J Dilla - Donuts (Cover Artwork)

J Dilla

Donuts (2006)

Stones Throw

Michigan born J Dilla, also known as Jay Dee for most of his career, was one very inspiring producer who tragically died very young. His presence in the independent, as well as major label world of hip-hop was very subtle, but nonetheless most excellent. He produced for artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, Talib Kweli, Ghostface Killah, De La Soul, Common, Proof and Madlib. His legacy left behind so much potential and organic inspiration that's it's a shame it didn't become well known until his death. Modern day artists like Kanye West seem to draw heavy inspiration from Dilla, such as his ability to use samples in order to purposefully grow a song into an anthem, but it's not as respectful to the source material like how Dilla would handle it. Taking material from African American culture (soul, jazz, rock, blues, etc.) and mixing it to create unique beats wasn't anything new, but the way Dilla handled it was carefully plotted and very raw. The music seemed to speak for him. His style is very much minimalist, but that's where the source and heart of his talent lies.

Donuts was released three days after his death. During the time he spent in the hospital prior, Jay Dee used a Boss SP-303 sampler and a 45' record player to mix and match many samples, thus releasing a final album of immediate desperation and clarity. There is not one bad track of the 31 here. Instrumental hip-hop is an interesting concept of which more needs to be done. At times, when jamming something that moves you, the notion of that certain melody or catchy beat lingers. Often you might hit repeat just to hear it again, regardless of the lyrics. Current acts like Clams Casino and Flying Lotus have taken this approach; creating impressive works, but to go back a bit to the source material is a lesson in the history of music from a certain time and era.

Donuts is littered with almost 70 samples, all ranging from the Isley Brothers, the Temptations, Mantronix, Run D.M.C., to Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Frank Zappa. One can be reminded of Paul's Boutique by the Beastie Boys for the, ahead-of-its-time, use of samples to create the backdrops to songs, or perhaps Endtroducing…, by DJ Shadow. But to use these sources, making use of their strengths, takes careful timing and an ear for quality over quantity and Donuts did just that. Tracks like "Workinonit" "Waves" and "The New" bring forth an overdose of impressive beats that usher in grand choruses and an almost live setting. You can feel the tarnished streets, suspicious corners, sweaty clubs and ghetto hoods. Donuts, really is a perspective of what one's life was like, in this case J Dilla's.

"Mash" may be familiar if you ever happened to watch late night Adult Swim showcases, and "Lightworks" could be the most "out there" production found here. Other highlights like "One Eleven" with its chipmunk sped vocals; "Don't Cry" and it's sampled chorus from the Escorts song "I Can't Stand (To See You Cry);" "Gobstopper" with its jazzy trumpets; and "U-Love" with its nicely done looped pattern, all stand out as strong showcases for any hip-hop, or music, producer's attention.

At the end though, is the legacy left behind. Donuts should be a gateway album for any hip-hop fan, or music fan in general. It's the culmination of one man's mark in his short life and we are reaping the results, good or bad.