Donuts, Dilla and The Hip-Hop Work Ethic


By: Justin Cook

Back in my teenage days, my older brother passed Donuts around the family, claiming it to be one of the best hip-hop albums ever created. I listened, but I didn’t understand. Where were the lyrics, the hooks? Why have so many short tracks? The record sounded so scattered to me – what made this such a classic album? Over the years, I slowly started to understand why Donuts is that album. I realized to fully appreciate the subtleties of Donuts, one must first understand the genius of James Dewitt Yancey.

J Dilla dedicated his life and soul to music. Born and raised on the eastside of Detroit, young James was conditioned to be a musical genius; his mother, a former opera singer, and father, a jazz bassist, instilled within him a unique ear for beats and melodies. At two months old, he could match pitch perfect harmony, and by two years old, he began collecting vinyl. Yes, by the age of two J Dilla was already starting his massive vinyl collection, which one day helped create his magnum opus, Donuts. By the time he was in high school, Dilla had developed a passion for hip-hop music, and began making beats on an old-school tape deck, often spending days alone in the basement with only his records for company.

Once he left the basement, Dilla’s revolutionary style turned heads throughout the hip-hip world. Over the span of his career, Dilla worked with artists such as The Roots, Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Common, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli, D’Angelo, and many, many more. To them, Dilla wasn’t just a producer, he was an artist, a living inspiration, a being of the beat. His energy and aura were unlike anything hip-hop had experienced, bringing a much needed soul back into the music.

The genius of Dilla stems from his experimentation and creativity throughout the recording process. Whether he was recording live instruments, or getting the levels of a beat just right, Dilla found the exact sound he wanted. He would do this by any means necessary: shitty drums, pounding his chest, using old ass tape decks, or scouring his endless vinyl collection. Of course, this was only possible because Dilla had the most delicate ear for producing, refined by years of listening to a wide variety of music. His ever-changing style carved a new path for the future of hip-hop.

Throughout the years, Dilla always evolved with his sounds. A few years for Dilla would be decades for your typical producer. He had a gift, and an extremely unique ear for melodies and beats. During his time in Slum Village, when he was first spreading his wings, he had a chill, lo-fi, jazz vibe going. The snares were crisp, and the bass riff hit in all the right places, loosely grooving around the beat; his plump low ends had a certain fuzz. It was like the intimate sounds of a dusty Detroit basement. That kind of shit you just chill out and smoke to. It had a jazz echo like hip-hop’s golden-era, but a little more gritty and raw.

Then, he began working with the Soulquarians, and his sound adapted – adding live instruments and a more soulful, afro-funk kind of feel. This is when he began to shine, and the hip-hop community truly took notice. His recording and producing skills were out of this world; his levels were just right. The music was smoother, more refined than his previous efforts. He brushed the cobwebs off his bass tones and tightened the beat. He began experimenting with syncopation, creating intricate rhythmic textures unlike anything heard in the hip-hop world. In the next few years, he helped produce Voodoo by D’Angelo, Mama’s Gun by Erykah Badu, The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, and Common’s Like Water For Chocolate. But when it came to making Electric Circus, he totally flipped his sound.

The result resembled some cross between 60’s psychedelic and 70’s funk, with a dab of neo-soul. It still stands as a unique moment in hip-hop history. Dilla, along with Soulquarians, ?uestlove and James Poyser, produced most of Common’s Electric Circus. It’s like a futuristic Sgt. Pepper, dipped in a river of synthesizers. The cover even alludes to Sgt. Pepper: Common’s face surrounded by the people who have influenced his art. Look close enough, you’ll see Dilla. Tracks like “Electric Wire Hustler Flower”, “Between Me, You & Liberation”, and “Jimi Was a Rock Star” highlight the experimental nature of the album. It’s a musical odyssey through spaced out beats, but somehow, Dilla keeps us grounded in his signature style.

All the while, his medical conditions, thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura and lupus, were getting worse. He began losing a lot of weight, and his illness became very apparent. After Electric Circus, around 2002, his output started to slow down. This began the last stretch of Dilla’s producing career. In his final years, he still managed to put out a ridiculous amount of music. Most of which were written and produced on his deathbed. He developed hip-hop with a new age soul that culminated into his final symphony of samples: Donuts.

It was the last album Dilla produced completely by himself. Written, and conceived, in the hospital with a sampler and a small ’45 record player. Dilla carefully picked the albums, from his library, that would form the narrative of his opus. He worked long days and nights, putting in the necessary hours, despite his fate. As a result, Donuts is a hip-hop masterpiece. A mosaic of James Dewitt Yancey’s life.

When I listen to the album now, I understand. I can hear Dilla speaking through the beats—through those well placed vocal samples. Even without a verse, or lyrics, Donuts is more poetic than most hip-hop today. It is a composition, mixing all genres of music into one seamless record. Every song is like a snapshot of Dilla’s life. I can imagine him sifting through his album collection – the one he’s been collecting his entire life – reflecting back on all the memories they gave me, in search of the sounds that will carry on his legacy.

First off, Donuts begins with the “Outro” and ends with the “Intro”. Almost as if the album begins with his death, and the rest is his life flashing before our eyes – or should I say ears, only to end with a new beginning. It’s as if Dilla is reborn every time someone plays the album. “The New” he is referring to, is the new J Dilla. The Dilla you have to “put on wax” to experience. Immediately after, the song switches to “Stop!” with its dancing strings, and refrain: “you’re gonna need me one day, you’re gonna want me back in your arms…”  The guitars soar into “People”.

The beats come one after another like a barrage of Dilla wisdoms. Each one bumping harder than the last – swelling with every emotion. We reach “Two Can Win”, whose vocal sample ironic declares, “only one will win”. It’s as if he is coming to terms with his own mortality, realizing death is the ultimate victory. Then, it transitions to “Don’t Cry”, which always makes me cry; Dilla singing from behind the sampler, “I can’t stand to see you cry…” It’s as if he is living in the grooves of my vinyl. Soon we reach “One for Ghost”, a dedication to a deceased Dilla from himself. It’s self-awareness hits just as hard today. By the time we get to “Last Donut of the Night”, I can barely keep myself composed. That song is a sonic tombstone. Inscribed with a sample as the epigraph: “young man went out and made a name for himself, been on every record breaking show in Regal Theatre for the last two years…” I can see him taking a bow, crowd throwing roses on his grave.

J Dilla was an artist, a being of the beat – earning him a level of respect few have in the hip-hop world. He went out with unheard of humility and grace. But Donuts wasn’t his last words. Dilla recorded multiple albums worth of music during his hospital time. Most of The Shining was made along with Donuts (“Bye.” and “So Far to Go” are different versions of the same beat). I always laugh when The Shining ends with “Won’t Do”. The guy is dying but still needs more than two women. It’s amazing how loyal Dilla was to his craft. Endless fucking dedication. Perseverance. The man was constantly “Workinonit”. Doing nine to five; not because he had to, but because he needed to. Hip-hop was life. There was no distinction between James Yancey and his music. That man even toured Europe in a wheelchair, months before his death. He loved people and the eternal bonds of hip-hop. To see mankind coming together under one rhythm, celebrating the ecstasy of life. Jay Dee, I Love-U.

Favorite Tracks:

“Don’t Cry”
“So Far To Go”
“Fall In Love”
“Think Twice”
“Crushin’ (Yeeeahhhhhh)”
“The Light (From Like Water for Chocolate)”

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