J Dilla’s Gear Is Headed To The Smithsonian

By Ally Schweitzer

J Dilla's mother, Maureen Yancey, donated her late son's equipment to the Smithsonian Institution.
J Dilla's mother, Maureen Yancey, donated her late son's equipment to the Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian

Gear belonging to the late hip-hop producer James “J Dilla” Yancey is headed to the Smithsonian. A synthesizer and drum machine used by the influential producer will be added to the institution’s forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Dilla’s mother Maureen Yancey donated her son’s custom-made Minamoog Voyager synthesizer and rare Akai MIDI Production Center 3000 Limited Edition to the museum. The announcement came Thursday during the annual D.C. Loves Dilla concert at Howard Theatre, when Ms. Yancey and popular-music historian Timothy Anne Burnside made the big reveal to hoots and applause from the audience. This YouTube video captures it:

Burnside announced at last week’s show that by early 2016, “you will be able to walk through the Smithsonian’s newest museum—[the] final jewel in the crown in the Smithsonian museums on the Mall. This museum will celebrate African American history and culture through every possible lens, through every experience… and I’m here to announce today that also there when you walk through those doors will be Dilla.”

According to Burnside, the process of acquiring Dilla’s equipment took several years. “I’ve gotta say, we’ve been waiting to tell you guys for about a year now… I’ve been politely hounding this lovely woman here for about five years,” Burnside said, referring to Dilla’s mother. “And last year after this event right here in this very theater, she came to a place where it was time.”

The synthesizer and drum machine “will be part of the museum’s growing arts and entertainment collection designed to explore how popular music helped shape the nation’s history and culture politically and socially,” according to a Smithsonian press release. The items will be among others used in an exhibit called “Musical Crossroads,” one of the first shows on view when the museum opens in less than two years.

J Dilla, who died of lupus in 2006, is notable for his unique and vastly influential work with artists like A Tribe Called Quest, Common, and The Roots.

“Everyone who pays attention to hip-hop has heard J Dilla’s work whether they realize it or not,” Burnside is quoted as saying in the press release. “In the very demanding world of hip-hop producers, he was one of the busiest and most sought-after. He had a way of making his signature sound and creating something unique for the people he collaborated with. He could create a beat for anyone and make it sound like theirs and theirs alone.”

The Smithsonian’s 19th museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is currently under construction on the National Mall.