If James Dewitt Yancey has been all but canonised by a certain corner of hip hop fandom, it’s easy to see why. In part it’s because the Detroit-born rapper and beat-maker died in tragic circumstances in 2006: aged 32, after having being diagnosed with the auto-immune disease lupus and rare blood disease TTP. But in larger part, it’s because of the music he produced – a scuffed-up, sample-based hip hop that warped classic soul into something melodic, psychedelic and deeply funky. Yancey was hardly a household name, but his influence has been profound. “We think, ‘If Dilla was alive, would he like this?’” said Kanye West in 2014. “I have to work on behalf of Dilla.”
‘The Diary’ was intended to be Dilla’s arrival as a major-label MC. After a period producing for the likes of The Pharcyde, De La Soul and Janet Jackson, he signed to MCA and began work on a vocal album. But the album was shelved around 2002 – major-label bullsh*t, the usual – and instead Dilla changed tack, moving to LA and following a more underground path.
Completed by representatives of Yancey’s estate, ‘The Diary’ is a glimpse of the Dilla we might have known: not the revered producer, but a champion MC leading an album packed with guest productions and cameos. Some tracks have been released – ‘Trucks’, a pimped-out remodel of Gary Numan’s ‘Cars’, and Dilla’s 2001 single ‘F*ck The Police’, a sweary middle finger to the cops powered by fluttering flutes and a sturdy funky drummer backbeat. Much, though, is new. ‘Gangsta Boogie’ is a squirming G-funk jam of the kind that’s pretty much obligated to feature a Snoop Dogg verse (it does, too), while ‘The Ex’ is a Pete Rock-produced soul number featuring Bilal that’ll charm anyone currently bumping Kendrick or D’Angelo.
Certainly, ‘The Diary’ does give the lie to a certain view of Dilla: the backroom guy making downbeat instrumental hip hop. On ‘Fight Club’, he sounds pugilistic, spitting war rhymes over a tense kick drum. Nothing here totally confounds the suspicion that Yancey was a brilliant producer, but merely an able rapper. Still, as a respectable cap on a great body of work, ‘The Diary’ will do nicely.