled "Wordplay" (A Tribe Called Quest, 1996), and still calls on native Detroit crooner and longtime Dilla collaborator Dwele to particulate on current projects.
When Dilla died in 2006, it was one of the first times hip-hop and health were put in the same sentence. For many years, a lot of hip-hop artists promoted over-indulgence and careless living. However as hip-hop artists have gotten older, they have been more public with their health issues. Fat Joe and DJ Khaled have both talked openly about weight loss. Prodigy from Mobb Deep and T-Boz from TLC have both had sickle cell anemia for much of their lives. Phife has a well-documented battle with diabetes that led to him getting a kidney transplant in 2008. He cites Dilla as one of the reasons he went public with his own ailment.
"It made me talk about it more, and not want to keep it a secret any longer; it made me open up and cherish life a little more," he says.
In honor of the 10th anniversary of Dilla's death, there are two major official Dilla events in Detroit this week:-
On Sunday, Feb. 7, the fifth annual Dilla Youth Day takes place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Presented by the Foundation of Women in Hip Hop, the event celebrates beat making and DIY youth culture; starts at noon; 315 E. Warren, Detroit; thewright.org; Free.On Friday, Feb. 12, Jay Electronica, Illa J, Amp Fiddler, Nolan the Ninja, DJ Butter, and more perform at Bert's on Broadway; Doors at 8 p.m.; 1315 Broadway St., Detroit; dillatroit.com; General admission is $20, VIP is $50.