make some noise.
From Slum Village and a prolific solo career, to producing tracks for A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, The Roots and more, J Dilla not only created some of the most formidable hip-hop music of all time, he truly transformed the art form, and almost singlehandedly put Detroit back on the map as a music mecca for the first time since Motown headed west.
More than a decade after losing Dilla though, his legendary final album, Donuts — released just three days before his death at 32 years old — remains perhaps his most celebrated work.
The album’s title was a tribute to Dilla’s well-documented love of those deep-fried delights — a love that was sparked by his Uncle, Herman Hayes, long before his nephew’s rise to fame began.
Hayes grew up in Black Bottom on Detroit’s east side but left the city to join the army in 1976.
“I was working in the kitchen as a baker in the army, then started training to be a chef after I got out. I did my apprenticeship at Detroit Athletic Club — that’s how I met some people from Dawn Donuts and ended up working for them.”
During his time at Dawn, whenever he would visit his sister back in Detroit, he would bring his nephew, James, a fresh box of donuts, unknowingly sparking what would become a life-long obsession.
“Even though he was a kind of a reclusive of a kid, he would always bug me about bringing donuts when I came to visit.”
Hayes left Dawn in the early 90s but found himself back in the bakery business not long after.
“I got out of baking for a while, but then, in 1997, I just happened to walk into Avalon and became one of their first employees. They taught me so much about making healthier choices in baking. At Dawn, we would just pour a bag of flour into a mixer, add water and deep fry the dough in lard. But Avalon was all about using better, locally-sourced products, like organic flour and natural ways of leveling dough. That changed the whole baking game for me.”
At the time, Cass Corridor was a very different place than it is today, and he was struck by the burgeoning bakery’s decision to open up shop there.
“I remember it being groundbreaking because Cass Corridor was rough territory at that time. I grew up among a lot of criminal activity and drug use — a lot of people I knew and was related to were in the drug industry, and though I wasn’t involved with that stuff myself, I knew that area through those people. It was just desolate, with vacant lots and homeless people who were struggling — the whole neighborhood was struggling. And I think Avalon… It was like a virus — a positive virus that started to spread good through the neighborhood.”
After a few years working at Avalon, he relocated to South Carolina, then Atlanta, Georgia. It was while living there that he received a call from his oldest son, that his nephew, J, had passed away. He also told him that J had released his final album, Donuts, in the days before his death, and at that moment, Herman resolved to one day open a Donut shop in his honor.
Actually realizing that dream was still years away, but soon after J’s death he began collaborating with his niece, Roshonda, to raise money and awareness for Lupus — the disease that took J’s life — with annual walks that took place in Detroit and around the country.
Then, when the walks ceased in 2010, he turned his attention back to opening the shop. When he did, friends and family rallied around him to help bring the idea to life. From Roshonda leading the fundraising charge and Brian Dubois of 237 AM studios designing renderings for the shop to Mike Vanover of Vanover’s Makeovers assisting with the build out and Avalon offering their bakehouse as a production facility, he finally opened Dilla’s Delights in 2016. The shop is in The Ashley, formerly the Milner Hotel, where Dilla's mother once lived and worked years before.
“I had no plans to go back into the doughnut business until after my nephew died. I just felt this store was a way to pay tribute to him and honor his musical and personal legacy. He was a good kid and made great music and was respected by everybody in the industry. So I wanted to do something that sustained his memory, other than just hearing his music now and then.”
Aside from being a tribute to his nephew and a gift to Dilla’s mother and children, he is proud to run a business that offers a healthier option for Detroiters to get their sweet fix.
“We all need to make healthier food choices, but particularly in the African American community. Our community needs to eat healthier and take better care of ourselves. We have to slow down the rates hypertension and high blood pressure and things of that nature. I love sweet, fatty foods, but at the same time, I wanted to put out a healthier product that still tasted good.
Owning his own business in the city has also given Hayes a new perspective on what it means to be a part of Detroit’s come back.
“It gives you a sense of pride and makes you kind of take ownership of Detroit… The way things have turned around, a lot of people feel left out and are critical of that turn around because it doesn't include them or their neighborhoods. But I actually think it does, and they just don't realize it. The thing is, you have to get in there and do something to make yourself a part of it. You gotta come down here and see for yourself what’s going on. If you don't like it, that’s fine. It's okay to say that, but at least come in before you criticize it. I know people who've never left Detroit or even the hood after being here for 50, 60 or 70 years, so you can't expect those people to come downtown on the regular. But we’ve got to do something about getting folks out here so they can see that these changes are good for the whole city.”
More than just visiting though, Hayes believes that every Detroiter — from the downtown business district to the far corners of the city — has something of value to contribute to the city’s renaissance. That’s why he hopes his decision to start a business might inspire the very folks he’s talking about — those who feel forgotten away from the bright lights of downtown — to leverage their talents and start something of their own. Because if his story is proof of anything, it’s that in Detroit, if you’re willing to take a chance on yourself, the city has your back.
“I think that if people could see that where I come from is where they come from and that they too can open a business, maybe that will help bridge that gap. There are some great cooks in the families in the hood, and plenty of great minds as well. But they need to see more of the people who come from where they come from out here doing things. That will motivate them. Especially kids. I mean, I probably had that attitude of, ‘oh, they don’t care about me, why should I try, that’ll never happen for me’ a couple of times throughout my adolescence and young adulthood. We all have those thoughts, but you have to snap out of it and say, ‘the hell with it. I’m going to make it happen... I'm going to do something... I'm going to make some noise here.’”