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A Retrospective on J Dilla's "Donuts"

Evan Piepho

Posted on September 20, 2020 01:13

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As far as hip hop producers go, there are few more legendary than J Dilla. And there are few instrumental hip hop albums more notable than "Donuts," released just three days before J Dilla's untimely death in 2016.

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center was not a typical recording studio, but J Dilla (born James Yancey) was not a typical artist. Although bed-ridden from complications of thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, an incurable blood disease, J Dilla fashioned a masterpiece of instrumental hip hop in his 2006 release, Donuts. At 31 tracks and 43 minutes, Donuts is a symphony of vignettes — the runtime of the longest track is a mere two minutes and 57 seconds, while the average hovers at just over one minute. But J Dilla summoned a cascade of sounds that engulfs the listener on every song; each minute-long motif is a masterclass in the art of hip hop sampling.

J Dilla's staggering talent lay in the practice of manipulating samples — pulling a sound from an old track and incorporating it into a new song. In this craft, J Dilla was a visionary and Donuts was the zenith of his creativity: he collated some seventy-five plus samples over 31 tracks to stitch together a cohesive narrative with no original instrumentation. The only musical equipment J Dilla needed was a Boss SP-303 sampler, a portable 45 record player, and a steady supply of records, all of which he had brought in to his hospital room.

A hallmark of J Dilla's music was his creativity, and Donuts is no different. He begins the album with an outro track, implying the album has been ordered in reverse. And the songs that bookend the record — "Donuts (Outro)" and "Welcome to the Show" — are composed so that if you play the album on repeat, the final track flows into the first track to create a circular effect, like a donut. Past the intro track is "Workinonit," which opens with a screaming modulated guitar line — a far cry from a typical hip hop song. Interspersed are vocals from the hip hop outfit the Beastie Boys and a 1970s rock band called 10cc that dip in and out of the track. "Workinonit" has eight samples alone, setting the tone for the rest of the album.

Throughout Donuts, J Dilla explores the limits of hip hop, taking influence from traditional soul samples that line the corridors of the archetypal hip hop anthology, from classic rock and psychedelic funk grooves, to pops of color through an occasional brassy jazz interlude, and even an incorporation of traditional African percussion rhythms. At first glance, it seems an unruly cacophony of sounds; to be true, it is an amalgamation unlike any of J Dilla's contemporaries would think to produce. But J Dilla manages to harness the extremes of genres to create something revolutionary and, at times, sentimental: "Don’t Cry" stitches together samples to comfort his mother about his impending and unavoidable passing.

James Yancey died on February 10, 2016, at the age of 32, three days after the release of Donuts. A void exists where J Dilla once stood, but his music lives forever.    

Evan Piepho

Posted on September 20, 2020 01:13

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