J Dilla: Donuts

The last album of a tragically-fallen legend is a tour de force of brilliant beats and unbelievable subtleties, wild experimentation and great production; but no, the title has no deeper meaning. In the label's own words, "Dilla likes donuts".

J Dilla


Label: Stones Throw
US Release Date: 2006-02-07
UK Release Date: Available as import
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate
Insound affiliate

This is how a brilliant mind says goodbye.

A liquid-blue soul siren, a laid-back old-school whine. J Dilla, Jay Dee, James Yancey, the heart and soul behind so many great albums and beats, passed away last Friday after an undisclosed length of illness; he was only 32. It was a dark day for hip-hop in the worst ways possible: message boards and forum threads crashed under post after emotional post; grown hip-hop men broke right on down and cried. "R.I.P. Jay Dee", in a million fonts, a million voices, people that had never met James Yancey but knew him through his music. Disbelieving, speechless, stunned.

From his work as half of the Ummah with A Tribe Called Quest to more recent productions for artists from Busta Rhymes to Common, Jay Dee was almost terminally underground, never achieving the respect he deserved -- for a producer whose distinctive sound essentially changed the face of a lot of hip-hop production, disturbingly large numbers of people have been mistakenly calling Donuts his solo debut. Rather, it was his biggest work to date, a relatively high-profile release on respected indie label Stones Throw, released only days before his unexpected passing. Donuts was his stepping-stone to greater fame, begun simply as a beat-tape that evolved into something bigger. A great many of these tracks, sold to vocalists and properly promoted, could probably have been hits; Donuts throws them about with willfully reckless abandon, ticking off beat after consistently dope beat seemingly at random, the kind of dense record you could spend days or years or a lifetime coming to know and decipher.

Dilla manipulates us with his fingers on the vinyl, building and releasing tension, birthing a whole new mood in just four bars. The opening to "Airworks" is a glossy little gliss into a sweet soul vibe, cut off a mere second after it begins, before you even know what's happening. The song begins again, but tentatively, differently, the first two notes sliding in like tiny little fingers and piercing you just there in the back of the head. He doesn't even give you time to recover, speeding the beat up almost immediately before introducing yet more variations. Donuts is full of moments like these, where the unexpected appears out of nowhere and you can feel your whole self shudder. Like the bizarre samples and the sputtery drums, Dilla pulls you deeper, always several steps ahead to throw the next sharp twists into the path.

It's the proof of a relentlessly inventive talent, 31 tracks, most under two minutes in length, progressing from one to the next with no real transitions. This is startling at first, but by the end of the first listen you know it couldn't have been done any other way. Dilla's mind is packed nearly to the bursting with ideas, and he throws them all out there as fast as he can, moving to the next groove as soon as the first is established, often cutting loops abruptly short just as they settle in. "Don't Cry" is breathtakingly pretty, even as it whips through a dexterously unhinged series of tempo changes and styles. "Thunder", a jarring stomp of siren-laced badass, is cast aside less than a minute after it begins for the big-band saunter of "Gobstopper". You get the sense that Dilla is merely toying with us, that if he ever dared to show his full powers it would hit you in the gut and warp your head to a silent mess of putty.

The vocalists aren't even missed; Dilla is a connoisseur of wonderful noises: unthrottled soul growls, strings like cake frosting, Jadakiss coughs and sampled screams and moans. They blend together perfectly, and the overall effect is that of a walk through the mind of a genius, loop after loop overflowing with raw potential. Much of the album was made on a portable sound system with records brought by visitors, while Yancey lay hospital-bound; you get the feeling he could sense what was soon to come. Sirens and ugly electronic bleeps recur throughout, adding the sharp contrast of reality as they crop up in the least likely places, going off like tiny bombs even in some of the most melodic tracks, revealing the chaos that is life. All hell may be breaking loose, but so is all heaven.

Donuts is hip-hop, then, like "Howl" is poetry or Guernica is painting: the best aspects of a particular style, developed to their fullest and executed masterfully. Effortless, gritty, raw: it's an album of explosions and restraint, of precisely crafted balances and absurd breakdowns, of the senselessly affecting juxtaposition of the most powerful of dreams. Donuts is bright, greasy smears of funk and deep stains of soul, tossed up in a bottle with a dash of just-about-anything and insane. This is crazy-talk music, wild-eyed and inventive and remind-you-why-you-are-ALIVE.

The final track and ostensible "intro", "Welcome to the Show", wraps things up on a lusciously golden, keening pulse of fuzzy, distorted vocals. They reach out of the speakers, they soak into the air, reassuring. Jay Dee is here, Jay Dee is here, and everything will get better on the other side of this rainbow. I listen to it, I can feel myself moving, I can feel my soul falling out through my fingertips.

This is how a brilliant mind says hello.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.