Maureen Yancey couldn’t wait to return to Detroit.
Yancey, better known as “Ma Dukes” to fans of her son, the late J Dilla, raised the renowned rapper and producer and her other children on the city’s east side.
She now resides in Puerto Rico, but she said she’ll be a Detroiter for life.
“I don’t care if I’m overseas. The first thing I say is ‘What up, doe,’” Yancey said. “I love my city and its history is rich. It has played such a big part in my life.”
Last week, Yancey made it back home in time for the J. Dilla Music Tech Teaching Workshop at Wayne State University that honored her son.
Now in its second year, the workshop led by Wayne State music professors, introduces teachers across metro Detroit to modern music production and ways to implement music in the classroom. Inspired by J Dilla, the seminar is a collaboration between the college and Save the Music Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with school districts and communities nationwide to build and fund sustainable music programs.
This year, the workshop expanded to three days and included activities outside of the classroom like a trip to Third Man Records, a record store founded by The White Stripes lead singer Jack White, and a roundtable discussion from the teaching team, DJ Stacey “Hotwaxx” Hale and Yancey.
J Dilla, whose real name was James Yancey, is considered one of the most influential artists in modern music. In the 1990s, he founded the rap group Slum Village and produced for artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Common and Erykah Badu.
He’s known for creating the “drunk funk” sound by turning off any beat-correction on a drum machine and to purposely play the patterns “off,” according to WDET. He also liked to create new compositions out of existing records.
J Dilla died in February 2006 at the age of 32 from complications of a rare blood disease.
Yancey has worked to continue the legacy of her son since his death and is passionate about music education. She said all it takes is one song or one teacher to inspire a student to follow their music aspirations. Yancey, who is a former opera singer, said there’s nothing greater than sharing the gift of music.
“Music is a tool that touches all of us,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, you don’t have to speak the same language because it touches you the same way. It’s the energy, light, vibrations. That’s what we all possess and what we are.”
‘A whole new art form’
The J Dilla workshop was created after Stephanie Hartwell, the dean of Wayne State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, connected with friend and Save the Music Executive Director Henry Donahue. In 2019, the organization launched the J Dilla Music Technology Grant, which is awarded to high schools to teach students fundamentals of electronic music creation, recording and production.
While Save the Music was already established in Detroit, by awarding grants to Central and Southwestern high schools, the partners wanted to find more ways to support teachers in the area and raise awareness about the J Dilla grant, Jaclyn Rudderow, the senior director of school programs for Save the Music, said.
“By partnering with Wayne State and their faculty that teach this all the time, creating this opportunity was something that spreads the word about music technology, and about the Dilla grant,” Rudderow said. “It’s been great because we’ve been able to bring teachers together that might not otherwise have known about it.”
Wayne State and Save the Music select the teachers that they want to attend the workshop. The institutions research Title I schools or find area music teachers online, Hartwell said. Last year, 12 teachers participated in the workshop. This year, the number of participating teachers increased to 16.
“I love the teachers that are willing to take a chance and try something like this,” Hartwell said. “Also, the kids want to learn electronic music. They’re all on their phones all the time. It’s a whole new art form.”
Candice Boggerty was one of the teachers asked to teach at the workshop. The Detroit native, also known as “Dope Candi,” is the department head of music technology for the Compton Unified School District in California, which is the recipient of a J Dilla grant. Boggerty is also gaining recognition for her producing work, with her music appearing in a recent Nissan commercial.
One of the assignments Boggerty had fellow educators do for the workshop was use field sounds that they had recorded with music tech professor Shiva Shahmir the previous day for the beats they made in music production app SoundTrap.
“I thought it would be an honor to come back and teach educators how I implemented the program in Compton with the metro Detroit area so that they can take the knowledge and start the program here,” Boggerty said.
Honoring J Dilla’s legacy
Band and choir teacher Katrina O’Higgins was one of the workshop participants with limited experience with music production. O’Higgins, who teaches at Fitzgerald High School in Warren, used apps like Logic and Audacity before, but never felt comfortable with them, she said. However, as she played around more with the apps and developed her own beat, it became easier to use.
“It also became fun,” O’Higgins said. “I was putting myself in the student’s shoes, like ‘If I was doing this as an assignment, I actually would have fun.’”
She said she wants to incorporate music technology days for her classes this fall. It will allow her students to experiment with making music and learn about different careers in the music industry.
“I want to put more emphasis on the technology side that I’ve been neglecting to my students so that they know this is an option,” O’Higgins said. “I feel like a lot of students think it’s just ‘Well, I can go into performance or I can be a music teacher.’ But it’s really not; there’s so many different avenues that you can go down and that’s the main takeaway that I got from this workshop.”
As J Dilla’s story and music reaches new audiences with the recent releases of “The Legacy of J Dilla” documentary on Hulu and the biography, “Dilla Time,” Yancey said her son’s legacy will last forever.
“As long as I have a breath, I’m going to advocate for creativity and for music, to enhance education, to propel academia within our children and let them know that the world is theirs and that there is no ceiling and they could be anything,” she said.