From age two, Yancey’s life was nothing but music—an incomparable passion in a music-laden family that included grandfather William James Yancey, a pianist in the silent film industry, and an uncle, Clemmer Yancey, a noted writer, arranger, and singer on the local Detroit circuit. Yancey’s first formal instrument training came on piano and cello, where he learned to read music before taking up drums, flute, and guitar. The family lived in Detroit’s roughly hewn Conant Gardens neighborhood, where Maureen kept her son out of harm’s way by requiring that church act as an alternative to any potential maleficence. If Yancey wasn’t at home working on music, he could be found singing in the Vernon Chapel AME youth choir, or as an acolyte for Holy Communion. He served as a both a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout, and was a member of Vernon Chapel’s Young People’s Division where he was active in community service.
After graduating from Farwell Middle School, Yancey enrolled at Davis Aerospace Technical High School, sparking a struggle for independence in the Yancey household. “He didn’t want to be at Davis,” Maureen recalls, “But he was just excellent at physics, so I thought that maybe he would warm up to it, but he was interested in music. He ended up practically turning Davis into a dance hall, because every time I turned around he was going to DJ some party.”
The technical curriculum at Davis helped Yancey develop a mathematical approach to music composition, but he found other aspects of the experience stifling, particularly the attire. “He hated wearing his Air Force ROTC uniform,” says Maureen, who went back and forth with her son in a “three-year fight about him being at Davis.” The conflict grew when Yancey began working with musician Joseph “Amp” Fiddler, who lived within walking distance from the Yancey home. Fiddler was an accomplished keyboardist, producer, and composer, best known for his tour work with George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars. His home studio—Camp Amp—was training ground for many of the neighborhood’s young musicians. “That’s where we bumped heads,” Maureen explains, “because he was supposed to be at school early for lab class, but he was at Amp’s all night in the studio.
“I didn’t realize that Amp was doing sessions at that time. Dilla didn’t tell me he was helping Amp. Amp would let him engineer certain sessions, but he never told me! His dad and I didn’t have a clue that he was as involved as he was, and that he was learning that much. He didn’t talk about it because he wasn’t supposed to be at Amp’s. He was supposed to be at school—at a school I wanted him to excel in!”
Yancey was stubborn, but above all, was “a great kid,” says Maureen, who eventually understood the nature of her son’s resolve. At times, adults may underestimate or overlook a child’s ambition due to his or her youth, but in many instances, children have a clear idea of their life’s path at an early age. At two, Yancey knew his mission was to make music, even though his mother had other plans for his future. “When you know that music is in your heart,” she says, “you have to follow that, and it helps if you have your parents’ support.” The Yanceys were a close-knit family, and Beverly and Maureen both open-minded caregivers, so Yancey was ultimately awarded their blessing.
“My husband and I had many different interests…we did a lot of different things,” Maureen explains. “But James was totally into his music. It was like it ran through his veins.” – read full J Dilla Biography written by Ronnie Reese via j-dilla.com
WATCH J DILLA DOCUMENTARY PT. 1 of 3 (2010) presented by STUSSY // PRESS*PLAY>>