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From 40 to Dilla: The Beauty of Raging Against the Dying Light

"What will never change, in sickness or in health, is the desire to do what brings us joy. It is the best thing—the only thing—we can do with our time."

I. The Cancer of Time Is Eating Us Away 

“I know that, one day, I will have to face the situation where I’ll stop drawing for good, and I am working at learning how to live with such a concept. But if, or when I do it, it won’t be because my hand will be too shaky to hold a pen.” —Jean “Moebius” Giraud. 

Learning of an illness without a cure often comes without preparation. The revelation is spontaneous and painful, like the sudden collapse of a lung. First comes the panic, then fear and anxiety, all falling upon the flesh like frigid raindrops downpouring on a cloudless June afternoon. No umbrella for comfort; no raincoat for convenience. To be baptized in bad news. 

The two main themes of Pusha-T’s “The Story of Adidon” are dissection and disclosure. He is Dr. Peter Benton rather than Terrence Thornton, the surgeon operating instead of a rapper battling. Unveiling the existence of Drake’s son and the now-defunct Adidas rollout was more impressive than any rabbit pulled from a magician’s hat, but the lyrics poking fun at Noah “40” Shebib’s multiple sclerosis hit the hardest. “OVO 40, hunched over like he 80—Tick, tick, tick,” he rapped, “How much time he got? That man is sick, sick, sick.

The luxury of time has been Pusha’s biggest boast throughout the rollout of his latest album, DAYTONA. Taunting 40 with the idea that his time may soon be up is cruel irony, topped only by the release of “The Story of Adidon” just 24 hours prior to World MS Day. 

Without the knowledge that 40 is battling a disease, hearing Pusha's lyrics is like being told a distant relative has been ailing in silence. The imagery of him sick and hunched over is jarring, but adds new light upon what Drake rapped four years prior on “0 to 100 / The Catch Up”:

"I got 40 in the studio, every night, late night / Gotta watch that shit, don't want to make him sicker / That's my nigga"

Noah “40” Shebib is a man of the shadows. Which is why it may be surprising to learn the Toronto native was a child actor before becoming the architect, producer, engineer, and best friend of the biggest rapper in the world. For someone who operates in the background, it’s hard to imagine him existing in the spotlight. When Drake and Shebib entered the industry together, before the 2009 release of So Far Gone, the 35-year-old producer was four years removed from being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 2005, on his 22nd birthday, Shebib had his first bout with the nervous system-destroying chronic illness. 30 days later, he was unable to walk. 

Soon thereafter, sensory complications began to sprout; 40 could no longer process hot and cold temperatures. In a rare, 2011 profile on The FADER, the mastermind producer briefly touched on the three-plus years he spent working his way back to his feet: “I was walking slower than grandma for six months, then like grandma for six months,” he explained to writer Nick Sylvester. Multiple sclerosis affects each person differently and currently has no cure. With disease-modifying drugs, exacerbations can be managed, but there’s no promise in feeling well tomorrow. 

“The most difficult things about living with MS, he says, are 'explaining to people how MS works, justifying the effects of MS, and the "but you look so good" syndrome. I wish people knew how unpredictable the disease is. One day I can walk five miles and the following day only 500 feet. It is very difficult for people to grasp that concept.'” —Noah “40” Shebib

When the dots begin to connect, it makes sense why Shebib doesn’t go on tour; why only a door separates 40’s condo from the multi-million dollar OVO studio and office space. You begin to wonder whether Drake’s perpetual release schedule is tied to a team racing against an unpredictable clock. 40 hasn’t kept his condition a secret—he’s an ambassador for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society—but the status of his day-to-day is unknown. 

40 has only conducted a handful of interviews, and they mainly focus on the creative process behind the music, not the health of the creator during it. He is the OVO owl who stays away from unwanted eyes and unnecessary cameras. He is a man of the shadows, private as a vigilante and mysterious as a house filled with balloons.

Pusha’s nod toward time could simply be malicious, the petty remark of a villain going for the kill. Or, just like Adonis, maybe Pusha knows something we don’t. Tick, tick, tick.

II. Time: The Donut of the Heart 

“I know why this has happened,” Ali said. “God is showing me, and showing you”—he pointed his shaking index finger at me and widened his eyes—”that I’m just a man, just like everybody else." —Muhammad Ali, "My Dinner With Ali"

During his first, initial stint in the hospital, 40 worked off a laptop and portable keyboard. He decided nothing would hinder his ability to create. “...I said, 'I’ve got this disease, I'm going to live with it. I'm going to win it and my story is going to be that much better when I get there.' I made that decision very early on in my diagnosis,” he told CNN in a 2012 interview. These are the words of a fighter; a man who will challenge whatever odds he must to be an artist. They’re bold, beautiful, and inspiring words, but they aren't delivered without fear.

Multiple sclerosis could strip away the fine motor control of his fingers, hindering the hands that have played the piano since he was three years old; hands that have produced on and engineered every Drake album since So Far Gone. The mind may conjure the vision, but God is in the hands. 

The potential pitfalls of MS remind me of what Jordan Ferguson wrote in his 33 1/3 book about James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J. Dilla, and his classic album, Donuts

"Lupus is a monstrous disease, causing the body to essentially become allergic to itself. Coupled with TTP, the pair formed a brutal tag-team of ailments that damaged Dilla’s kidney and left the joints in his hands swollen and stiff, particularly cruel punishment for a man who spent his life flipping through stacks of records and tapping out beats on the pads of a sampler."

J. Dilla, much like 40, was private about his personal health. Dilla was diagnosed with thrombotic thrombocytopenic pura, or TTP, an incurable, rare blood disease, sometime after returning from a 2002 European tour. Kelly Carter of the Detroit Free Press noted how TTP is a disease that causes kidney failure, severe blood-sugar swings, and immune system issues. Jay Dee’s body was fighting an internal war, but this wasn’t the knowledge of the public. 

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We weren't supposed to know about the extended months spent between the walls at Cedars-Sinai hospital or the countless treatments of dialysis. Dilla’s hematologist, Dr. Aron Bick, would say the incurable medical condition didn’t become a handicap. “He didn’t want to be a professional patient,” Dr. Bick notes in Ferguson's 33 1/3 dedication to Donuts

On Nobody's Smiling deep cut “Rewind That,” Common, over the No I.D.-produced soul loop of “Telegram” by Eleanore Mills, touches on his time spent living with Jay Dee, from meeting the acclaimed producer in Q-Tip’s basement to watching his fallen friend waste away in their California apartment. “The beats got iller, but the sickness was still there,” he raps, illustrating how Dilla’s illness didn’t hinder the potency of his creations, but that as his health progressively got worse it only hurt more to witness. 

Hearing Common open up about Dilla's final days makes me wonder how Drake must feel if, in fact, his best friend's health is truly in decline. Throughout the A Side of Scorpion, Drake touches on various lines from "The Story of Adidon,” but he doesn’t make a single reference about 40’s health. On the album where Drake is his most paranoid, betrayed, and alone, he's also at his most rich and famous, but no amount of money in the world can help cure an incurable disease. 

On “Is There More,” the outro that concludes Scorpion’s Side A, Drake raps, “I got fear of havin’ things on my mind when I die,” a rare mortality reference from the man who promotes more life. The fear of dying with words unsaid is true for any man, but for creatives, the fear of dying with ideas unmade is equally as frightening. Dilla was, without question, a vessel of limitless potential. His mind still had ideas left to create; there was plenty of music unborn. The tragedy of life is how fragile bodies are, and the likelihood of flesh expiring before genius. 

Nothing stops the clock toward our final hour. Nothing on this Earth slows down the haunting tick, tick, tick. 

III. Rage, Rage, Against the Dying of the Light

"To whom much is given, much is expected. To whom much is given, much can be taken away. A reminder that life is fragile and we should cherish and fear that sobering fact. Heroes eventually die" —John Noire

Jean “Moebius” Giraud wrote the opening quote that begins this article in 1989. It’s from the opening pages of the prolific French artist, cartoonist, and writer's art book, Chaos. Moebius wasn't naïve about his future, nor the inevitability that old age affects an artist’s ability to create. He decided that drawing was an expression of joy, and even if his work would suffer due to the shaky hand of an elder, he would continue until there was no more joy in creating. 

By the time of his death at the age of 73, it wasn’t the shake of his hand, but the decline of his vision that caused doing what he enjoyed to become more strenuous. Life has a way of being a Shakespearean comedian when it comes to the things we lose. It’s always the invaluable, never the replaceable. 

At the time, Moebius was earning more money than ever for his work, but it wasn’t capitalism that drove him to draw; it was the sense of purity the craft brought to his soul. Joy is the driving force when creating is the purest euphoria. During my recent interview with DJ Premier, 52, the veteran producer acknowledged that joy and love, not celebrity and money, are the driving forces behind his advanced career.

Preemo recently brought his drum machine to his ailing father’s home during their final days together. He has found in his craft more than an outlet for creativity, but a companion for comfort and distraction. I sense the same for Dilla, who looked toward music to express his awareness and acceptance of time running out. 

Donuts is a testimony of how the presence of death and decay did not defeat James Dewitt Yancey. When you read of his mother massaging his fingers after they swelled to a size impossible to program his drum machine, that’s the persistence of a warrior and determined craftsmen. When you hear of Dilla touring in Europe during December 2005, performing from a wheelchair, it’s the resistance of an inevitable faith. 

Being able to spend his 32nd birthday at home, and not in the hospital, on the day of Donuts' release, was a brief, but beautiful victory in a long war that Dilla was determined to fight until the bitter end. That unwavering spirit takes me back to the aforementioned Muhammad Ali, and how the champ resisted being overcome by Parkinson’s disease. Ali's long-term degenerative disorder took the floating from his feet and the poetry from his tongue; the celebrity athlete was robbed of the very tools that defined him, but he didn’t stop as if he were signed to Bad Boy.

In 2016, Gay Talese wrote an excellent Ali story for Esquire detailing a trip to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro in 1996. There’s one quote that has continued to stick with me:

"But the mind behind his Parkinson’s mask is functioning normally, and he is characteristically committed to what he is doing: He is spelling out his full name on whatever cards or scraps of paper his admirers are handing him. “Muhammad Ali.” He does not settle for a time-saving “Ali” or his mere initials. He has never short changed his audience."

Even after his boxing career ended, and throughout his battle with Parkinson's, Ali never lost the desire to be a symbol of strength and a provider of joy for people. Ali wasn’t bested by the thing he could not control. Dilla wasn’t bested by the illness he could not cure. 40 said that nothing will ever stop him from making music, and he has made good on that promise 13 years straight. In the CNN interview where he talked about his MS, 40 displayed the fortitude of a man who will not be bested.

Time is the one resource we never get more of, the one thing we can’t barter or trade for in life. All we get is a lifetime, no matter how long or short that may be. Health will not always be in our control, even when we consciously treat our bodies as holy temples. What will never change, in sickness or in health, is the desire to do what brings us joy. It is the best thing—the only thing—we can do with our time. 

I wish Noah “40” Shebib a long life, and the strength to do what he loves until there’s no love left. I commend him for being the most recent example of a man raging against the dying light. And I hope, when my time comes, that I find the will that he has to rage against the final tick, tick tick. 

By Yoh, aka Yohbius, aka @Yoh31



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