Dilla Liked Donuts: Jay Dee’s final works
Today marks the sixth anniversary of the release of J. Dilla’s final record, the 31 track masterpiece Donuts. A significant date not only because it was released on Dilla’s birthday, but also three days before he passed away at the much-too-young age of 32, victim to rare blood disease TTP.
Donuts was an incredible feat; 29 of the 31 tracks were produced in a hospital bed; made on a Boss SP-303 sampler which along with a small record player to sample from was a gift from his friends at Stones Throw, brought in so he could make beats during his stay (and undoubtedly keep his sanity in the place, as anyone who has had a long stay in hospital will attest to!).
The album has a haphazard feeling; most of the tracks come in at under a minute thirty and even the longest joint finishes shy of the three minute mark. At first listen the album feels sketchy, loose edged and even thrown together, but with each listen the simplicity and genius of the production shines through more and more. It’s not hard to see why Guilty Simpson described Dilla as “the best, the best motherfucker I’ve ever been around. He’s very technical, still in love with the studio, still in love with the process of creating.”
In an interview with Fader magazine, Dilla’s mother Maureen Yancey (better known to the hip hop world as Ma Dukes) spoke passionately about the track Lightworks, saying “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”, in the same interview also giving an insight into Dilla’s work ethic: “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.”
That blend of way out there, classical, commercial and underground is definitely one of the things that makes Donuts such a special record. Dilla makes use of obvious and well known samples without a care, while still giving them his own twist. E.S.G’s UFO has been used over and over since it’s release, but we’re just going to put it out there that Geek Down is easily one of the tracks to do it best.
In spite of this, many people find the record hard to take in on the first few listens. With such a raw, disjointed feeling and an apparent lack of structure, it’s an album that can easily go over people’s heads. It’s once you get a feel for the tracks, the patterns in chaos that the real beauty of Donuts shines through, a rare hip hop album that you can listen to over and over, still finding new little intricacies on each listen. Dilla himself described Donuts as “just a compilation of the stuff I thought was a little too much for the MCs. That’s basically what it is, ya know? Me flipping records that people really don’t know how to rap on but they want to rap on“.
As well as a mix of classic and obscure breaks from various Motown artists, James Brown, Kool & The Gang Jay Dee also samples a range of artists from The Beastie Boys to Frank Zappa to the (once) obscure arrangements of Raymond Scott, not to mention of course his trademark heavy use of the siren from the intro of heavy Mantronix joint King Of The Beats.
As for the title Donuts? The New York Times explained all in an an article on Dilla’s death:
The record company issued a brief note about the title: Easy explanation. Dilla likes donuts. Yesterday his mother managed a chuckle when she confirmed that fact. “I just bought two dozen a week ago”.
A stack of beats from Donuts also went on to see a second life, used on albums and mixtapes by friends, collaborators and fans of Dilla including (MF) Doom, Ghostface Killah, The Roots, Talib Kwali and Busta Rhymes. In fact, following J Dilla’s death, a lot of cats he worked with recorded tributes in support of the man and his legacy. This, with the addition of media exposure went on to Dilla’s music enjoying significantly more listeners than he had during his life. But more so than this, Dilla is remembered as the man who influenced, inspired and some say even gave birth to a whole new generation of beatmakers.
J. Dilla – Geek Down video clip
A fan made film clip for Geek Down, directed and animated by Steve Smith.