J. Dilla's Lost Scrolls

When Jeff Bubeck buys an old record collection, he has no idea it once belonged to J. Dilla, one of the greatest hip-hop producers of all time. But something else is uncovered. Something huge...

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT - the reunion episode. Today on the show - that which is lost is found and people are reunited in ways they never thought possible. For our next story, we sent SNAP producer Pat Mesiti-Miller to my hometown - Detroit, Michigan.

PAT MESITI-MILLER, BYLINE: Meet Jeff - he runs a record store out in Detroit.

JEFF BUBECK: I'm Jeff Bubeck, from UHF records. UHF is a 95 percent vinyl, good old-fashioned record shop - we got soul, r&b, blues, soundtracks, country, classic rock, '80s pop.

I've collected my whole life. You know, I started eight years old collecting records and now I have - I mean, look around (laughter).

MESITI-MILLER: This place is covered.

BUBECK: Yeah.

MESITI-MILLER: In talking with Jeff, I was asking him where he gets all his records. He told me he hunts them down. He'll buy from collectors, go to estate sales...

BUBECK: And, you know, I've gone to storage auctions before, long before "Storage Wars" and "Pickers" or any of those shows that are on now. It's nothing like that really. I mean, there's - for the most part there's garbage out there.

MESITI-MILLER: And then Jeff told me a story about one of his best finds in his decades of collecting. It started off when Jeff got a call from a woman who owned a storage locker. Apparently, somebody was years behind on rent and left behind a unit filled with records. So Jeff went and checked it out.

BUBECK: There was probably 6,000 records in there - tons of '70s jazz. Really a lot of just off-the-wall obscure stuff, you know? And there was a little bit of everything in there, boxes upon boxes stacked up. There was stuff that had gotten wet, you know, stuff that actually had black mold growing on it. I mean, it was just - you know what I mean? It was - it was a mess.

MESITI-MILLER: But in looking through all the records, he saw some stuff that was worth investing in and bought them and then paid to have them stored in the locker for a couple more months.

(MUSIC)

BUBECK: And one particular day, I went to the storage bin to pick up some boxes and I noticed a tub in the back of the storage bin. And I open the tub, and it was just full of cassettes. It was just, you know, mix-tapes, homemade tapes, you know? And then there was some junk mail in there. All of the junk mail had the name Yancey on it, Maureen Yancey. And there were some pieces that said James Yancey - didn't think twice of it. Another few days had passed, and I have no idea why I did it, but I googled James Yancey. The first thing that popped up was the Wikipedia page for J Dilla - producer extraordinaire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T KEEP RUNNING AWAY")

THE PHARCYDE: (Singing) Check it out, check it out.

MESITI-MILLER: If you're not on up on J Dilla, the man is a legend. He was a producer behind tons of classic songs for artists like The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Common, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu. In hip-hop circles, he's thought of as one of the greatest of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T KEEP RUNNING AWAY")

THE PHARCYDE: (Singing) Can't keep running away. Come on, come on, come on.

BUBECK: And basically I just turned to Tommy, my partner, who was sitting next to me, and said, get the hell out of here. Do you know who I think this stuff belongs to? Basically, holy [bleep], you know what I mean? Wow, what are we going to do?

MESITI-MILLER: In 2006, Dilla passed away from complications from lupus. He was only 32. And since his death, people have been madly searching to find anything and everything Dilla related. So to find J's personal record collection - it was huge because in it would be the records that Dilla had sampled and turned into hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

BUBECK: The phone started ringing. There were calls - it was like instant backlash. Everyone wanted it. But then they also had a problem with me - what business does he have selling J's stuff, you know what I mean? That's what it was. Who the [bleep] are you?

MESITI-MILLER: People were going crazy over Dilla's record collection. But remember how Jeff said that there was a bunch of cassette tapes?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

BUBECK: I opened the tub and it was just full of cassettes.

MESITI-MILLER: Some of those tapes Dilla had recorded on. They had titles like "Beats" and "Rough Ideas," hinting at unreleased music. A beat tape from Dilla? That's gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNIDENTIFIED")

THE PHARCYDE: (Singing) Y'all.

MESITI-MILLER: Private collectors, fans - people were offering him tens of thousands of dollars to get a piece.

BUBECK: I'm human and I seen dollar signs for a minute. Even if I didn't take the offer from them I could have, you know, put a cassette at a time up on eBay and probably made, you know, loads of money.

MESITI-MILLER: A record label called him.

BUBECK: We understand that you found tapes containing J Dilla's music. That content of those tapes is our property. You'll be compensated for it but we're coming to get it. It wasn't cool. I mean, it was chaos. And I was like I want to do nothing but crawl under a rock, you know what I mean? Step back. I'm not taking calls. Leave me alone. The collection's gone. It's no longer on the premises. Go away.

MESITI-MILLER: And during all the madness Jeff had something else on his mind.

BUBECK: Honestly, the first thing I thought of was that Wikipedia page. Due to Dilla's death the family receives no income from projects. Dilla's children are being supported by the Social Security from their mothers. Likewise, Ms. Yancey still lives in the same Detroit ghetto, also in tremendous debt. After reading that, it says it right there - it's like OK, where's the money? Here's Maureen and his family right in the same place they were back in the beginning, you know?

MESITI-MILLER: But how? How could it be that the mother of a platinum-selling producer would be in debt? I mean, he made hit. He was award-winning. So I called up Dilla's mom Maureen and she invited me over for a talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

MAUREEN YANCEY: Come on in. Good to see you. I'm Maureen Yancey. J Dilla is my son. He is the most genius beat maker that ever existed. Although he's passed on, his work still lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASS BEATS)

YANCEY: Welcome to my humble abode.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONANT GARDENS")

SLUM VILLAGE: (Singing) Where we come from is a place we call Conant Gardens.

MESITI-MILLER: A visitor at her home - the same house that J grew up in deep in Detroit in Conant Gardens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONANT GARDENS")

YANCEY: The neighborhood here is very very urban, to say the least. It resembles in some place a war zone like Iraq (laughing) as you know. A lot of people have moved away because of the conditions and the city's lack of support in our area, as you can see. But then there are those that are dedicated to the community, that try to keep it moving and that are proud to be here.

MESITI-MILLER: Maureen told me that the last couple years of J's life were mostly spent in the hospital fighting his illness. Maureen stayed with him - helped nurse him. But while he was in the midst of all this treatment...

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC SOUND)

YANCEY: That a payment was late and the insurance company did not honor it. And even though it might have been a day late, it didn't matter. Being an insurance company that's in it for profit, they dropped him.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASS BEATS)

YANCEY: Because it had been like four years' worth of this sickness going on, you know, he was so ill. Of course they didn't want to pay for every hospital stay that he had. The last nine or 10 months, everything was out-of-pocket. Every hospital stay, each bill averaged a quarter of a million dollars. That was a bi-monthly bill.

MESITI-MILLER: That's $250,000 twice a month. And that's not including flying out specialists or doctors or prescriptions. Dilla's illness was very expensive. And soon he fell into debt. And when Dilla's funds were gone, Maureen stepped up.

YANCEY: I didn't care what it was. I was going to sign my life away for them to give him all the care that he needed. And that's what I did in certain instances. Because when he didn't have insurance, I signed off on a lot of that. And they said you know you'll be responsible. I did not care. I say well, if I have to scrub hospital floors (laughing) to work it off, you know.

MESITI-MILLER: So you went broke.

YANCEY: Oh, yeah - had to. It's my son.

MESITI-MILLER: Maureen gave up near everything. She sold her house, closed down her business - all the while hoping J could beat the sickness and get back to the work he loved. He lived for music. I mean, the man was a powerhouse. Even when his health didn't improve, Maureen with some friends set up music equipment right in his hospital room. And he worked. It was there that he created his last album, "Donuts."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T STOP THIS")

THE ROOTS: (Singing) OK, OK. There comes a time...

MESITI-MILLER: It was released three days before he passed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE")

DILLA: (Singing) People the times has come.

YANCEY: There to date has been no compensation from the estate to any of the heirs.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM BEAT)

MESITI-MILLER: And six years after Dilla had been gone, Maureen was still struggling.

MESITI-MILLER: And when Jeff, who had found himself sitting on a potential gold mine of music, heard about that -

BUBECK: That really, you know, that struck a chord with me. I just felt, you know, there's just such an injustice. I'll be damned if I'm giving it to any record company. In the moment, I just was trying to do the right thing, you know what I mean?

MESITI-MILLER: So Jeff got in touch with Maureen. She drove across the city. And they met at the storage facility.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE OPENING)

YANCEY: And he unlocks this like a garage, you know, door.

BUBECK: I went back into the bin and pulled the tub out from the back.

YANCEY: And he just shows me the bins. They were too heavy to lift. And so I'm looking. And I'm like what in the world?

BUBECK: And I popped open the lid.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHEREAL TONES)

BUBECK: And it was silence for a few minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHEREAL TONES)

BUBECK: In that moment, it's like she's seeing him again, you know what I mean? 'Cause there's the silence there and it was like - this is heavy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHEREAL TONES)

YANCEY: When I saw my son's handwriting - god, that was something profound. He wrote notes in there about things that he wants to do for me. To see those notes and hear his voice as I read them, I could hear him saying it. It just touched me - my heart to no end.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTAL SONG)

BUBECK: It was her son's stuff, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTAL SONG)

BUBECK: I told her take it with you. It's yours. Take it. I gave her a hug and, you know, she was - she was thrilled. It felt really good that she had it again. I was like - yeah, back in the right hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTAL SONG)

MESITI-MILLER: And though some of them looked like they'd have some of Dilla's music on them, most of the cassettes - well, they were just regular tapes like you used to be able to buy at the store. Today you probably wouldn't pay 10 cents for them at a flea market. But in talking with one of Dilla's close friends...

YANCEY: Freighton (ph) had suggested - I think you better listen to them because your son hid a lot of music in his tapes.

MESITI-MILLER: Maureen sat down, loaded up the tapes, pressed play and...

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPE PLAYER)

DILLA: They do something wrong, they don't get sued, you know.

YANCEY: I was blown away. My mouth dropped. From the very first one, it was stuff on it that we had never heard before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEWITT TO DO IT")

DILLA: (Singing) Yeah. Turn it up, baby.

YANCEY: I didn't expect to hear his voice in any of the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEWITT TO DO IT")

DILLA: (Singing) When you see me dewitt, I do it. I do what you dewitt to do it.

YANCEY: He's not sick. He's not suffering. And he's just live to his fullest capacity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEWITT TO DO IT")

DILLA: (Singing) Dewitt, dewitt to do it. Dewitt, dewitt to do it.

MESITI-MILLER: On the hundreds of cassettes that Maureen now has, Dilla had left music - and lots of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INSTRUMENTAL")

YANCEY: The material is - oh my, it was overwhelming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INSTRUMENTAL")

YANCEY: There are in the high hundreds of tracks.

MESITI-MILLER: Hours and hours and hours of unreleased Dilla music was found on the cassettes. And along with some studio master reels, Maureen says there's enough material for never before heard music to be coming out for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHEREAL TONES)

YANCEY: It's the lost scrolls. (Laughing). It's the lost scrolls. The reason for titling it "The Lost Scrolls" is because it has a spiritual meaning. It's like the arc of the covenant for me. (Laughing).

MESITI-MILLER: I was invited to hear the coveted "Lost Scrolls." Now trust me, these recordings are well-guarded. But Maureen let me record a small piece of our time listening together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST SCROLLS")

MESITI-MILLER: So how does it feel to be listening to this music?

YANCEY: I feel simply wonderful listening to my son's creations. It's none like it. He is the master. And my heart is happy. My ears are happy, you know? And I feel - I can feel his soul in his music. Dilla was my backbone - my support - because we had a bond that was so special. With our love for music and our desire to help the other one get to where they wanted to be in this world, we already were close. And then nursing him in California, we were more one than ever. So when he left, I was standing alone. I never mourned normally not knowing whether to be angry or to cry. I couldn't cry. I hadn't shed a tear. At his funeral, I didn't cry. People were waiting for me to break down, which I didn't even understand. Why no tears?

I was in denial of everything and I just - I just had this void.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHEREAL TONES)

YANCEY: Then through the heart of a good man, Jeff Bubeck, God would open up a door and give me pieces of my son back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHEREAL TONES)

YANCEY: It was held - held back before his time. It wasn't meant for me to have it before now. And it brought back what Dilla said to me in California. He was in a wheelchair. He grabbed my hands - both of them. And he said I want to thank you for all that you - all that you have done. And I want you to know you're going to be all right. I promise you. You're going to be all right, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHEREAL TONES)

MESITI-MILLER: Are you doing OK? Want to take a break?

YANCEY: I'm fine. Just a first tear. It's been - I guess I needed that. I think it's the first one since he passed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHEREAL TONES)

YANCEY: Thanks for that - letting me turn that water faucet on (laughter) because I always hold it back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ETHEREAL TONES)

YANCEY: He has proven to me that he's looking out for me. And I'm looking at him. He's looking at me right now saying lady, I told you you would be all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "U-LUV")

DILLA: (Singing) Just because I really love you. Just because I really love you. I love you. I love you.

WASHINGTON: Maureen Yancey has begun releasing the music found on the tapes - the lost scrolls. She continues her work with the J Dilla Foundation to raise awareness about lupus and inspire young people around the world. Maureen is also working on a book and a film about Dilla's life and legacy. We'll have links to all these great projects on our website snapjudgment.org. A huge thanks to Maureen Yancey and Jeff Bubeck for sharing their story. And special thanks as well to Jonathan Taylor and Tate McBroom for their help. And if you listen to this show at all, you know we owe a debt to Dilla himself.

That piece was produced by Pat Mesiti-Miller.

When SNAP JUDGMENT returns, we show you how to attend that high school reunion the way you always dreamed about - for real - when SNAP JUDGMENT - the reunion episode - continues. Stay tuned.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC)

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