Q&A wth J Dilla’s Mom, Ma Dukes

This article was originally published in BLAC's June 2011 issue.

aureen Yancey’s late son, James “J Dilla” Yancy, was one of the most prolific hip hop producers until his death from complications from lupus at age 32 five years ago. He was the beat master elevated to cult-like status by major artists like Busta Rhymes, Slum Village, Common and Erykah Badu.

When he passed, the struggle his mother, known as Ma Dukes, endured to control the rights to her son’s material and gain access to his estate was like a hip hop nightmare set to a blues beat. She wanted to see his two daughters financially secure. She had even lost her home while caring for Dilla during his two-year illness.

Yancey, a native Detroiter, is a gospel, jazz and once-aspiring opera singer. She and her husband operated Harmonie Park’s old Club Grand Central, serving up the same nurturing homemade foods that had made her day care business a word-of-mouth success.

The 62-year-old mother of four sons cares for her husband, 78-year-old Beverly Yancey, who is in a nursing home after a series of strokes. She’s active in Vernon Chapel AME Church and its choir. This focus on family and faith helped her endure until the legal challenges were settled.


She is now free to fulfill her son’s desire for Detroiters to continue his musical legacy. She created The J Dilla Foundation to provide funding for inner city music programs and to support music students with scholarships. Ma Dukes is also championing a new music label and the production of a new album of her son’s work to be released in the fall.

How did you come to be called Ma Dukes?

My son, Dilla, and his friends just started calling me that and I never asked why. At our house, his friends were always welcome, so I’d always have a house full of kids.  Their friends felt so close to me they would even come to me to ask me questions about life. I think the name meant that I’d put up my dukes to defend them.

Do any of the musicians your son helped make famous keep in touch or assist you?

Some of them are financially strained too. The whole world economy has changed so much. But ?uestlove, Common, Erykah Badu-I hear from them. They check on me and are there for me. Talib Kweli and Phat Kat are like sons. They’ve come for Mother’s Day to visit.

Which Detroit artists are working with you on “The Rebirth of Detroit,” the new album of your son’s work?

You know, when I travel to speak for the foundation and the positive benefits of music, all I hear about Detroit all around the world is how gifted the beautiful people who live here are.  And it’s true. My son Illa J, Monica Blaire, Big Tone, Black Milk, DJ Dez , Frank N’ Dank, DJ House Shoes, Guilty Simpson, are all participating out of love. Even the recording studio is not charging. 

How will the proceeds of the album be used?

The proceeds will benefit his children, the Lupus Foundation, and The J Dilla Foundation to provide music and media equipment to Detroit Summer and other youth programs. We also support youth arts projects like the 5E Gallery on Michigan Avenue. This August, we want to hold The Rebirth of Detroit picnic, a family picnic with good, home cooked, free food for families on Belle Isle.

How have you managed to remain hopeful and focused on supporting Detroit’s rebirth while facing health and financial challenges of your own?

It’s always best to keep going. I’m asking God for too much not to be on my post. I’m blessed to be able to get my medication [for lupus], which is $2,600 a month.

I haven’t mourned my son. People keep waiting for me to break down, but I have no reason to. I was able to be there with him. We studied scripture. Now I’m able to carry on his work and nurture the talent here in Detroit. Not just rap, because there are classical artists and so many talented youth who just need the support.

Alicia Nails is the director of the Journalism Institute for Media Diversity at Wayne State University.

Tickets for the Dilla Day concert at the Fillmore, Friday, Feb. 10 are available at Livenation.com.

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