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J Dilla - Donuts

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Artist: J Dilla

Album: Donuts

Label: Stones Throw

Review date: Feb. 16, 2006

J Dilla died last Friday, February 10, three days after his latest record Donuts was released on his 32nd birthday. The heralded hip hop producer had been diagnosed with lupus and finally succumbed to an incurable blood disease. Twisting the oft-dropped hip hop phrase “respect is due.” In the case of Dilla, respect was earned.

Also known as Jay Dee, James Yancey was one of the heavyweights of this rap game. A true chairman behind the boards, he first gained recognition as Slum Village’s in-house beatsmith, leaving after the group’s Fantastic Vol. 2., to pursue a solo career and production for artists ranging from the minimal headnod of his early work as a member of A Tribe Called Quest's production trio (The Ummah), to brawnier funk and zoned-out R&B (Macy Gray, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo). The legendary master of the MPC also pirated folkloric beat tapes for unsigned MCs to rock over, fostered Common’s latest incarnation and dropped a debut solo record (Welcome to Detroit) that kickstarted BBE’s notable Beat Generation series. Dilla’s resume as an architect of the genre cannot be slept on.

His other production/remix credits run the gamut from artists as diverse as underground MCs like Royce The 5’ 9” to Janet Jackson. His highlight reel contains production bylines on what some consider new school classics: A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes and Life, De la’s Stakes is High, and more recently Common’s Be. Although less known for his ability on the microphone, Dilla was a competent rapper who spit on tracks by Dabrye, Pete Rock, Sa-Ra and Platinum Pied Pipers. And of course on 2003’s Champion Sound – his pre-Donuts apex – a collaboration with Madlib, dubbed Jaylib.

A certified banger from that LP, “The Red,” might be the top – mainstream or underground – hip hop beat of 2003. Representative of Dilla’s harder style, it may be the illest of his career. Dilla strings a slinky piano vamp to a looped soulstress who beams a wordless anthem; but the song’s real power is derived from the ridiculously crisp kick of the drums, thrusting the track involuntarily forward. To repeat one of the more famous accolades being thrown around, Kanye West had this to say about J: “Dilla is a drum god. His drums can’t ever be topped.” That these songs stand out on a record where two of the game’s undeniable greats traded hundreds of beats across the country cannot be understated. Madlib has said J’s beats bring out the MC in him like no other producer, but what MC wouldn’t have loved to rhyme over tracks like this? And if you haven’t heard, Pharrell’s also on the Bozack. As prolific and reputed as his catalog has been, Dilla’s production work hits a (gated) stride with Donuts.

A schizophrenic palate of honeyed soul, downbeat electrix, timeless hip hop and bare-knuckle beats, these 31 tracks (spread over 44 minutes) are packed with triple the hooks – and suffer from attention deficit disorder (to the listener’s benefit). Only one song eclipses the two-minute mark. It’s all skittish transition; the dopest compilation of interludes ever put to tape. Viewed in light of Dilla’s recent death, the record sounds urgent, like there’s no time to waste working things out, got to get to the next hook. The environment of the recordings probably aided this sense. Diagnosed with a ruptured kidney and malnourishment while DJing in Europe, Dilla was on ICU and did time in a hospital for a stretch of 2003. Parts of Donuts were recorded from turntables, samplers and records dropped off at his bedside from visitors. What started out as “a production beat tape,” developed into what will surely be considered an instrumental hip hop classic.

“One Eleven” should be looped ad infinitum: weeping strings, a boomy, stern bap and androgynous moans that trade off with an Uptown b-boy’s “all right y’all.” “Two Can Win,” lifts a mesmerizing (infantile) MJ vocal that makes me want to cop the original Jackson 5 record. “Time: The Donuts of the Heart,” sums up why (and when) RJD2’s agenda works – in a minute in a half. “Airworks”’s vocal trickery and stunted grooves hint at early Prefuse 73 records (in procedure), but instead of sounding boxed in, the soul resounds uncontainable, loose but convincing.

Signature sirens – the one element linking this to prior albums – race through a third of the tracks. Every time you spin it you recognize something you hadn’t noticed: “Walkinonit”’s creamy coos; the backstreet melancholy of “Last Donut of the Night”; or the unknown voice on “One for the Ghost” (“She used to take me across her lap / and whip me with a strap / when I was ba-a-a-a-d,” Dilla mutilating the last word into sheep jargon).

What would seem like negatives on a beats record – no real flow, sound quality/fidelity running from hi to lo (often in the same song), the most memorable melodies slashed abruptly – turn out to be Donuts’ most endearing qualities. This record is a throwback, like when rap used to be about just taking existing songs whole and lacing them with rhymes (EPMD’s Strictly Business comes to mind). Fleshed-out, nearly any cut on Donuts could have been tweaked into a hit, but there was no time for that. Comrade and contemporary equal, Madlib, may have eulogized Dilla most eloquently on “The Red”: “Madlib and Dilla is the illest my niggas / Only haters holler they can't feel us / Niggas wanna get looser then we / But just gonna be a loser to me and Dilla / Killa / Talkin’ bout how you peel caps, but nigga you softer than a pilla.” Dilla dropped beats from his hospital bed that healthy cats will be running behind for years.

By Jake O'Connell

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