James Yancey, who was also known as J Dilla and Jay Dee, passed away at age 32 on February 10, 2006. While to some, how J Dilla died will be part of how he is remembered, for others, it will be the indelible mark that the legendary hip-hop producer and rapper left on the music world.
Dilla was born in Detroit, MI, on February 7, 1974, to parents Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey and Beverly Dewitt Yancey, who were also musically inclined. His mother was an opera singer, and his father a bassist.
In an oral history interview from 2016 with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mrs. Yancey said that her son had always been serious about music, had played several different instruments, and had taken piano lessons before he was five years old, “even at a very early age he knew that this was his niche in life, he knew that’s what he was here for.”
The prolific producer worked with hip-hop and R&B artists such as The Roots, A Tribe Called Quest, Common, Erykah Badu, and Eminem. “Eminem was at my gate every day at 5:45 waiting for six o’clock to come because he knew what time my daycare kids would leave and what time he could come in,” Mrs. Yancey told the museum.
How did J Dilla die?
Dilla, who died at home, had been hospitalized at the end of summer 2005 at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. During his time there, he created two songs for his final solo album Donuts, which dropped three days before his death, according to the Detroit Free Press in an article covering how J Dilla died. The outlet also stated that he was barely able to talk, unable to walk, and had problems with his hands. Billboard reported that J Dilla later died due to complications from lupus. “The day before he passed away, he was at the table in his wheelchair on that machine working…he would have it no other way,” his mom told the museum, stating that she took care of him the last two years of his life day and night.
A year after his death, Dilla, who produced “Wordplay” for A Tribe Called Quest, received the PLUG Award for Artist of the Year posthumously. In 2015 the late rapper Phife Dawg spoke to Vulture about the collaboration. “It’s a dope record because J Dilla is known for his drums, kicks, snares. The bass line is crazy.”
During a video montage at the PLUG Awards, the musician and producer was honored by his mother and artists such as Pharrell and Common, for whom Dilla produced the Grammy-nominated song “The Light.” MTV has called “The Light” “one of the few classic modern-day rap love songs.”
Since his passing, artists like Questlove have spoken about how his death impacted them. While at the ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), “I Create Music” Expo in Hollywood in May 2019, according to Billboard, the frontman for The Roots stated, “When he passed away, that really hit me super hard,” the Oscar winner and bandleader for the “The Tonight Show continued. “I stopped making music. Unless it was a Roots album, I pretty much had stopped working and collaborating with other people.”
What was J Dilla’s cause of death?
One of the first indications that J Dilla had health issues was in January 2002, after he returned from Europe. The producer went to his parent’s house complaining that he had a cold or the flu, according to the Detroit Free Press. His mother took him to the emergency room, where it was discovered that his blood platelet count was significantly lower than it should be.
He was ultimately diagnosed with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura or TTP, a rare, incurable, and life-threatening blood disorder. According to the National Lung and Blood Institute, TTP causes blood clots to form throughout the body, limiting blood flow to your organs. The clotting from TTP also “uses up your platelets,” leading to low platelet counts.
Dilla would be in and out of the hospital for several years because of his condition, and he also had kidney failure and would have to have dialysis. Then in 2005, weeks before his 31st birthday, he was diagnosed with what appeared to be lupus, according to the Detroit Free Press. This chronic autoimmune disease can affect the skin, joints, heart, lungs, kidneys, circulating blood cells, and brain, per the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
The producer passed away on February 10, 2006, and how J Dilla died, according to his mom, was from cardiac arrest—the New York Times reported that Mrs. Yancey stated that he had had lupus and had recently been hospitalized for pneumonia.
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