It’s been 15 years since J Dilla released Donuts, an album whose deft manipulation of sampling makes it perhaps the most influential instrumental hip-hop record ever produced. It had broad appeal beyond underground hip-hop circles. It’s a record that has seen multiple reissues over the years, and I suspect copies are filed in collections not otherwise big on rap. The album also has the sad distinction of being the last LP Dilla released in his lifetime; he died of a rare blood disease three days after Donuts dropped. As busy as he was in the five years before Donuts, he was also locked into a contract with MCA, a label that shelved albums Dilla produced as well as ones where he was the MC, fearing they were not commercial enough.
While some of his productions saw the light of day — a collaboration with Madlib and an EP, Ruff Draft, for example — 2001 was the last time Dilla had released an album under his own name before Donuts. That year’s Welcome 2 Detroit was also the first release to feature the name J Dilla, changed from Jay Dee, the moniker he had adopted as the producer of tracks by the likes of everyone from the Pharcyde to Common to Erykah Badu toward the end of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st. It was also released before the MCA contract on DJ-run UK label BBE as part one of their “Beat Generation” series.
Now BBE is giving this experimental celebration of Detroit hip-hop its most thorough re-issue, differentiating it from the sprawling trove of posthumous Dilla releases that have gloriously glutted record bins these last 14 years. And since this expanded release adds instrumental versions of every track from the original release, cassette demos, re-mixes, and alternates, it is one more reminder of just why he remains so celebrated. Dilla sprinkled the tracks here with bits of Detroit jazz, techno, deep soul, bossa nova, and Afro-Funk, ideas that don’t seem so radical now mainly because he did this 20 years ago. But at the time, thanks to his open ears and insane skills as a sampler in the days before technology made it easier, Dilla pushed at the edges of what a hip-hop record could be.
Make no mistake, from the cover featuring him smoking a blunt while a stripper seems to appear out of an explosion of smoke to Dilla and a host of other Detroit rappers (Frank-n-Dank and eLZhi among them) spitting allegiance to guns, coerced oral sex, and other violent forms of retribution and sexism, this album is hardcore gangsta on one end. And Dilla can rap. “The Clapper” finds him skating over lyrics warning of what happens in Detroit when you let your guard down. It is deft, bleak advice dropped over stuttering funk. But this track comes after a cover of Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice”, with Dilla playing some of the instruments as well as crooning the song’s few lyrics himself. It’s juxtapositions like these that likely caused Dilla to repeat “Y’all Ain’t Ready” in one of the album’s early tracks, so radical were some of his departures.
Another instrumental, “BBE (Big Booty Express)”, finds its influence in Krautrock, specifically Kraftwerk’s computer-derived motorik. For every drum-heavy hip-hop track, there’s music that stares down genre conventions. Yet, it never seems indecisive or schizophrenic. And it’s this focused vision that makes the record timeless. Hearing the instrumental versions of the vocal tracks now not only makes for some essential listening, but it also serves to remind us of the kinds of future a deft producer — pre-FlyLo, pre-Knxwledge, pre-Beat Konducta-in-India-Madlib — could envision. Arguably, this record announced where hip-hop could go in the 21st century. And this reissue, expanded and spread over 12 seven-inch records, with a book that tells the whole story, reveals just how crucial an album Welcome 2 Detroit remains.