To hear J Dilla’s Donuts is to hear an artist’s goodbye. Twenty-nine of the thirty-one tracks on the album were recorded in Dilla’s hospital room between endless tests, medications, and dialysis procedures for treatment of lupus and the rare blood disease TTP. Stones Throw Records released Donuts on Dilla’s 32nd birthday, December 10, 2006, just three days before his passing.
Friend and fellow producer Karriem Riggins relates that the impetus for Donuts arose during a previous hospitalization in 2005, when Dilla likely realized the seriousness of his condition and its ramifications on his career. He was known in the hip-hop community as the beat-making prodigy who worked with heavyweights such as A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, and Common; the prolific studio-wiz with an irresistible sound—warm, lo-fi, choppy, and homespun. When Dilla’s health became an impediment, he already had over a decade of experience producing under major labors Stones Throw and MCA, a long way from the hermetic teen who collected and mixed records religiously, and even further from the infant spinning his parents’ record collection in the park. At the top of his game and 31-years-old, Dilla knew he was dying. For what he anticipated would be his last album, he returned to his roots with an unprecedented maturity, stretching the mixtape aesthetic to epic proportions. All thirty-one tracks are without rapping, consist almost entirely of disparate samples, and clock in under three minutes. They resemble sketches, ideas, or vibes for MCs to rhyme over, yet Dilla’s orchestral modification, brimming with instrumentation, leaves little room for an MC. The result is a phantasmagoria of sophisticated hip-hop that will hold the attention of all but those with the most severe cases of ADD.
In drawing from such an extensive and diverse set of samples, Donuts could have easily slipped into the Frankensteinian territory— clunky and discombobulating; rather, Dilla accomplished the feat of synthesizing a complex system into one cohesive body. Most immediately the listener notices the strategy of thematic song titles, namely “Don’t Cry,” “Bye,” and “Last Donut of the Night.” The lyrical content serves a similar thematic purpose. In “Stop” Dionne Warwick anticipates the loss that Dilla’s family, friends, and fans would feel after his passing: “You’re gonna’ need me / You’re gonna’ want me back in your arms.” “Don’t Cry” begins with a conversational vocal from The Escorts that parallels inevitable hospital-bedside scenes: “Don’t cry darling/ I can’t stand to see you cry.” The lyrics following this theme are diversified enough to avoid repetition or sappiness, each shedding its unique light on Dilla’s circumstances. One application in “Anti American Graffiti” emulates a shocked patient’s response to being diagnosed with a terminal illness. In an impassioned colloquial rant, the orator barks his objections: “It’s a lot of shit but that’s just what the doctor said/ Too much too soon.”
The strategy of thematic language is powerful, but Dilla knows that it can’t stand alone or be overused, lest the record should come off as a morose capitalization on tragedy. Dilla was not a martyr but a musician; his originality and craftsmanship elevates Donuts above artists whose music is indistinguishable from self-pity. Estimated to have produced over 10,000 tracks in his career, he was relentless, making music always and everywhere. When friends and fellow producers bestowed the gifts of a Boss SP-303 sampler and a small 45 record player, he proceeded to convert his hospital room into a beat laboratory. The trajectory of Dilla’s career reveals a constant experimentation as he explores within the parameters of his signature style, and Donuts is no exception. Even the songs that explicitly tie into the theme are flavored with the pulling of strings: tempo shifts, EQ adjustments, and vocal manipulation abound. Others go much further in experimentation. In “Da Factory,” the bouncing percussion and bubbling test-tube synths incite the image of a decrepit factory operated by evil clowns. “The Twister” stomps away for 16 seconds, overshadowed with dissonant feedback and incomprehensible vocals both human and robotic. “Lightworks” fuses a 1950s Revlon advertisement with reverberant neo-tribal rhythms from 80s electro-funk group Mantronix.
The grandiosity of his warped fanfare—the “Dilla horn”—stamps a note of self-confidence over the unlikely, yet seamless, synthesis of the most archaic of commercial electronic recordings, courtesy of electro pioneer Raymond Scott, and an elementary strain of hip-hop emerging from the funk genre. This repeated trademark, sounding even more emphatically “The Diff’rence,” is just one of the devices that steadily relates to the listener that the album is not only a goodbye but also a self-proclamation, self-exaltation, final show, and celebration. The echoing exclamation and ghostly whisperings of the artist’s moniker, “Dilla,” (born James Yancey), in “Time: Donut of the Heart” exerts his confidence in the position of progressive conductor. A Beastie Boys lyric, “center stage, on the mic” places Dilla in the limelight in “Workinonit” and “The New,” and the cheering of stadium audiences reciprocate in “The Twister (Huh, what),” “Stepson of the Clapper” and “Thunder.” The spearheading second track is a perfectly energetic introductory for audience as eager and admiring as the one Dilla creates for himself. “Workinonit” is the fastidious work of a jigsaw master; Dilla fits disparate samples together, connecting soul to art rock to primitive electronic music by congruous harmonies and interlocking rhythms. The vibrant collage that results is cinematic, exciting the listener with an orchestral arrangement of colors and textures. Two tracks later, “Light My Fire” resumes the momentum with a dance-provoking beat and fervent exclamations from James Brown.
What makes Donuts exceptional is that Dilla was able to coordinate his emotional investment, the atypical recording resources to which he had access, and the accumulated skills from three decades of experience in music. A great work or art can be fueled by the exploitation of just one of these strengths, but few artists can harness, let alone possess, all of them harmonically. Donuts is a series of inspired ejaculations, the exceptional phenomena in which the stars of an artist’s identity align. For that reason, the tracks that are explicitly thematic are even more moving; the sentimental is communicated through a mature and adventurous vehicle. Lyrics that could easily come off as overloaded or cliché, such as “Just because I really love you” in “U-love,” are more convincing because Dilla’s setting is a laboratory before a hospital room and he is first and foremost an artist, the designer of an intricate support system of symbiotic and synergetic variables—not to mention the theme isn’t brooded on (most tracks are little over a minute and their lyrical content spans a broad range of subject matter). Donuts is a diverse collection of treats, each constructed with the circumspection of an experienced artisan. Some may taste sweet, others unfamiliar and challenging, but all bear the unique mark of the artisan’s hand. The distinct Dilla packaging—his warm, choppy aesthetic—and the prominence of special ingredients—thematic language, the peculiarities of his makeshift studio, and years of experience—are glue for the hodgepodge.
Since its release over five years ago, Donuts has slowly crept from the cave of cult status. The number of hipsters sporting “J Dilla Changed My Life” t-shirts is on the rise, thanks to some media exposure. Eminent producers such as Kanye West and indie icon Noah Lennox have cited Donuts as a major influence and Dave Chapelle dedicated his 2006 block party documentary to the late producer. As more people discover Donuts, they may be disheartened that their introduction to his catalogue is also a goodbye. If you find yourself in this quandary, don’t cry—it’s probably the best goodbye that will ever grace your ears.