Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Dilla Day and Detroit’s Rap Revolution

Last Sunday, Feb. 10 was Dilla Day in Detroit.  Hip-hop fans poured into the Filmore and they didn’t leave until after 2 AM.  Brooklyn hip-hop icon Talib Kweli and Detroit’s own Royce da 5’9″ were the night’s two biggest names. The music of a broken city reverberated in triumphal celebration.

But the night’s most powerful performance was delivered without a hard-hitting bass groove or a vicious, metallic 808 snare.  It came courtesy of Maureen Yancey and Pepper Holton, the surrogate matriarchs of Detroit’s still-burgeoning hip-hop scene.  Seven years ago, both Yancey and Holton lost their sons––producer and rapper James Dewitt Yancey, known as J Dilla in the hip-hop world and rapper Proof (neé Deshaun Holton), perhaps best known as the second fiddle to Emimen’s bravado in the group D12.  Dilla passed away on Feb. 10, 2006 due to complications from lupus and a rare blood disease, just three days after releasing his instrumental magnum opus, Donuts. Proof died just two months later after an altercation in a Detroit club. Both Dilla and Proof were thirty-two, mature enough to have left behind a tangible legacy on Detroit and its hip-hop movement but too young, too fresh, too enamored with creative possibility to have their bright futures stripped from them.

It was at once fitting and momentous that the foster mothers of Detroit’s orphaned hip-hop generation rocked the stage this Sunday night. Known affectionately as Ma Dukes and Mama P, Maureen Yancey and Pepper Holton offered emboldening words which testified to the bonds of an embattled family in an embattled city. “We’re the soul capital of the world”, Ma Dukes exclaimed. “We are one. Let’s make it happen in the D.” Mama P spoke to the infinite potential of Detroit’s brand of hip-hop. “We are at the center of the hip-hop movement. There are so many gifted and talented people right in Detroit”.

Mama P alluded indirectly to one of hip-hop’s most unfortunate, crippling dogmas. The rugged, unapologetic history of hip-hop in its infancy proliferated an understanding of the importance of place.  Perhaps the B-Boys and renegade graffiti artists of the Bronx felt entitled to ownership of the culture, obligated to create its definitions. Over the course of the 80s this came to apply to NYC’s other boroughs.  Then came N.W.A. and G-Funk––now Los Angeles, too, asserted the toughness of its music and became firmly entrenched in a cultural battle with New York.  Feuding between Biggie and 2Pac––or between Bad Boy Records and Death Row, however one might choose to construe their rivalry––caused hip-hop listeners and artists to separate the music into strict categorizations of “East Coast” and “West Coast”.  The early 2000s saw the rise to prominence of a nebulous region called “The Dirty South”, encompassing Houston, Atlanta, New Orleans and sometimes St. Louis. There became three credible epicenters for hip-hop production.

Historically, Detroit has fallen victim to the hip-hop dogmas of place. It is possible that these dogmas have been, to some extent, destabilized by some remarkable mainstream exceptions––two examples are Macklemore’s recent commercial success and, more obviously, Detroit’s own Eminem––but these rappers are exceptions to the rule.  This dogma becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; aspiring rappers have long fled to New York or L.A. to try and “make it.”

There have been isolated successes in the history of Detroit hip-hop––the most obvious example being the unpredictable, substance-abusing and fiercely individualistic Eminem, whose debut, The Marshall Mathers LP sold faster in its first week than any hip-hop album in history.  There is no shortage of impressive lyricism in Detroit.  Binary Star’s 2000 low-budget indie release “Masters of the Universe” only sold 20,000 copies during its first issue, but there may be no hip-hop album in existence which so thoroughly barrages its listeners with figurative language and verbal gymnastics. Dilla co-founded Slum Village, a collective which produced their widely sought-after debut album “Fantastic, Vol. 1″ in 1996 but couldn’t release it until 2005 because of label politics. Two of its founding members, Dilla and fellow emcee Baatin, left the group. Gifted rapper Royce Da 5’9” received acclaim as both a solo artist and collaborator with Eminem in the duo Bad Meets Evil, but his label folded and his album was bootlegged.  The Detroit hip-hop artist, over and over again, has had success denied him, or in Royce’s case, taken from him.

J Dilla, much like 2Pac, has been kept alive through the posthumous release of vast, hitherto unpublished troves of music.  His death has been something like a second coming; Dilla has entered the mainstream consciousness through the homages and tributes which hip-hop artists have paid him. He is now justifiably regarded as one of hip-hop’s greatest musical minds, a wildly talented multi-instrumentalist with legendary vision and an ear more accurate than a metronome, a relentlessly excited creator with an ear to the streets always, a “drum god”, in the words of Kanye West.

Ma Dukes, in some ways, assumed the spirit of Dilla last Sunday night.  She, too, suffers from lupus.  The proceeds from one of Dilla’s posthumous projects, Jay Dee: The Delicious Vinyl Years, have been donated to her, enabling her to pay for her medication.  She lives in Conant Gardens, the same ghetto where James Dewitt Yancey became J Dilla, and works in a daycare there, still trying to keep her household afloat.  She has been unable to reap the fiscal benefits from her late son’s posthumous legend.  Despite her struggles, the embattled matriarch of an embattled city’s hip-hop scene has preached messages of unification, and Detroit seems to have listened.

See, something remarkable happened when Dilla died––hip-hop realized how much it need him.  The wealth of unpublished material he left behind stimulated an interest in his whole body of work.  This process of hip-hop historiography revealed the vast network of rappers and singers Dilla influenced. As the puzzle of his legacy was pieced together, the fierce factionalism of Detroit’s underground hip-hop scene dissolved.  Even self-sustained powerhouses like Royce da 5’9″, Elzhi and Black Milk have subscribed to this new familial dynamic.  Ma Dukes may have lost her biological son, but she has taken a generation of Detroit artists under her wing, guiding them under an ethic of mutual respect.

Ex-dealer Danny Brown paints Detroit’s ghetto landscapes with audacious humor and shameless depravity.  Prolific indie stalwart and industry genius Black Milk raps and produces his own albums; at age 29, his resumé boasts thirteen releases already.  One Be Lo, half of the aforementioned duo Binary Star, has seven solo releases characterized by the casual righteousness of his delivery and the complexity of his rhyme schemes.  Royce da 5’9″ is back, anchoring the super-group Slaughterhouse.  Four-man troupe Clear Soul Forces has yet to garner mainstream attention, but their effortless interplay warrants breakout success.  On “Get No Better”, CSF’s E-Fav raps “While we be focused on a salary, lettuce to bring the croutons/I’m trying to have a dollar bill salad right on Obama’s lawn”.

Detroit is crumbling and empty, hacks the black smoke of industrial decay.  Public high schools graduate a quarter of their students.  300,000 people have left the city since 2000.  But the hip-hop community has never been healthier in the Motor City.

As Royce put it, “It’s good to be unified”.

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