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J Dilla's beat goes on

Paul Farber

J Dilla was one of Detroit's most prolific and respected hip hop producers. He died in 2006, but his music still inspires his fans around the world. And now his Mom is using his name to support music education in his hometown.

Ann Arbor, MI James "J Dilla" Yancey was one of Detroit's most prolific yet understated hip hop producers. When he passed away in 2006, he left behind a large library of hip hop beats. As Michigan Radio's Paul Farber reports, J Dilla's family wants to make sure his music continues to have an impact on young musicians from his hometown.

Everyone from hip hop artists to classical composers has resurrected J Dilla's sounds. J Dilla's mother Maureen Yancey, better known to her son's fans as Ma Dukes, is ready to put J Dilla's legacy in Detroit on the right track.

"We want his name to stand for education of music," explains Ma Dukes. "We want his name to stand for love of music, love of people, and that listening ear."

J Dilla was only 32 when he died from lupus complications. He spent the final months of his life in a hospital in Los Angeles. His mom left Detroit to be by his side, and she even helped smuggle recording equipment and turntables into his hospital room.

Now Ma Dukes wants to nurture the next generation of Detroit musicians through the newly re-launched J Dilla foundation.

"He'd love it," she says, "he loved anything for education. If it was something to be learned, he'd be so happy. I know he's smiling now about that. And he'd say, "That's what's up lady." That's exactly what he would say."

The foundation expects to receive non-profit status later this month and they already have a few projects on deck. They're donating used instruments and recording equipment to Detroit schools. They will also team up with a handful of Detroit's neediest schools to provide music lessons and resources in a new program called The Dilla Factor. Big Tone is a Detroit rapper who also sits on the Foundation's Board.

"When you're at the bottom, there's nowhere else to go, so that climb up is contagious," says Big Tone. "He created a movement, and I think people want to learn more about that. And in wanting to learn about you just want to learn about music."

Dilla was a musician's musician. He was famous for taking dusty old soul samples and reinventing them as neo-soul classics. But he was also known for collaboration and showing up-and-coming artists the way: Two things that translate well in a classroom. Big Tone should know. J Dilla gave him his first big break.

"J was able to take that and put you platform to where the world could hear what you were doing. That blessing for me, personally, makes me want to turn around and do that for other people."

Ma Dukes and her board of directors are using grants to fund their projects. They're also tapping Dilla's celebrity pals and endorsement deals for help. Ironically, for a foundation so focused on uplifting Detroit, some of their earliest support has been from individuals way outside the city. Their first contribution was a $7.00 donation from a fan in Malaysia.

"He was always loved internationally," explains Ma Dukes. "It was at home where he didn't have the love. So now it's time to open our eyes and ears and let us know this our child, Michigan's child."

By renewing Dilla's connection to Detroit music and local schools, Ma Dukes wants her son's beat to go on.

Ma Dukes will be at the Charles Wright Museum in Detroit on April 16 for a special screening of Timeless, an orchestra adaption of some of Dilla's best beats. The free event starts at 6pm.

To learn more about the J Dilla Foundation click here

- Paul Farber, Michigan Radio Newsroom