Inside the Smithsonian's long-awaited National Museum Of African-American History and Culture, you can find two very important artifacts special to hip-hop's legacy: J Dilla's own MPC sampler and custom Robert Moog synthesizer.
Dilla's buoyant mother Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey was in attendance for the museum's opening last Saturday in Washington D.C.and as she explained to The FADER over the phone this week, the process of parting with her son's equipment wasn't easy. Yancey worked closely with NMAAHC's music specialist Timothy Burnside to make a final decision. "It took Timothy and I quite a few conversations and quite a few visits to Detroit to make me decide to really roll with it," she said.
To nurture his early appetite for beat making, Yancey and Dilla's father bought him his first set of turntables for Christmas when he was five or six years old. She recalled, "Every year, there would be something that he would want that had to do with music. He never wanted anything else but that." Ma Dukes told us all about the beatmaker's generosity, hip-hop's important place in education, and how much Dilla loved his Moog synthesizer.
What was your reaction when the Smithsonian reached out to you about putting his equipment into the National Museum of African-American History?
MAUREEN “MA DUKES” YANCEY: I didn't jump on it. I was amazed and of course, honored, but it took [NMHAAC's Curatorial Museum Specialist] Timothy Burnside and I quite a few conversations and quite a few visits to Detroit to make me decide to really roll with it. I was still in mourning, but I wasn't aware. I just knew that I didn't know how to entertain the idea and I wondered if it would really come to pass — that was the big question in my mind. I knew that they didn't have an African-American museum yet and I didn't see him as the caliber of material that they always carried. I just didn’t know, especially with the racial climate even back then when they reached out, that it would really happen.
So, I had all of these doubts. Even though I knew that just before he passed, I began to realize that the whole world had had their arms around him. On that last tour, I began to see the love and how they really felt about his music. Like, we were in different countries and no one speaks English in these countries but everyone knows every word to every Slum Village song, and anything else he had put out.
As far as letting go of the material or anything in particular for the Smithsonian, it was just the fact that Timothy had come across such a wonderful individual. When she first came, we emailed for months and months. She was so gentle and understanding, she wasn't pushy, but only positive as to what it could mean as far as education and that was the big thing. The educational aspect of it was really great and I hadn't decided on which pieces to give or even if it would be his studio equipment.
When were you first approached by Timothy about this?
She received the Moog synthesizer almost two years ag, but it had to be preserved and it had to be cataloged. There were all kinds of things that the equipment had to go through, just like it was a live person. It had to be put away and kept in a certain climate, too. That was almost two years processing, and we corresponded for a good five years or better before I finally said yes. I chose those two pieces because they were the most precious two pieces that he had in his studio. He was so elated when he received the Moog. It was as if someone had presented a gift to a king. He never got excited about things — not even the cars or trucks that he drove. He never got as excited about those things as he did about the Moog. I believe it was because Bob Moog made it especially for him and it just meant everything in the world to him. None of them are the exact same, every Moog has a different sound because it's designed that way. I could really understand what it meant to him because music was his entire world.
Was it difficult for you to part with the equipment?
Not once I realized, Maureen, you're mourning. I was trying to hold on to everything that he was about and every memory that he was about. I realized, Maureen, you've been mourning so hard. You still have children that are alive. My youngest was performing and traveling all over the world, but I failed to give him the attention and support that I had given Dilla because I had not come out of this thing with my loss of him. Oh my goodness, when he passed away, I lost part of my own soul, and so it had to be reclaimed. Without a commitment, Timothy came by all of those years just in hopes that I would come to see that it would benefit education in hip-hop and that it would be something that others can enjoy. So it was time to let go and let the world know just how much Dilla had that he wanted to share with them.
You talked about the Moog being something that he really loved. How’d he feel about the MPC?
He purchased and recorded with the MPC. Dilla was in the habit of giving equipment away and whenever he'd get something new, he'd give away his entire prior studio. He didn't hoard things. There was the time that Frank n Dank had moved forward because the MCA deal had not gone through. They wanted to take a chance and move forward with Needlework in Toronto. And for Dilla, of course, it hurt his heart, because those guys were a part of what he created. They were like the brothers that had been raised together — like as if they were a set of triplets and then two of them decided to go in a different direction. It was definitely an emotional pull away, so it hurt, but he understood that he had built this thing and that it had to thrive. He gave them equipment so that they could complete their own studio and move forward. He did it with other Detroit artists too. He didn't sell things, he would just gift. It was just part of who he was.