From Kanye To Pete Rock, Get The Story On J Dilla’s “Diary” Over 15 Years (Audio)
Today (April 15), J Dilla’s The Diary releases. The album featuring contributions from Nas, Snoop Dogg, Pete Rock, and many others has come a long way since its early 2000s plans to be an MCA Records release. Sadly, that never happened as planned. In 2016, it has been more than 10 years since James Yancey passed away, and even MCA has vanished as part of label restructuring.
However, the music lives—and not without tremendous effort from the Dilla Estate, Ma Dukes, Mass Appeal Records, and Egon. Heads may know Egon (a/k/a Eothen Alapatt) as the longtime manager of Stones Throw Records, from 2000 to 2011. There, he would work with J Dilla on the acclaimed Donuts and Champion Sound (JayLib) albums, among other projects. Egon, who has purveyed music by a host of Soul, Funk, and Rock groups, explains to Tony Touch on Toca Tuesdays what has transpired behind the scenes regarding The Diary.
Egon describes how he took an instrumental role in Dilla’s estate beginning in 2007, when that estate was ratified by the state of California. “I met [J] Dilla back in the ’90s, here in New York, as a matter of fact. [He was] with Bob Power and Common. He was a special soul, man, a singular talent.”
With that history, Egon recalled how after Slum Village’s Fantastic, Vol. 2, the artist then known as “Jay Dee” began plugging away on his solo debut. “[The Diary] is something he did in 2001 and 2002, when he was signed to MCA [Records]. [He] basically said, ‘buck the system,’ and he was gonna become one of the great rappin’ producers, like his heroes—like Pete Rock. He put together this album, all on his own, in Detroit with Madlib, Supa Dave West, Hi-Tek of course, Nottz, a young Kanye West. The project got shelved, and he got dropped [by the label], and this record kind of fell into the ether.”
MCA, then backing acts such as Common, The Roots, Blackalicious, and Killah Priest, would soon merge with Geffen—dropping many of its Hip-Hop artists.
Known for being prolific, Dilla pushed on and released other projects such as Welcome 2 Detroit, Ruff Draft EP, and Champion Sound. Today, Egon confirms that Ma Dukes, brother John Yancey (a/k/a Illa J), and Dilla’s two daughters control the estate. The Diary became a priority in the remaining catalog.
“Dilla made it happen. We were just there to put the pieces together after he passed.” Egon adds that J Dilla saw this album as a priority prior to his death. “In 2005, before he got very ill, we were talking about projects that he wanted out. This was one of them. He knew where the tapes were. He told me and his mother, Ma Dukes, ‘We can get these tapes.’ Unfortunately, [it was not until] after he died [that] we were able to get the tapes from Studio A in Detroit, where he had warehoused them. But they were archived using this arcane software, which was out of production, even then—in 2006, when we got the files. So it took his engineer in Los Angeles, Dave Cooley—who’d done a lot of work with him and knew a little bit of the nuances and the way Dilla worked to figure out where the software was, buy a copy, and then unpack the files. [It] took months to get the files out.”
Egon elaborates that songs had multiple iterations, and that he and others tried to yield to James Yancey’s intended vision. “The only version of [‘Anthem’] that anybody had heard was the Kanye version from the demo that he turned into MCA. Dilla hadn’t even told us about [another one], then all of a sudden, boom: there’s Dilla’s version of it, a revision from six months later. We had to go through all the files, organize them, and listen to them, and try to figure out what was revision, what wasn’t. What was Dilla’s vision for this song?”
“Gangsta Boogie,” one of The Diary‘s advance singles, was another challenge. “How do we finish a song where he calls in Snoop [Dogg] and Kokane? How do convince Snoop and Kokane to basically do a song for free? [Laughs] That’s what had to happen. A lot of people [just] believed in Dilla—Snoop of course, Kokane too. All the producers that were down from the beginning [were the same], and they helped realize the course of this record over the course of 10 years.” Previously, Snoop had participated in posthumous Tupac Shakur projects, such as Pac’s Life, while Kokane has shown support in projects supporting the estate of Mac Dre.
Egon closed in explaining how Illa J, Ma Dukes, and Dilla’s two daughters will run Pay Jay after probate, the artist’s label, which is responsible (with Mass Appeal) for The Diary. Pay Jay has also released 2009’s Jay Stay Paid, among other posthumous efforts. They are also planning an upcoming re-release of Jay Love Japan.