Jordan Ferguson, author of the forthcoming 33 1/3 on J Dilla’s Donuts (Spring 2014) went to Detroit and Toronto to cover “Dilla Day.” This is what he has to say about it….
I have a conflicted relationship with the month of February.
On the one hand, it’s terrible: the days are too short, the nights are too cold, the joy of the holidays are long in the rearview and the blooming buds of April just out of reach. On the other hand, February brings Dilla Month, remembering the life and commemorating the untimely death of the influential hip-hop musician James “J. Dilla” Yancey.
In the seven years since J. Dilla passed away from complications of lupus, fans have reserved the first weekend in February to congregate in clubs and concert halls around the world and celebrate his life and work. Parties are thrown from New York to London, LA to Tokyo, but none of them could match the emotional resonance of the concert held in his hometown of Detroit on February 9th, 2013. Considering I’ve spent the better part of a year immersed in the man’s music working on the 33 1/3 guide to Donuts, I felt like I had to make sure I attended.
As it happened, Toronto’s Dilla Day party, “For the D,” fell on February 7th, with a set by Beat Junkies founder and close Dilla colleague J. Rocc on the 8th. I figured, “Why have just Dilla Day, when I could have Dilla weekend?”
As amped as I was about the trip to Detroit, I was maybe more excited by what I might find at the Toronto events. For most of my life, my love of hip-hop (and J.Dilla) was kind of a private matter. That’s not to say I had to hide it, but growing up in small town Canada in the 80s and 90s, most people in my social circles weren’t as passionate about it as I was; I couldn’t really connect with them about it, so I didn’t try to. The opportunity to bring be in a room full of like-minded people was a very appealing prospect to me.
The event on the 7th was an intimate affair, due in large part to a monster snowstorm that pummeled the city that week, but the crowd that did show up surprised me. While there were a lot of old timers like me head-nodding and raising their hands in quiet appreciation, what I never would have expected was how many young people were in the building. These kids were in elementary school when Dilla’s first productions for A Tribe Called Quest or The Pharcyde were blowing my hair back, but there they were, braving the cold and the snow to vibe out and pay their respects. It was wonderful to see.
The band that night, a local ensemble called The Re:Verse Quartet, impressed me as well, playing an hour-long, uninterrupted suite of Dilla hits [“Stakes is High”, “Dynamite”] and deeper selections [“Circus,” “Body Moving”] that kept us bobbing until last call.
My attendance at the J.Rocc set was up in the air until the minute I left the house. I’m not a young man anymore, and with a 7:00 a.m. train to the Detroit area the next morning and a fresh pile of snow dumped on the city, if any show was going to get cut, it would have been that one. If it had, I would have missed one of, if not the best single performances by a DJ I’ve ever seen. Not because there were wild displays of turntablism, though there were flashes of that. Not because I heard the rare and unreleased beats J.Rocc’s accumulated over the years, though there were a few of those as well. It was an amazing show because his song selection was impeccable [including the best timing of Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” I’ve ever heard] and because it was evident to everyone in the place that playing music for a crowd brings him a significant amount of joy. He just loves music, all types, he loves sharing it with people, and that love is infectious. It was great fun, which made rolling down to the train station on an hour of sleep a little more bearable.
Heading into Detroit’s Filmore Theatre the following night, it was clear the party was as much a celebration of Detroit’s renewal as Dilla’s life, appropriate considering how synonymous the man is with his hometown. Much has been written recently about the revitalization of Detroit, how artists and innovators in search of cheap real estate and opportunity have been coming back to the city, bringing a renewed sense of optimism with them. While it takes more than one night to get a sense of a city, the mood in the Filmore was celebratory and hopeful.
Despite over six hours of nearly non-stop, high-energy performances from local crews and headliners MCs like Talib Kweli, Royce da 5’9” and violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, I found the quieter moments the most affecting.
An unannounced solo performance of “Think Twice,” by jazz saxophonist Allan C. Barnes provided a subdued and moving tribute not only to Dilla, who recorded a reworked version on his first solo album, but also the song’s original composer Donald Byrd (who passed away earlier in the week). It gave the crowd a chance to catch its breath, reflect on the night so far and enjoy the sound of one master paying respects to another two.
The loudest ovations of the night took place while no music was being played, when the woman who’s worked the hardest to keep Dilla’s legacy alive was brought to the stage, his mother Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey. Most in attendance were familiar with the struggles of the tiny woman with the bottomless energy, who cared for her son as he died, sifted through the disorganization of his estate to ensure her grandchildren are looked after, and now serves as a figurative matriarch to a city’s entire hip-hop culture.
“All you have to do is embrace it. We got it going on. We’re the soul capitol of the world, we run this!” Yancey told the crowd as they chanted Ma Dukes! Ma Dukes!
As Houseshoes, widely regarded as Detroit’s Hip-Hop Ambassador to the world and one of Dilla’s oldest and closest friends during his life dropped Bobby Caldwell’s “Open Your Eyes” (the basis for Dilla’s production on Common’s song “The Light), I took the opportunity to turn from my spot at the front of the stage and get a look at the people around me. The Caldwell song isn’t generally well known, but it’s practically a holy text to a room full of Dilla heads. It might be trite to point out how moving it was to watch different genders and races, total strangers, singing to each other, hands up, waiting for that beat to drop. But that wouldn’t make it any less true.
The Miguel Atwood-Ferguson Quintet performing “Stakes is High” at Dilla Day Detroit.