With hip-hop’s official 50th anniversary on the horizon, this year has presented countless opportunities to celebrate those who’ve made a lasting impact on the culture. J Dilla is one of those people. Since his tragic death in February 2006, one woman has made it her sole mission to cradle his legacy—his mother, Maureen Yancey. Affectionately known as Ma Dukes, Yancey has dedicated her life to ensuring her son’s music is treated with the respect it deserves, a tireless and often thankless job. Various reports of Dilla-approved projects have appeared in the 17 years since his passing, and Yancey is determined to keep the production pirates at bay.
Speaking to Rolling Stone via Zoom, Yancey and J Dilla Foundation legal representative Michelle Harris-Coleman addressed an announcement made by Black Sheep co-founder Andres “Dres” Vargas-Titus, about an album produced entirely by J Dilla tentatively titled Dres & Dilla earlier this month. During an appearance at the National Hip Hop Museum on March 11, the pioneering MC seemed confident he had permission to announce the album. He told the crowd that “through the blessing of Ma Dukes and my man Toney, I’ve been allowed to visit a sacred land.”
But the lines of communication seemed to have been crossed somewhere along the way. While both Yancey and Harris-Coleman acknowledged that there have been “negotiations,” nothing has been set in stone. Harris-Coleman says that for now, Dres doesn’t exactly have the Yancey family’s blessing to move forward with the project. “Anything Dres is doing on his side, we need to make sure the music is put aside and no one else can use it—and that’s the problem. I have not listened to the music. I don’t think Ma has listened to the music. If Toney [Ma’s husband] has listened to the music, he has not given me the green light.”
The J Dilla Foundation says they’ve agreed to a 10-year agreement with British tech firm Kano Computing to share Dilla’s catalog on the company’s Stem Player, which famously handled the release of Kanye’s most recent album, Donda 2. The partnership includes releasing tracks from Dilla’s catalog as well as products such as headphones, speakers, STEM Players, and a projector, which comes with a J Dilla mini doc dropping this summer. Financials involve a revenue share and support of the estate. “STEM is about new forms and formats. J Dilla invented how we produce music today. To distribute these never-before-heard songs from the Jay Dee era is an honor. To do so in clean vocals, drums, bass, and instrumental is something even more special,” STEM + Kano cofounder Alex Klein tells Rolling Stone. “We think everyone who loves music will get something special out of this release.”
Still, Harris-Coleman wanted to make one thing abundantly clear—Yancey is always open to working on partnerships honoring her son’s legacy. Still, the 10-year agreement with STEM + Kano takes precedence at this point. “They need to understand it’s not that Ma is not willing to negotiate or listen to deals regarding her son if there are good deals,” Harris-Coleman said. “We need to make sure the project she has in place now, which is a long-term financial project, is properly dealt with and that the music is available. Whatever is not going to be a part of the 10-year project will be available for other people to use but with the proper licenses, terms, and agreements. No freebies.”
Dres has yet to respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
Harris-Coleman says Dres approached Vintage Vibez Music Group, the record label run by Yancey and her husband Toney Smith, several years ago with the idea of making an album with J Dilla’s beats. As the legal representative for the late producer’s estate, she told him frankly that she didn’t see a workable deal and advised him to come back and present another agreement. Shortly after, Harris’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. “I was literally going back and forth to the hospital every other day with my mom, and she eventually passed away on Christmas Day 2020,” she said. “So I’d been going through my own health battles and depression over my mom’s death. I finally get to the point where I’m in a good place, I come back in, and there’s a deal. I said, ‘No, there’s no deal. There are no signed agreements. There’s no anything,” Harris-Coleman says. “I’ve been kind of disturbed about how Dres keeps doing interviews about this, and the terms have not been signed off by all parties. Are there negotiations? Yes. But I told him to stop all this.”
There’s a sense Yancey has grown accustomed to these kinds of scenarios. But these days, she’s no longer willing to tolerate them. “There are no words to describe how I feel about that,” Yancey said. “I’ve learned why so much hurt has come my way, and it’s because people realized I wasn’t up on everything, so they took advantage. They do things and then smile, like, ‘Ma Dukes, I got a little tribute for Dilla.’ Not everything is a tribute if it’s not done right.”