Maureen Yancey: Ma Dukes to The King of Beats

If you’ve been following my recent blog posts, it’s likely you’ve learned a lot about the who/what/when/where/why of James Dewitt Yancey and the annual celebrations which take place to honor and pay tribute to his life and legacy. This year, I’ve spoken with many artists who were friends and frequent collaborators of Dilla’s, as well as those who did not know him personally but continue to be inspired by his style and musicality.

And then there was that time when I was given the opportunity to interview Ms. Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey. I had the pleasure of meeting this incredible woman in Miami during J Dilla Weekend last month, and no one can smile (and make others smile) the way she can. During the meet and greet at Coyo Taco in Miami on Friday, February 6, fans approached her for an autograph, a photo, a hug.

With so many official events going on around the country this year (and some not so official), the James Dewitt Yancey Foundation (formerly the J Dilla Foundation) and Ma Dukes have traveled from city to city – Miami to L.A. to Philly to D.C. to Detroit – to help support and spread the word of Dilla. I spoke with Ma Dukes at the end of February while she was en route to Philadelphia for the annual Philly Loves J Dilla event, which donates a portion of all proceeds to the Foundation. Check out our interview below where she shared stories of her upbringing, memories of Dilla’s childhood, and plans for the Foundation in 2015.

Where did you grow up?

Detroit, Michigan. I was raised in Black Bottom in Detroit.

Did music play an important role in your upbringing?

Yes, it did. It was like a solace for me. I was very different than my sisters and brothers, and I guess my choice in music showed that. I loved classical and opera, and they liked anything.

How did you come to be an opera singer?

My school teacher in elementary school loved music, and I didn’t mind doing the solos and the arias to different programs. As a matter of fact, I loved it. Even though you didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t the thing to do. But I found out later on, maybe by third grade, that she was an aunt of my sibling. I had no idea. She was the most unpopular teacher in school, so I wasn’t going to tell anybody. Nobody liked her.

So, did you continue to sing throughout your schooling?

Yes, I did. It was like the only thing that seemed to soothe the turmoil in my life. It was the music, listening to music.

At what point were you introduced to Dilla’s father?

I was twenty-three when I met him, and I met him during a Christmas holiday. I auditioned on the phone for him, as he was having some auditions in downtown Detroit for different groups he was working with. And there happened to be a friend of my mom’s and my aunt’s who was home visiting during the holidays. And just like usual, we were partying and enjoying the holidays and talking about old times, and they asked her to put on some music, so that I could sing for her.

Well, I didn’t mind because it was something that you, you know, in a family that loves music, you have to do anyway. And she heard me singing, and she immediately said, “Can you do that again? I want to call someone, and I want you to sing over the phone, if you don’t mind.” So, I did, and I was asked to come down for auditions. And when I came down for the auditions, that’s when I met him.

Every working day, it was rehearsals in the home after he got off work with different groups. He always groomed certain groups and taught harmony and background to different groups. So, every day was somebody’s rehearsal time whether it was a band or vocalist.

Wow, so you really did have music in your home on a regular basis.

Always. Every day. All genres.

Ma Dukes n Dilla

When you started to notice that Dilla had an ear for music, what did the two of you do to support his interest?

Well, we sort of let him guide the way. His interest first was in piano, and so we started the piano lessons. We did do that. He seemed to soak up information so fast, and he was much faster than what the regular student would take, like every weekend going to lessons on Saturdays and things like that. He would be finished with his book by the time it was time to go back. So, you had to go buy him another book and find out what teacher can take him into their class because he was already ready to move forward.

So, that was kind of like a challenge at his age because his age tier was the same, so we had to make sure that it was an age appropriate class and that kind of thing, and that kind of sort of messed it up a little bit, but we just hung in there with it.

And by us being in church at that time and working in different choirs, we had access to other professors of music that had classes or schools that would teach him, so we went through those ranks to expose him to different teachers and kind of build it up.

And then his interest in drumming came about. He wanted to play drums. So, while he did the piano lessons, he also had an interest in drums. So, we bought him his first snare drum, and he made it sound like a whole set of drums!

It was just the way that he spent unconditional time—he never did anything outside of being in school except work on his music, even with the drumming. And that was maybe age nine or ten. He had mastered those, so by eleven, he was playing for our church groups that were around and playing their concerts year round.

I spoke with Frank Nitt about Dilla, and he told me about how they used to do shows at the church.

Yes. Oh, yes. We had hip-hop shows going on at the church. It was really progressive. I’m still trying to get hold of some footage because I know that his godmother has footage of some of the shows.

I asked Frank if there was any video footage, and he says he thinks someone he knows has it on a VHS tape somewhere.

(Laughs) Yes, I tell you! The VHS tape. We’ve gone through all of ours, but the pastor’s wife seems to have some, and she just hasn’t located it. I’ve been trying not to hound her, but we need it really badly, so I might have to go spend a couple days.

Ma Dukes and Frank Nitt

You’re probably all “I can come help you look.”

I’m telling you! Whatever it takes because I know the footage is there. They always filmed everything.

When did it become clear that Dilla would make music his career?

Well, when I couldn’t sway him to change. (Laughs) I tried everything. You know, I tell you. I talk about how I forced him. Well, I didn’t force him to go to aeronautic school. I forced him to stay. He was nominated as the one child per year from his junior high that would get the chance to go to Davis Aero Technical School, and I was elated about it.

He was happy at first except he didn’t understand that there would be no other children from his school going there. He didn’t know that he would be the one child out of that school going because they only open up space for one child from each school. You had to be with the highest academics, and, you know, he’d get to build. So, I was happy, and I wanted to make sure it happened because when those children graduated from high school, they already had a year’s college

So, I wanted that for him because I felt like that might help him to get away and to look at something other than music. I knew too well that everyone that’s gifted with music doesn’t get a chance to get out there. His dad had been professional all his life, and he still kept his job at Ford Motor Company all those years because there’s no certainty to what the music can bring to you. You had really be in the right place at the right time and be really about your craft.

It’s so true. The amount of artists that I’ve interviewed that say they have another job.

Yes because he had to survive. A starving artist is not a joke.

What is one of your best memories that you have of him doing what he loved most?

Oh my goodness. One of my best memories is seeing him play for the first time at a school concert with his cello because he’d never bring it home. He’d bring it only by force, and he never played it when he got it home. So, all of his time that he used it in class, and he absorbed it in his mind and things like that. He never played around any of us. He was embarrassed because children made fun of him because he had a cello. It was worse than being a violinist.

If you weren’t playing the drums or guitar, you’re not popular, especially in the area where we lived. Children just didn’t warm up to it. And a cello was as big as Dilla. He was small, and he would almost cry. He’d have to catch the bus home with that cello, and he just refused to do it. And he walked slow, and it was not a short walk. He cut alleys, and he didn’t want to be seen with it. He loved it. It was just that he couldn’t tolerate being picked at about the cello.

I didn’t realize at the time that he was one of those children that would be picked on at school for having academics that were high. All my children had that problem, and I didn’t realize it early. And I finally had to have a sit down family meeting with my kids because I was a proud mom, and I would talk about it at church and different places about various report cards and different things that they would do. And they sat me down and asked me. They begged me, “Please don’t tell anybody about our grades. It’s so embarrassing.”

It was causing them a lot of trouble in school. They didn’t want anybody to know that they brought home A’s. And then, for a while, they thought that it was that they couldn’t bring home anything but A’s because I remember my daughter got a B on her report card and was scared to come home. I thought it was ridiculous. I never said it. It was just that it was the norm that they got all A’s, and they never had to study because they were early taught, and their reading skills were really, really superb. We read. I taught them to read at home early, and when they went to school, they could read, so they were able to comprehend.

Amp Fidller, Ty Townshend, Toney, Illa J, Ma Dukes

At what point did Dilla’s music interests move from the cello or the piano to the MPC and records?

Well, his interests peaked as music became more progressive. His ear was to music every day, all day, nothing else. Nothing else. From the time he got home from school until the time he would fall asleep, or if he’d sneak up sometimes at night and listen and play.

He was always experimenting and working on something. He was sort of scientific in his mind as to how he perceived things. He heard it different than anybody else. He was steadily moving and progressing more than I could even explain.

Being that he was such a shy, private person, how would you explain his large group of friends/peers/collaborators?

Yes. Well, he was a friendly person. He’d give you a moment, but if you were not 100% deeply into your music, if your mind shifted or you wasted any time thinking or talking about anything else, he immediately asked you to leave. He had no tolerance.

He was like that teacher that everyone hates. He used to grumble. He had no patience for anyone that wasn’t 100% about the music. That didn’t mean he didn’t like you. He just thought that it was a waste of time.

Right. He was disciplined.

Yes, he was very disciplined, and that was the way he was about everything.

How did you feel about his decision to move to L.A.?

Well, I was happy about it. It was something, unbeknownst to him, it was sort of a collaboration between Common and myself back and forth about whether or not he might feel better because he had been getting sick. Common sort of thought that maybe he would be more inspired to get deeply back into that happy spirit producing, and he had a change of climate and could get his mind off of being sick for a while.

Cause it was like he was sick for so long, but he still was on the grind. He never stopped producing, he never had a day when he wasn’t in the studio even for many, many hours even if he was real sick. He could have fever, and he could be in bed, but he would still be behind that board.

Amy Fiddler, Illa J, Ty Townshend

Do you feel that his sound or his style changed drastically after he moved out of Detroit?

Not drastically but it did change. He progressed. He went to different genres. He experimented and touched on an Indian type of music and Brazilian music, and he was very much into a Montreaux Jazz type of thing, and so he would be able to interfuse his music. And, yeah, neo soul.

After his passing, how did the idea for the J Dilla Foundation come together?

Well, the idea came together by me talking with Jae Barber. Jae Barber from Los Angeles, he was born in Detroit. I didn’t know him in Detroit, but met him through Karriem Riggins, who he manages, always has, and Elzhi as well. He came to visit me and spent a lot of time with me during the time of James’ illness because Dilla and Karriem were close. And he also spent quality time with me after Dilla’s passing.

You know how everyone seems to be there at that tragic moment, and then it tapers off after the fact? Jae never—he was constant, and he suggested that I involve myself in something to continue to let the world know how great Dilla was. That way I could sort of ease my pain and to grow out of my mourning because I didn’t cry. You know, everybody’s waiting for that moment that I would cry, and it didn’t happen until like maybe a year and a half ago.

But I constantly was on the move, and it’s been a charge for me to keep – to let the world taste and see Dilla. And I knew that he was not a gift for me alone but to give to the world. Jae also realized that and suggested that I do something like perhaps start a foundation and spearhead something that would help other youth to experiment with their thoughts and feelings with music and see what it might inspire them to do. And it felt right because Dilla always liked to help someone to learn. Learning was very big with him. He was a compassionate person and would help anyone.

So, with that thought in mind, we agreed, and he said, “Well, I’ll help you.” He went to one of the biggest law firms in L.A., and we sat down with the attorneys there and decided to start the Foundation. So, it was Jae Barber and myself that started the J Dilla Foundation in California, actually, in 2006. February, matter of fact, the same month that Dilla passed away.

By the end of the month, we had already met with the attorneys and already started the paperwork, and it was all a go. And [Jay’s assistant] also worked with us. She assisted Jae Barber in this capacity. So, the three of us together, we just did it.

I got sick after coming back to Detroit. I had been sick, I guess, for a while. But you know when your mind is 100% on healing someone else.

Yeah, you don’t focus on yourself.

Yes, and nothing else exists but this, and I need to attend to it. So, by the time I got back to Detroit, of course, my health had suffered.


Do you feel that the Foundation’s focus has shifted or evolved?

Yes it has! It has shifted and has evolved to the highest. Actually, this is going to be a key year for the Foundation. We have surnamed it after Dilla’s actual name of the James Dewitt Yancey Foundation, in accordance with its acceptance to the Smithsonian and to show the world that he was a full grown man and not a nickname but that he has definitely earned the right to be called by his surname and let the world know who he really was. We seem to forget about people with nicknames as time goes by. The Smithsonian, certainly, is everlasting in its educational forms in society, and we want his name to be branded as such.

So, we’ve done that. We had so many different initiatives that we were trying to work with. Some were successful, and some, the people just didn’t warm up to, and move forward because you know, when you’re trying to meter out small donations and people doing things and get them together, it’s kind of hard. Everyone’s not on the same page.

So, we really streamlined it to mirror 100% youth, and so, we’re not turning our backs on anyone. We’ll encourage anyone, but we’re certainly putting all our energies and all our fundraising into helping youth and to make sure that we either be a helping hand to build organizations that are already moving forward and need assistance or to 100% add quality to the programs that we have and see that it’s really done in a big way. So, on that note, I certainly feel that we’ve moved upward to move forward.

How do you feel this year’s tribute events measure up against those you’ve attended in the past?

Oh, my gosh. I don’t know. They’re fantastic. It’s like I’m blown out of the water by everything that’s going on this year. I can’t say I haven’t expected it because, like I said, the support is growing, and more people are coming aboard. But we’re still in the middle of the beginning of this, and it hasn’t ended, so I can’t measure yet.

All I can say is, if there is something above cloud nine, we’re certainly there. Everyone is putting 100% into their events, and I think also that those, not just the new people that have come aboard, but those that have been doing the tributes in years previous, everyone has shifted to a higher level. That’s why it’s making it hard.

I’m glad that our events are beginning to take on more days and more hours and add more people to the roster, and the tree is growing stronger. Our Dilla tree is growing stronger, and those that have been by the wayside have come and rejoined us, and we’re doing things in a collaborative way that is just going to be profound. Before the middle of the year, we’ll be talking about why and how and when did it happen.

Dilla Day LA

How did we get here?

Yes! There you go. How did we get here, and where do we go from here? It’s like mind-boggling.

What do you think is the best part about interacting with so many of your son’s friends and fans?

Well, jeez. I can’t put it into words. We had an event yesterday in Detroit, and people were there from the tree, Amp Fiddler and Dez Andres. And DJ Butter, yes. And Dilla’s school teacher that taught him. Yes, Ms. McConnel was there, and I’m hoping to have her come to the event in DC this year when we go to the Kennedy Center.

And, matter of fact, she has to be there. She did groundwork as well with what Dilla’s dad and myself contributed. She did because she taught him in a way that seemed to give him an everlasting love of instruments. To hear her talk about it last night, it has opened up my mind, and things that I had missed previously when she said it, it made me listen more attentively. And I learned a lot that probably she had said a million times. (Laughs)

J Dilla Foundation 1

And you’re only just now starting to hear it.

Yes! I’m so elated that I picked up on so many things that I’m so proud of, and I didn’t think that I could ever be any more proud, but that’s not a fact.

Ms. Yancey, is there anything else that you want to add or promote? I know that you guys are on your way to Philly.

Not at this time, but you know what, I’d be happy to readdress things in a couple of weeks. (Laughs)

Trust me, I would love to speak to you again when you’re here for NY Loves Dilla.

You trot on in. You feel free to call me whenever you like.

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