Donuts Turns 10
There’s a lot to break down on the massive hip-hop production pillar known as Donuts. In terms of emotion, technique, and legacy this thing is beastly. A 130-page book was written on it! So let’s begin with a bit of background and symbolism to ease into why it’s blasphemous among hip-hop heads to say you don’t like or at least appreciate J Dilla (aka Jay Dee, aka Dilla Dawg, government name James Dewitt Yancey), why fans and posers alike have unabashedly rocked “J Dilla Changed My Life” T-shirts for over a decade now, and why an actual donut shop is to be opened in his honor.
James Dewitt Yancey was born in Detroit on 2/7/74 to a former opera singer named Maureen and a jazz bassist named Beverly. Young James apparently developed musical sensibilities incredibly early; his mother, aka Ma Dukes, vouches that he could “match pitch-perfect harmony” at “two months old.” She also claims her son’s favorite hobby at two years old was to go to the park and spin vinyl records. In high school he met T3 and Baatin and formed Slum Village. During his early teen years he would spend hours in the basement making beats with his growing vinyl collection. Fellow Detroit musician Amp Fiddler lent him his MPC, and soon J Dilla began an awesome barrage of placements and credits after his deft sampling on Slum Village’s debut album Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 caught Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest’s attention in 1996.
Dilla went on to produce for ATCQ, the Pharcyde, Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson, and Raphael Saadiq among others. He also did notable work as a member of the Soulquarians, a loosely associated neo-soul collective with the likes of Questlove, Bilal, Common, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. He was similarly a member in the production crew the Ummah with Q-Tip and Raphael Saddiq, and more. His uniqueness began to shine more brightly on his first solo effort to hit the charts, Ruff Draft, in 2003, and he honed his technique working with Madlib on 2003’s Champion Sound as one half of the duo Jaylib. He then reached what is arguably his creative prime on 2006’s Donuts.
Donuts opens with an outro and concludes with an intro, and while this may seem ass backwards, it’s almost too perfect a metaphor for Dilla’s otherworldly ability to flip the utter shit out of anything he sampled. Obviously, donuts are circles. The end is the beginning — just like a loop derived from a sample. This is the obvious meaning, but if you want to get deep (and perhaps a bit speculative) there is also some underlying, Bowie-esque final-days genius at work here.
Dilla made the majority of this album on his hospital bed while suffering from thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), a very rare blood disorder in which blood clots form in small blood vessels throughout the body, limiting or blocking the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the body’s organs. He knew he was living his last days, and true studio rat that he was, he spent them banging the pads on his Akai MPC 3000 and manipulating samples on his SP-303 sampler buried in stacks of 45s. He left a message for his brother Illa J (John Derek Yancey) on “Don’t Cry” through vocal samples, wringing every soulful tear out of the Escorts’ “I Can’t Stand (To See You Cry).”
Donuts truly was the end and beginning for Dilla — his discography’s grand finale but also the instant classic that launched an extensive posthumous career. His estate is rumored to sit upon 4,000 tracks he recorded during his lifetime, and they’ve steadily made their way to the public in the decade since his death. Numerous compilations of unreleased material have emerged, including last year’s Dillatronic, and a licensing agreement even allows artists to record over his beats for a price. Dilla orchestrated all of this as the album was released on his 32nd birthday, and he passed three days later. If donut turned out to be a layman’s term for a blood clot it wouldn’t be very surprising. This level of meticulous planning is just one aspect of why some (hell, almost all) hip-hop heads hold both Dilla and Donuts in such reverence and esteem to this day.
Hip-hop purists also place Jay Dee and his masterpiece/swan song on a pedestal and react so viscerally to detractors because of the climate that muffled its impact in 2006. ’06 was close to the height of the ringtone and dance-craze era, when people actually cared about the difference between “polyphonic” and “real music” ringtones. Billboard and Nielsen scrambled to unveil new charts and a “RingScan” so people could know who was king of the commercial hill among songs such as Dem Franchize Boyz’s “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It,” D4L’s “Laffy Taffy,” Young Dro’s “Shoulder Lean,” DJ Unk’s “Walk It Out” and “2 Step,” Lil Jon’s “Snap Yo Fingers,” and Akon’s “Smack That” (so many directives and dance steps). For a producer who did beats for A Tribe Called Quest, the Pharcyde, De La Soul, Tupac, Common, and others in tune with hip-hop’s time-honored traditions, to champion one of those traditions in sampling and inject it with innovation and life was a much needed defibrillation resurrecting the genre’s creative origins. The dance crazes were fun, and encouraged an age of pretty spectacular choreographed club dancing that may never be recreated on such a large scale (for better or worse), but there was little for the heads to geek out to. ’06 was starved for substantive sustenance in the mainstream, where Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor pretty much held things down on its solo dolo. But the underground had something to worship in Donuts.
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.
(Warning: Nerd-out below.)
Sampling has been met with more derision in the past, and while it is obviously not as hard as actually making the music in the first place, to do it well is exceedingly difficult when lifting from vinyl on the MPC like Dilla did. Most MPC users take the shortcut of feeding the song from vinyl into the computer, picking a loop and chopping it in software like Ableton, ProTools, or Logic and feeding the chops into the MPC’s drum pads to play them with a more manual feel. This is a quick process today, as each of those respective software programs is either nearing or past its 10th version and is much more intuitive and advanced. It was a bit more difficult 10 years ago, but even that was still nowhere near as difficult as not using a computer at all. Jay Dee did everything manually from chop to finish. He fed the vinyl directly into the MPC and chopped in real time while playing the record. He had to pick the start and end point of every chop himself based on feel and instinct as opposed to relying on the precision of a computer. This technique injected emotive human error in opposition to more rigid, polished sampling and production beatmakers like the Neptunes were popularizing at the time.
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.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Jay Dee’s sampling technique was his ability to identify microscopic moments with no vocals, chop them manually, and play them back through the MPC pads as if they were a seamless loop. Questlove remembered being in awe of this process when working with Dilla in the late ’90s on the Soulquarian projects, and it is all over Donuts. “Waves,” “Airworks,” and “U-Love” in particular warrant a renewed appreciation when imagining Dilla hitting each pad one by one in succession, artfully sewing together a beat in which none of the cuts and chops could be heard, all while wasting away in a hospital bed weighing under 100 pounds.
Donuts’ sampling aside, Dilla also did some ingenious things with drums. He was certainly a pioneer in introducing unquantized (also known as de-quantized) drums — drums without timing correction for manual error — along with Madlib and MF Doom among a few others. His slightly off-kilter drum hits, most notably on kick and snare patterns, fused warm, organic human imperfection with already evocative soul, funk, and emotion he extracted from his samples. This purposeful error stands out to those with finely tuned ears, and adds to the swing he already introduced from his off-count samples. Questlove describes how he was frozen in astonishment the first time he heard Dilla’s artful unquantization in his book Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According To Questlove:
I could hear vibrations coming from the back of the club. The Pharcyde had just taken the stage. I paused by the van, because the only thing I could really hear, amid all the rest of the noise and music, was a crazy discrepancy in the kick drum. It was almost like someone drunk was playing drums — or, more so, that a drunk, brilliant four-year-old had been allowed to program the kick pattern. I had to see what I was hearing. I left the van and ran to the front of the club to listen, and when I got there, the band was playing the first cut from Labcabincalifornia, “Bullshit,” and Dilla was just going crazy on the kick pattern. At that moment, I had the same reaction I do to anything truly radical in hip-hop. I was paralyzed, uncertain how to feel.
The moments on “Waves,” “The Diff’rence,” and “Glazed” where you have a little more time to add some extra flavor to your head bobs on the 2 and 4; or on “Two Can Win” when you have a little less time which ever so slightly throws you off — that’s that Dilla swang at work. Purely from manual technical innovation, he was able to alter the listener’s movement and mood, often without their awareness of the minuscule time manipulations.
Even without all that obsessive, geeky knowledge, Donuts is still a dope-ass beat tape to jam (or write shitty bars) to. It doesn’t take a technically savvy producer or super-enthusiast to just nod their head to the rhythms, or be moved by the emotive soul samples. Unfortunately, that easy groovability and a much-more-than-you-know feeling led to the co-option of his legacy a bit with more mainstream recognition and feigned understanding. In 2010, hundreds of die-hard fans, mourners, and posers alike lined up at clothing brand Stussy’s LA storefront for their first annual Dilla Day to purchase limited edition T-shirts with a silk-screened graphic of Dilla reaching for a vinyl record, and listen to his Stones Throw musical family spin his records. And though the fam signed off on Stussy’s genuine gesture, those T-shirts cloaked some fake posturing in an authentic costume, and the true heads could feel it. I recall a particularly heated exchange almost exploding into an all-out ass-whooping after some clown asked “Who is this?” as J. Rocc spun “Lightworks.”
In the immediate years following his death, everyone and their mom wanted to claim a connection to Jay Dee. Even in the genuinely heavy-hearted LA underground scene (he died in the City of Angels after living there for two years) it was far too cursory to hear something to the effect of “This some unreleased Dilla shit” or “Shouts to J Dilla on the beat, R.I.P.” from any rapper that could work the muscles required to grip a microphone. Many a concert was cast with an air of palpable judgment, with crowds trying to discern whether or not artists were true Dilla stans. Outside of LA, cats threw Donuts beats all over their projects: A more lyric-centric Drake used “Time: The Donut Of The Heart” on his 2007 Comeback Season mixtape; then-promising up-and-comer Charles Hamilton made a mixtape titled And Then They Played Dilla, spitting over tracks from Donuts and remixing some its instrumentals; prematurely anointed hip-hop savior Jay Electronica used “Gobstopper” and several other Dilla beats on his Victory mixtape. Whosampled.com pegs 130 total samples of J Dilla tracks with Donuts accounting for 33 of them.
While usage of Dilla’s Donuts and other beats were well-intentioned, it was a huge headache for Ma Dukes and the executor of his estate at the time, Arthur Erik. Dilla partly left so many works behind because he had to take out government loans to help fund his exorbitant medical bills. When artists and producers sampled his works, or used entire beats on mixtapes and other unofficial releases, the estate could not collect that revenue. This led to a reorganization of his estate, naming probate attorney Alex Borden the executor as a means of “Preserving and enhancing the legacy of the legendary artist and secur[ing] a means of future prosperity for his mother, Maureen ‘Ma Dukes’ Yancey, daughters Ja-Mya Yancey and Ty-Monae Whitlow, and brother, John ‘Illa J’ Yancey.” The estate is now much more strict on the use of Dilla’s music.
It seems the fam is eating pretty well now. In the latter half of the decade since Donuts’ initial release, Dilla’s legacy has been met with the proper respect. In 2012, Montpellier, France dedicated a small street “Allée Jay Dee” in his honor. In 2014, Ma Dukes donated his Akai MPC 3000 and custom-made Moog synthesizer to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. His former group Slum Village did nine previously unreleased Dilla beats justice on last year’s Yes!. Dilla’s Delights is rumored to open its own storefront some time this year after selling plenty of donuts at other Detroit locations. The shop/bakery will be run by his uncle Herman Hayes. Stones Throw is releasing a 10th anniversary vinyl with an excerpt from his 33 1/3 on the making of the album. He’s dropped 10 posthumous solo projects from his seemingly infinite reserve in addition to the licensed beats on other artists works. His techniques are alive and thriving, even hitting the mainstream with tracks like Kendrick Lamar’s “Momma,” where LA producer Knxwledge employs Dilla’s swing sensibilities on the drum pattern and sample.
One can only imagine how Dilla would have adapted with more technologically advanced musical equipment hitting stores, keeping pace with a technological industry that seemingly grows exponentially. But something tells me he would have kept doing him regardless. I’m starting to get a bit teary-eyed, so I’ll end this quickly the only way I see fit: Rest In Beats, big homey.