It's hard to overstate the importance of James "J Dilla" Yancey's final release. Last fall, Stones Throw Records announced plans to reissue the 32-track 2006 album Donuts as a box set of 16 seven-inch singles, generating a new batch of appreciative reviews, including a 10.0 Pitchfork rave this week that essentially calls it a perfect album. It is certainly one of the best works of the past decade regardless of genre, and only DJ Shadow's 1996 debut, Entroducing, rivals it as the greatest instrumental hip-hop recording ever made. Countless musicians across the spectrum, from Radiohead and Animal Collective to Flying Lotus and Zomby, have cited its influence.
J Dilla completed Donuts while he was in a Los Angeles hospital being treated for a rare blood disease. The songs are essentially beat loops, each a minute or so long, that he created using a variety of production techniques. He chops up and repeats a seconds-long sequence of a given sample, and plays others at half-speed so they take on a hallucinatory quality. He culls from a wide variety of records, including experimental jazz like Fred Frith's "Kick the Can Pt. 1" (on "The Twister"), cheery '70s pop rock like 10cc's "The Worst Band in the World" ("Workinonit"), and lots of classic funk and soul like Kool & the Gang's "Fruitman" ("The Diff'rence"). There are tracks that include scratches and vocal effects from Beastie Boys' "The New Style" (when King Ad-Rock says "Center stage on the mic!") and Joeski Love's mid-'80s novelty hit "Pee-Wee Herman" ("Huh, what!"). For drum effects, he sampled from Mantronix's breakbeat anthem "King of the Beats."
There is a long tradition of hip-hop producers creating beat records, from the 45 King's Lost Breakbeats series to DJ Spinna's Compositions series and MF Doom's Special Herbs & Spices series. Dilla's friend and Jaylib partner Madlib had begun issuing beat records via the Beat Konducta series and Vol. 1-2: Movie Scenes. So when reviewers first heard Donuts, they assessed it as part of this lineage and summarized it as a well-made but not necessarily important album. (Pitchfork initially awarded it 7.9 out of 10.)
Dilla died from cardiac arrest on February 10, 2006, three days after Donuts' February 7 release, which was also his 32nd birthday. His passing wasn't unexpected. He had been sick for years and performed shows during his last tour in Europe from a wheelchair. Yet as fans mourned, they began to reassess his catalog. Once dismissed as a talented indie "backpack" producer (a stereotype he hated; he once complained that he was a regular Detroit street dude that "ain't carried no goddamn backpack"), his reputation rose to where he is now considered one of the best producers in hip-hop history. Every year around his birthday/death day, Dilla appreciation parties are held around the world to celebrate his legacy.
But let's set aside the Dilla cult for a moment. Heard through the prism of his tragically untimely demise, Donuts is a farewell letter to the world. That statement is not a posthumous fantasy. You can read it in the titles of his sample selections, like The Escorts' "I Can't Stand to See You Cry" ("Don't Cry") and Motherlode's "When I Die" ("Welcome to the Show"). In contrast to the sharp, slapping percussive shocks of past works like Ruff Draft and Jaylib's Champion Sound, the sound of Donuts is reflective and elegiac. It's full of incredibly sad and beautiful moments, particularly when he loops Dionne Warwick's "You're Gonna Need Me" for "Stop." It seems like he's taking us on a journey to a great unknown, a feeling accentuated by his use of Raymond Scott's "Lightworks" ("Lightworks"). Perhaps in a nostalgic moment, he samples the opening phrase from Luther Ingram's "To the Other Man" -- "Mama used to take me across her lap/ She used to whip me with a strap/ When I was bad" -- for "One for Ghost," a beat he originally made for Ghostface Killah's Fishscale track "Whip You With a Strap."
It's difficult to listen to Donuts without being moved nearly to tears. It's an excellent example of how hip-hop can be as pure and emotionally resonant as jazz or any other musical art form. (Several jazz players have since paid tribute to Dilla, most recently Robert Glasper on Black Radio.) But it is full of good humor, too, starting with "One for Ghost." There are random oddball cuts like "Mash" (which uses Frank Zappa's "Dance Contest" and Galt MacDermot's "Golden Apple Part 2") and "The Twister" (Frith's "Kick the Can Pt. 1") that make you wonder: Where did he come up with this stuff? The simplicity and elegance of his technique leave you open to the depth and power of his music.
As the cult of Dilla has grown, various rappers have appropriated tracks from Donuts. So this post actually includes two playlists. Above, there's J. Dilla's 'Donuts' Samples, which pairs the old records that served as Donuts' source material with the new songs he created with them. But there's also "J Dilla, Donuts – The Songs", which features some of the many subsequent songs featuring Donuts beats.
A final note: Most of these Source Material picks -- the most influential full albums to precede Donuts, from Fear of a Black Planet to Midnight Marauders -- should be obvious to the knowledgeable hip-hop fan, except maybe for Amp Fiddler's Waltz of a Ghetto Fly. A veteran Detroit keyboardist and producer who toured with George Clinton, Amp Fiddler not only taught Dilla how to use a sampler, but also introduced him to Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. Both men were mentors. A special audio documentary Napster published in November 2006, "In Memoriam: J Dilla The Napster Interview," features interviews about Dilla with friends and relatives such as Eothen "Egon" Alapatt, drummer/producer Karriem Riggins and his mother, Maureen "Ma Dukes" Yancey. And though it was released three years after Dilla's death, Madlib's heartfelt Vol. 5-6: A Tribute To… deserves inclusion here.