J Dilla’s magnum opus Donuts is the best album you have never heard of. J Dilla is regarded as one of the best Hip-Hop producers ever. Anyone who enjoys 90s Hip Hop has probably listened to a J Dilla-produced song. Donuts, unlike Dilla’s former albums, was an entirely instrumental album. Dilla’s voice is not heard during the album, yet Donuts carries a vibe that most instrumental music fails to portray.
Donuts has multiple meanings. Dilla loves donuts, something his friends would bring him during their weekly vinyl drop-off while Dilla was in the hospital. Donuts also represented the album’s flow, songs do not end, but they are only interrupted by the next song. Tracks suddenly stop once the listener gets the hang of the song. This is a perfect metaphor for how life is always bringing new challenges and exciting moments. Although the album has 31 total tracks, the album’s run time is only 43 minutes. The run time shows that life will go by quick, and you need to cherish every moment.
One of the reasons this album is so excellent is the context of Dilla’s life during the creation of Donuts. Dilla, in 2005 was diagnosed with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura and lupus. Dilla’s family almost went bankrupt due to his medical bills and treatments he received, like dialysis. This caused Dilla to produce twenty-nine of the album’s thirty-one tracks from his hospital bed in Los Angeles in the summer of 2005. Dilla rushed to complete Donuts as he couldn’t walk and could barely speak. During the making of Donuts, Dilla’s mom, Maureen Yancey, was always beside him. She would massage his fingers when he was too weak to use a 45-rpm record player and a Boss Sp 303 Sampler. Donuts was released on February 7th, 2006, his 32nd birthday. Unfortunately, Dilla passed away three days after Donuts was released.
Despite his success later in life, Dilla came from humble beginnings. Dilla was born James Dewitt Yancey on February 7, 1974, in Detroit, Michigan. Dilla came from a music background; His mother was a singer, and his dad played piano and bass. During high school, Dilla would meet T3 and Baatin. The trio would later get together again to form the group Slum Village. Dilla, throughout the 1990s, would work with artists such as Janet Jackson, The Pharcyde, Tribe Called Quest, Q Tip, De La Soul, and Busta Rhymes. In the 2000s, Dilla started rapping, and he recorded Welcome 2 Detroit, Jay Dee Volumes 1 and 2, Rough Draft, and then a collaborative album with fellow legend, Madlib called Champion Sound.
Dilla, in these projects, showed a love for the Production Center (MPC) 3000 and sampling machines. With these projects, Dilla had asserted his soul sample-heavy, with loud percussion style. Quest Love of the Roots said about Dilla, “One of the strangest things about Dilla was he wasn’t even a musician in the classic sense, he just had a sound in his head and was able to put it onto tape flawlessly.” Kanye West called Dilla “a drum god.” Dilla in these first albums sounded very mediocre and average in terms of his rapping, but his production was outstanding.
Donuts starts very weirdly with its Outro titled by the same name. J Dilla had switched the intro and outro. Collin Robinson, a music journalist for Shoegaze, says, “it’s almost too perfect a metaphor for Dilla’s otherworldly ability to flip the utter expletive out of anything he sampled.” This twelve-second beat is by far the prettiest in the album. The album’s last song also fits perfectly into the first song, which makes a perfect transition and helps fit the album’s circular nature. Right after those twelve seconds, the album takes a dark cut with the track Workinonit. Workinonit is a homage to Dillas’ hometown as you hear the sounds of speeding cars going by. The first third of this album signifies Dilla’s early life growing up in Detroit. The fact that the outro is the intro and vice versa also shows that Dilla will die in the same setting as he was born – in a hospital surrounded by family. The album continues in this continual flow, just like a river. The only things that change throughout the album are the samples Dilla uses. These samples were given to Dilla by his friends, who would fill crates full of records weekly and give them to Dilla to listen to. Dilla, being from Detroit, had a close relationship with the soul music of Motown that is often forgotten about with people of this generation.
Through Donuts, Dilla reinvented soul music and packaged it for a modern audience to consume. Young people who listen to music now often fail to recognize that almost all their favorite rap songs are sampled from a soul song. Don’t Cry, Last Donut of the Night, Bye, Time: The Donut of the Heart, involve samples from the Jackson 5, Charles Sherrel, The Moments, Gene Chandler, Stevie Wonder, The Escorts, and The Temptations. The song Don’t Cry is dedicated to his younger brother. Donuts talks a lot about Dilla’s mortality. One For The Ghost could be interpreted as death, but also this song was made for Ghost Face Killa from Wu-Tang. One For The Ghost leads into the song Go.
Go is a message about his passing and how he has come to terms with it. The sample throughout says, “come on, baby, go, it is all right.” U Love is dedicated to fans of Dilla. Throughout the track, the listener is told that we are loved by Dilla through a sample of the Commodores. The following two songs are called Hi., and Bye. Bye. It wasn’t the last beat of the album, but it was the last beat of his illustrious career. Last Donut of the Night then hits the ears with such rhythm and beat it is hard not to dance to. Donuts’ sadder songs acknowledge how tragic and sad the present moment is only to find an optimistic tone.
The album is then wrapped up with the upbeat Welcome to the Show, all about how Dilla has accepted his death. The song he sampled was even called When I Die, where the ending of this song has a beat switch that matches perfectly with the first beat of the album. Donuts is an album all about Dilla confronting death in a way no other album can compare to. Without saying a word, Dilla, through samples and song titles displays a specific mood with each song. Donuts would even inspire new sub-genres of Hip Hop such as Lo-Fi. All the greats had great instruments for making music. Jimmi Hendrix had his guitar. Louie Armstrong had a trumpet. J Dilla had an MPC.