February is a rough month in Detroit. Dark, drab, and you are more than likely to encounter sloppy, heavy, wet snow. It is not a city where a winter event easily draws tourism, our turn at the Super Bowl in 2006 was a snowy disaster. I haven’t lived in my hometown in eight years. But, I still like to visit at this time of year.
It’s Dilla Month, after all. Efforts to celebrate James Yancey in Detroit have struggled, and celebration of him in our hometown has long been marred by infighting and inconsistency. This year, there was no snow, instead the Dillatroit 2 event this year was overbooked and underpromoted. In the early years after Jay Dee died, the event was small and intimate some years, then in large concert halls other years. One year, it moved to Miami.
2006 devastated the Detroit hip-hop scene. It was a scene that was still making good noise at the time. Eminem had made it incredibly hot, Slum Village was making good music. There were producers and rappers coming out regularly for years. Then the rug was pulled out when Dilla died in February and Proof died in April. The losses left the formerly close-knit scene and community reeling, and it still hasn’t completely recovered.
There were the hip-hop losses, then a great recession which led to the first bankruptcy of a major U.S. city. In 2008, the charming and well-loved Mayor of the City of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick-at age 38 and in his second-term, was indicted and convicted of RICO charges and sentenced to 28 years in the Feds. Twenty-Eight Years. Detroit has been through some shit.
It looks like it. It feels like it.
The neighborhoods are still struggling. Schools are struggling. Crime is high. People drive too damn fast and many illegally. (Ask about Detroit car insurance rates). And, yes, you could’ve bought a house for $500. But most of those houses are torn down now and prices of the rest are steadily improving. Detroit is organically shrinking. It is a city that went from a population of 2 million to a population of 700,000 in less than 20 years. There is more green space, and no lie, more little animals like rabbits and possums. It’s like Detroit is returning from a major metropolis to the smaller town it always believed it was on the inside.
It is improving.
There is a strong downtown. Little Caesar’s Pizza founder, and owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers, Mike Illitch-who recently died, broke ground last spring on a new arena. The Detroit Pistons are moving downtown as well. Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert is snapping up downtown property. There is a renewed commitment by businesses, and citizens alike, and there is no lack of the one thing that Detroit has always had: Hope. The motto of the city is Speramus Meliora Resurgent Cineribus, “We hope for better days, it will arise from its ashes.” Like a phoenix, Detroit has burned and rebuilt itself numerous times since its founding in 1701 by a French fur trader whose last name was Cadillac. The city is in a rebirth phase. Detroit is coming back slowly, but in an organic and meaningful way.
The hip-hop scene is still producing national talent like Boldy James, and legacy artists like Danny Brown, Black Milk, Phat Kat, Guilty Simpson, Big Sean, Royce and posthumously Dilla himself are still making great music and money. There are also a multitude of other great rappers coming up, including almost a half-dozen dope female emcees. This is still Eminem’s hometown. Like the city itself, there is renewed dedication to (and interest in) Detroit hip-hop as a scene and community.
On Valentine’s Day, I went to Dilla’s Delights for the first time. The donut shop opened by Dilla’s Uncle Herm really is delightful. The shop sells vegan and regular donuts. The Fantastic Fritter was amazing. There was a lemon-filled one named after Aaliyah. Dilla’s photos and spirit grace the small store, and depending on when you come in you might find one of his daughters, Ty-Monae’ or JaMya, behind the counter. By my noon visit, they were nearly sold out and there was a light, but steady stream of people dropping by. I sat, and ate my fritter, and drank coffee. I could have sat there staring out at the downtown view all day. I took pictures of everything and talked for a long time with Glenn, the retail manager. Dilla’s Delights is a beautiful brick-and-mortar tribute to Dilla’s greatness (and his favorite snack food).
The store is in Harmonie Park, a historic neighborhood that is about to see exponential expansion and growth as it officially declares itself a hub of Detroit music. The new Detroit Institute for Music Education is walking distance away. The DIME offers full-time courses in Commercial Songwriting, Music Industry Studies, and Commercial Music Performance.
Dilla and Detroit had a rough relationship when he was alive. As much as he is loved around the world, he is still virtually unknown to the average Detroiter. But then, even Luke 4:24 says, “Truly I tell you no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” His music was never really supported on radio, he wasn’t talked about or appreciated except in small circles. So, big parties to celebrate him don’t turn out very well.
Yet, this year at Dilla Youth Day Detroit held inside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, pre-teens played his music on musical instruments. Kids made t-shirts, and posters, and played around with production equipment and software. They are learning his music in school and after-school programs. His legacy is being rediscovered by a younger generation in Detroit. It is being preserved by his friends and peers, some better than others, here and around the world. It is being served across a counter by his own daughters in the form of the best apple fritter that I have ever had.
The legacy of J. Dilla will always have its roots in Detroit. The man and the place are forever entwined. Like the city, it is changing shape. It looks different. It feels different. It’s improving.
Parties celebrating the life and legacy of James “J. Dilla” Yancey are still taking place all over the world.