words by Erin Duncan
photography by Quinn Wilson
illustration by Ben Peterson
Lately Detroit has been synonymous with bankruptcy, political corruption and crisis. Over are the days of Motown glory and the Big Auto boom. It’s likely that donuts are not the first thing to come to mind, especially those prepared with all organic ingredients. But that’s soon to change if Herman Hayes has anything to say about it. Hayes is known as “Uncle Herm” to his late nephew, revered Detroit producer and rapper, James “Dilla” Yancey. Hayes is also a career baker and the owner of the soon-to-be opened “Dilla’s Delights” bakery, a project that was inspired by his nephew’s favorite pastry and magnum opus album, Donuts. Hayes hopes to position “Dilla’s Delights” squarely in the middle of Detroit’s emerging green movement, and in the process pay homage to one of the greatest hip hop producers who ever lived.
After Dilla (then known as Jay Dee) formed the group Slum Village in the early 90s along with high school classmates, T3 and Baatin, he caught the ear of Q-Tip and was brought along to produce for A Tribe Called Quest. He spent the better part of the next decade constructing the soundscape for the loosely formed “Soulquarian” collective that included Common, Mos Def, Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, as well as being sought after to produce seminal albums by The Pharcyde and Busta Rhymes. In his memoir "Mo' Meta Blues", fellow Soulquarian and famed drummer and bandleader of The Roots, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, credits Dilla as the single greatest influence on how he approached playing the drums.
Dilla’s passing in 2006 from Lupus came just days after releasing Donuts, his masterpiece of an instrumental album which soon became a hip hop cult classic, he was just 32 years old. It was a groundbreaking project and curtain call in a sense. The album was created during Dilla’s hospital stay and combined unconventional samples and experimental beats, reading almost like a farewell letter with tracks like “Waves” and “Don’t Cry.” Since his passing, there have been several projects created from Producers, Rappers and fans alike paying respect to the legend in their own way. From electronic indie darlings like Flying Lotus to chart toppers like Pharrell Williams, you’d be hard pressed to find a producer in the wide ranging hip-hop lexicon that doesn’t cite him as a major influence.
In addition to his fans and peers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Dilla’s family has also been instrumental in the preservation of his legacy. His mother Maureen Yancey, known to fans as “Ma Dukes” has made sure to be involved in her son’s posthumous releases. And despite numerous disputes with the proprietor of Dilla’s estate, Ma Dukes was happy to announce the formation of The J Dilla Foundation in 2012, which plans to support inner city music programs and Lupus research. Today, Ma Dukes’ younger brother Herm has made sure to preserve that legacy in the only way he knows how, by making donuts with the most environmentally friendly ingredients he can find.
“That’s more so about his legacy and the legacy that he should have in Detroit,” says Hayes, over the phone from Detroit. “Nobody’s going to do the music like him and the archives that he left. Nobody is. I don’t think he would be happy with anyone touching it [Dilla’s archived music] even though he knew he was leaving this world. I think he was quite the anal producer. He was just totally in love with it.”
It’s only fitting that Hayes pay tribute to his nephew in this manner, as he is the one who started Dilla’s love affair with donuts. “The basic story is I used to take my brother-in-law donuts because he used to work midnights and I was making donuts for a couple of firms back here in the 70’s and early 80’s. I used to take him donuts and he used to say ‘hey you didn’t bring donuts,’ and I was like ‘yeah I left them on the kitchen table.’ Well, low and behold, there would be a crushed box under James’ bed. He was jacking donuts at like five or six,” says Hayes. “I had no clue that this kid throughout his adulthood still adored donuts. He called his beats donuts, his women donuts, and everything was donuts. I had no clue.”
Hayes continues, “Right before [Dilla] he died actually, I found out he was making Donuts, and I was honored and amazed. [With “Dilla’s Delights”] finally, his mom and daughters can benefit from his genius.”
‘Dilla’s Delights’ is dedicated to Dilla’s two daughters, Ja’Mya and Ty-Monae, and is essentially what Dilla would have wanted his own donut shop to be – full of soul, creativity and high quality ingredients. The shop is located in the building that Dilla grew up in and where his parents once owned a restaurant called Lunar Café. In the shop, the walls will display metal numbers reading 412 and 413, the placards from the apartments that Dilla lived in. Dilla’s Delights, is also a few blocks away from Harmonie Park, where Dilla had his first DJ set ever at the age of six, with a Fisher Price-brand turntable. Spinning every day in the shop will be Dilla’s records and the records of artists he sampled throughout his career.
Hayes served as a baker and chef in the military, and returned to Detroit in 1997. He sought out a job with the, then just opening Avalon Bakery, where he learned to bake organic artisan bread. Since then Avalon has grown into a staple in Detroit and has subsisted as a business that is both community-supportive and environmentally-minded, sporting the motto “Eat Well, Do Good,” and meaning it. Business has gotten so good for Avalon that they recently purchased a 50,000 square foot warehouse as a new baking facility. Hayes hints that the Avalon owners want him to open up his own shop at the new headquarters.
With Dilla’s Delights, Hayes hopes to build on that same commitment to sustainability, which speaks to the new green-revitalization efforts that Detroit is currently experiencing. It’s a movement that Hayes credits his former employer, Avalon, for starting. In the wake of urban decay and massive population loss due to the collapse of the auto industry, urban gardens, recycling and bike lanes are beginning to emerge in Detroit.
“It started with the urban gardens or yuppies and [the] middle class moving back to Detroit, and it got contagious where the urbanites started appreciating it and started living that lifestyle,” Hayes says. “You see neighborhood gardens everywhere. There are a lot of vegans here and people riding bikes. We are drawing bike lanes all over Detroit now which is basically unheard of in my lifetime.” Hayes plans on using his own bike as Dilla’s Delight’s first “delivery vehicle.”
Hoping to practice what he preaches and following suit with the city in it’s attempts to go Green, Hayes is incorporating that health-conscious idea into his shop’s business model. His aim is to make the healthiest donut possible with no cancer causing agents. Everything in the shop will be “earth friendly” as well, from the cups and bags to the coffee stirrers.
The donuts themselves will be named with Dilla in mind. Hayes says, “So far, people are liking the ‘Fantastic Fritter’ which is naturally named after Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 1 & 2, the groundbreaking Hip-Hop albums. That’s dried organic cranberries, orange dust and cinnamon. We have a ‘McNasty Macaroon’ coming out which is naturally one of [Dilla’s] aliases. We have a ‘Coney Island Glaze’ which has an identity that I’m going to shock people with. It’s a plain glazed donut, but not a plain glazed donut,” says Hayes.
Along with tributes to his nephew, Herm plans on incorporating other cultural landmarks from the community that he sees worthy of preservation. “Detroit has a long-standing African American community called the Black Bottom, so there’s a ‘Black Bottom Beat Street Blueberry.” We infuse Hip-Hop with the community. It’s important to have things named after our city. We have an ‘Eastside Éclair’ – an Éclair that has great fillings. We’re doing a Keylime, but we call it a Delime and you have to say it like you’re from the island so it’s called a “Delime Nut.” Hayes has also been experimenting with savory pastries, which he hopes to introduce once the shop is up and running. “It’s something that I’m going to take pride in, pleasing palates,” he says.
Dilla’s Delights has plans of opening in the spring of 2014 and hopes to become a thriving asset in the movement by Detroit residents to rebuild their city by honoring one of their favorite native sons, and his favorite food. If there are any doubts that Hayes doesn’t have the best intentions in mind with his tribute, they should be answered with Hayes’ reaction when asked if he would be baking his own version of the wildly popular croissant and donut mash-up “Cronuts.” “Dilla wasn’t into fads, he was an original guy.”