If it weren’t for Google and an inexplicable whim, this story wouldn’t be told. If Jeff Bubeck hadn’t Googled the name “James Yancey,” the Detroit News|newswell|text|Entertainment|p wouldn’t have shown up at his store, UHF Records in Royal Oak, Mich. The locally owned business also wouldn’t have been on the front pages of websites like All Hip Hop, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork or even Paste.
But he did. And as many hip-hop fans know, Googling “James Yancey” inevitably links to the late producer and hip-hop star J Dilla, who is best known for his work with rap and hip-hop acts including A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Busta Rhymes. Dilla died in early 2006 from the autoimmune disease lupus when he was just 32.
Bubeck, who co-owns UHF, found the boxes and tapes with Yancey’s name on them in a storage locker outside Detroit.
“Being an owner of the store, me and my partner are always out, going on appointments and buying collections,” Bubeck explained during a phone interview. “This particular call was from a storage unit business. It’s basically a ‘mom and pop’ kind of set up, as opposed to some of these chains where stuff goes to auction after it hasn’t been paid for a few months.”
Bubeck eventually paid the rent on the unit and left all of the boxes of records, tapes and other collected items (which had already been sitting there for about six years) in place.
At first, Bubeck just took a couple boxes of records back to UHF to start processing the inventory. “We were actually selling stuff long before we even knew what it was. I mean, I didn’t know! It was just another collection, just like any other collection I’ve ever bought,” he said.
As he continued transporting crates from the storage locker to the store, Bubeck found one box that was full of homemade cassette tapes. “That’s what I could see when I first [got] the unit and there was a bunch of junk mail on the top of it,” he said. “I looked at the junk mail and the name on it was Beverly Yancey and that name meant nothing to me…and then actually, later on I found a James Yancey. I didn’t think twice on it. I’d never heard of James Yancey.
“Three or four days later, I don’t know why I did it, but we were driving to another record appointment and I just punched in ‘James Yancey’ into Google on my iPhone and the first thing that popped up was the J Dilla Wikipedia page. And I know who J Dilla is so I was shocked and I couldn’t believe that was it. The next day I went back to the bin and started actually looking at what was in that box and the homemade cassettes that basically filled the box all said stuff like, ‘Jay Dee Beats’ on it and it was all handwritten tapes.”
Bubeck continued, “With further digging in the box looking at some paperwork, there was a cash disbursement for Slum Village [his record label], from their lawyer. So there was no doubt at that point that it was once his.”
Realizing whose record collection had been on sale in UHF for two weeks, Bubeck then began labeling Dilla’s records and reaching out to as many people as possible to try to track down the Yancey family and J Dilla Foundation. His search led him to Ben Blackwell at Third Man Records and Chris Manak of Peanut Butter Wolf, but attempts at reaching Dilla’s mother, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, were unsuccessful.
By the time Record Store Day came around, almost a month had passed since Bubeck had originally bought the unit and found the albums. He had all but given up hope of reaching Dilla’s family. “At this point, I’m not hearing back from anybody, so as far as I’m concerned, they don’t care,” he seemed to shrug. But when rumors broke out that some of Dilla’s record collection was on sale at the Michigan record store, the Detroit News showed up to cover it.
“That first article blew up,” said Bubeck. “Ms. Yancey then did get in touch with me. She ended up calling the store. She apologized for ignoring the emails. She was getting the messages, but she told me that she is constantly bothered, while it’s died down a lot, she still gets bothered by scammers.”
Ms. Yancey and Bubeck recently met at the stage facility to check out the findings. “I gave her, as was my original intent, all his personal contents—the mail, his tapes—I just turned it all over to her,” he stated, noting that she didn’t even seem that interested in the collection of approximately 8,000 vinyl records. According to Bubeck, the family asked for about 100 records that they hoped would eventually go into a Detroit hip-hop museum.
That fateful meeting was mutually beneficial, especially for Yancey.
“She was beyond grateful,” said Bubeck. “I loved the fact that when I took her over to the storage bin and opened that one box that was full of personal items, the look on her face was priceless. It was joyful and heartbreaking at the same time. The first thing out of her mouth after a few moments of silence was, ‘That’s his writing.’ She recognized his writing and it just brought the biggest smile to her face. Honestly, that was worth it.”
For now Bubeck, UHF, Yancey and the J Dilla Foundation are working together to figure out the best way to disseminate the records. Said Bubeck, “We’re trying to figure out a way to get it in the hands of the fans and do some good for the Foundation.” You can check out images of the record collection (courtesy Bubeck and originally posted on UHF’s Facebook page) below.