Dusting Off… J Dilla’s Donuts
What is it?
Released in 2006 just three days before the untimely death of James Dewitt Yancey, better known as Jay Dee, J Dilla or simply Dilla, Donuts is the ninth studio album and final work of one of hip-hop’s finest ever producers – some would go as far as to say the greatest of all time – and certainly one of the most prolific.
Diagnosed with an incurable blood disease in 2002, in addition to having already been diagnosed with lupus, Dilla’s final years saw his health gradually deteriorating and by 2005 the pioneering producer was confined to a hospital bed. While there, some of his friends from label Stone’s Throw Records reportedly brought him a Boss SP-303 sampler and a miniature record player so he could make music while he was there, and 29 of the album’s 31 instrumental tracks were completed from within the hospital ward.
Any sane person could be forgiven for thinking that this might have impaired Dilla’s ability to produce beats of the same quality as the hip-hop world had come to expect from, but what is really astonishing about Donuts is that, although many of the tracks would be considered little more than sketches by the man himself, it is, in our opinion, still better than 90% of the genre’s records released that year.
As with much of Dilla’s output there is a staggering array of variety on display here, a case in point being the duo of the Burt Bacharach-sampling ‘Wakinonit’ and the 10cc-sampling ‘Workinonit’, both of which are chopped up, rearranged and - without even adding additional drums – transformed into proper, head-nodding monsters.
Why should I revisit?
One of the most common misconceptions about J Dilla is that he was, although talented, not too prolific. This is mainly because much of Dilla’s work went uncredited, due to his habit of making mixtapes and selling off portions of them to different artists, often taking payment up front in lieu of a production credit. Another reason is that Dilla was famously shy; A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip apparently had to trick him into attending a Grammys ceremony on one occasion.
Being essentially a mixtape of instrumental works in progress, Donuts offers a fascinating insight into his approach and, for new initiates, serves as a gateway to what is, if you dig deep enough, an incredibly large volume of work.
Who will enjoy it?
Dilla has had such a huge impact on the direction of hip-hop as a whole that any self-respecting head should really already own a couple of his albums, but if you don’t this a great place to start.