Rewind: J Dilla's Donuts

Rewind: J Dilla's Donuts

[Originally posted on TIDAL Read]

With TIDAL Rewind, we blow the dust off an old album that’s begging to be heard again. Here we look back at J Dilla’s ‘Donuts’, which just turned ten years old.

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What is Donuts?

Donuts is the lionized instrumental hip-hop album by revered producer J Dilla. It was released ten years ago, on February 7, 2006, just three days before his death at the age of 32.

The story of Donuts roots back to 2002, when Dilla was diagnosed with the incurable blood disease known as TTP, which he would battle and manage until his eventual passing. It was during a drawn-out hospital stay in summer 2005 that Donuts came to be. Armed with a Boss SP-303 sampler and a portable 45 rpm record player, brought to him by friends from respected indie label Stones Throw, Dilla would produce 29 of the album’s 31 tracks in the hospital, leaving behind a lingering parting gift that keeps on giving today.

What does it sound like?

With nearly all tracks clocking in between 1 and 2 minutes long, the cuts on Donuts are in a way more like building blocks than full songs — the enriched raw material to be further synthesized into fully-formed rap songs, and many of Dilla’s peers and contemporaries have used it as such.

All that said, the tracks on Donuts do work as songs. The sonic vignettes play like a turntable-driven variety show, brilliantly featuring J Dilla’s masterclass sampling technique that digs deep into the dusty vinyl bins of yesterday, from vintage jazz and soul and to spoken word and television jingles. Listening through the album is a fascinating and groovy journey into the mind, not to mention the body and soul, of the best beatmaker of his generation — an artist who was consciously aware of his imminent mortality and clearly intent on leaving a lasting statement.

Not long after Dilla’s death, his mother, Maureen Yancey, told The FADER about watching her son create Donuts:

I knew he was working on a series of beat CDs before he came to Los Angeles. Donuts was a special project that he hadn’t named yet. This was the tail end of his “Dill Withers” phase, while he was living in Clinton Township, Michigan. You see, musically he went into different phases. He’d start on a project, go back, go buy more records and then go back to working on the project again…

I didn’t know about the actual album Donuts until I came to Los Angeles to stay indefinitely. I got a glimpse of the music during one of the hospital stays, around his 31st birthday, when [friend and producer] House Shoes came out from Detroit to visit him. I would sneak in and listen to the work in progress while he was in dialysis. He got furious when he found out I was listening to his music! He didn’t want me to listen to anything until it was a finished product.

He was working in the hospital. He tried to go over each beat and make sure that it was something different and make sure that there was nothing that he wanted to change. “Lightworks”, oh yes, that was something! That’s one of the special ones. It was so different. It blended classical music (way out there classical), commercial and underground at the same time.

Why should I care?

As quite possibly the most brilliant, prolific and influential producer to ever grace the realm of hip-hop, J Dilla (a.k.a. Jay Dee) was born James Dewitt Yancey and raised in Detroit. Emerging from Motor City’s underground hip-hop scene in the late ’90s as part of Slum Village, he would go on to coin some of the most timeless and appropriated productions in rap while collaborating with the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Common and Erykah Badu.

As J Dilla’s bona fide magnum opus, Donuts made it onto numerous lists of the best hip-hop albums of the year, of the decade and of all time. The songs have been heavily re-sampled, by the likes Drake, Nas, Talib Kweli, Jay Electronica, Big Sean and Lupe Fiasco, as well as on numerous tracks by Ghostface Killah, Busta Rhymes and The Roots.

A decade after his death, J Dilla’s legacy remains a looming presence. He’s frequently cited as an influence or inspiration by a broad mix of musicians, from obvious hip-hoppers to electronic producers like Joy Orbison and Darkstar and indie acts like The xx and Panda Bear. This past weekend marked the second annual J Dilla Weekend in Miami, an extension of Detroit’s annually celebrated J Dilla Day. His mother also recently donated a custom-made synthesizer and drum machine to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, to be featured as part of the soon-to-open Musical Crossroads exhibit.

Where do I hear more?

The far-reaching influence of J Dilla is like a mighty tree that towers above ground, while revealing the true extent of its roots under the surface.

Along with rappers (and childhood friends) Baatin and T3, Jay Dee would found hip-hop trio Slum Village in 1996. He produced and rapped on their respected first three albums — including the critically-hailed Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1) (1997) and Fantastic, Vol. 2 (2000) — before splitting to pursue a solo career in 2001.

Dilla’s solo debut, Welcome 2 Detroit, helped solidify his reputation as a preeminent beatmaker. J Dilla’s a supreme talent for crafting unique and memorable productions, utilizing modified synthesizers and drum machines and harvesting rare samples meticulously culled from endless stacks of forgotten vinyl. Prior to Donuts, Dilla released numerous other instrumental albums and EPs, as well as instrumental versions of his vocal-laden work, essentially creating an open-source vault of ready-made beats for rappers and fellow producers to build their own tracks from.

Though unfinished at the time of his death, J Dilla’s highly-anticipated non-instrumental follow-up to Welcome 2 Detroit, The Shining was released in August 2006 to favorable reviews, and featured vocal contributions from Common, Busta Rhymes, D’Angelo, Madlib and Black Thought, among others.

J Dilla’s list of production credits is a massive and continues to grow thanks to numerous posthumous releases and the perennial sampling of his work. Notable credits include classic recordings by A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, D’Angelo, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, The Roots, The Pharcyde and Common, as well as recent music by DOOM, Joey Bada$$ and Nas. Ten years since his passing, J Dilla’s spirit is alive and well.

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