In two days, hip-hop will celebrate what would have been J Dilla’s 42nd birthday. Today, though, it’s all about Donuts as the legendary producer's legendary album turns 10-years-old.
Dilla is a legend, everybody knows that except for the people trolling for a reaction, but I also know there are a lot of new school hip-hop fans who may not know exactly what Dilla did, what his music sounds like, or why he’s inspired damn near every producer in the game today. You may also be scared to admit it. It’s totally OK, though. No judgment here. But you really should take the time to get to know his work intimately because without him, hip-hop would sound dramatically different.
If you know the name but don't know the magic, allow me to refer you to this article from Stereogum where they break down his classic album in incredible detail.
Donuts is indeed worthy of exaltation from a production standpoint, especially in regards to Jay Dee’s technical prowess. He didn’t believe in reading instruction manuals, but he had a remarkable way of making samplers and drum machines translate humanity. Feelings, moods, and soul were reduced like a fine sauce and loaded into square pads at his disposal. The sampling on this entire album is pure art. Really, almost the entire album is sampling. The fact it actually saw the light of day is baffling. It contains 34 samples for its 31 tracks, ranging from Canada’s Motherlode to the unbridled soul of Motown via the Temptations and Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. But in Dilla’s drum pads, everything was soulful...
On top of doing everything manually, Dilla made it even more difficult on himself by not picking clean breaks or dissecting bars in their entirety. As most non-jazz samples are in 4/4 meter, most producers start their loops on the 1 and capture the 2, 3, and 4 counts from a clean instrumental break without vocals. Dilla would begin on any count he damn well pleased and either slowed or sped up the sample to match the tempo without distorting any drums or vocal phrases into a crackling mess. This skill is the driving force behind “One For Ghost,” which starts a few of its loops at the end of Luther Ingram’s vocal harmony, taking only the “bad” from “she used to whip me with a strap when I was bad” — smoothing it seamlessly into the beat without pops from edits. Q-Tip’s loop selection was celebrated in the early days of A Tribe Called Quest for incorporating 6/4-metered Jazz into 4/4 beats, adding a feel of swing. Dilla extracted that same swing and unorthodox rhythm from a 4/4 loop, which average beatsmiths or producers aiming for popular appeal wouldn’t think to do or have the skill to execute.
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Props on an outstanding homage to a classic album. Believe it or not, those articles aren’t always easy to write; I know my pen couldn't do that album justice. I'd also like to point you to this incredible Dilla story told by NPR’s Snap Judgment podcast, which really helped deepen by appreciation for the man.
I’ve listened to the LP close to one hundred times and it's supremely impressive nature never ceases to amaze me. As a rap nerd who likes to dig for shit, it’s amazing, but as a human with human emotions and a human mother it’s profound. It starts with music nerdery but ends with helping Ma Duke cope with the loss of her son. His music means so much more than drum kicks and samples.
If you are feeling inspired, if you want to honor his memory, be sure to donate to the J Dilla foundation here. And whether you're a long time fan or a newcomer, celebrate Donuts by listening to it. There's no better way to honor the man's work than through the music he made.