‘He sure is strange’: J Dilla & Donuts ten years on
I always thought it was Kanye West who best summed up the greatness of J Dilla. When being interviewed and pushed to answer about why Dilla was so important, why he was so influential and why the music is so good, he became tongue tied, lost for words, and simply stated that the music ‘just sounded like good pussy’. This February 7th marks the 10 year anniversary of J Dilla’s Donuts; this February 10th then marks the 10 year anniversary of the man’s death. Dilla remains difficult to surmise because what he did was so subtle, his innovation so important but so microscopic, that you can’t even hear it when you listen. It’s more difficult than for someone like Hendrix or Coltrane where one can point to a very definitive before and after moment within their respective genres. Dilla was never showy, on the surface the music is so infuriatingly simple that one must ask what exactly can an article capture about it. Why not just say: ‘go listen to this track?’
No one can escape the context of Donuts’ creation. Dilla had been diagnosed with the rare blood disease TTP along with lupus in 2002, and by 2005 it was clear that he was not going to last much longer. Donuts was created during an extended hospital stay in the summer of 2005 and was released three days before his death in February of 2006. For the album he had little to work with but a portable 45 record player and a sampler. What emerged was strange. Donuts is 31 songs, all but one under two minutes long. The album is like some weird demented DJ mix, songs are less songs as they are pastiches, some are sweet and passing while others blisteringly repetitive. You get pieces like ‘People‘ which reworks classic soul tunes, cheesy 70s prog rock being chopped up and stitched back together in ‘Waves‘, and a 50s ad jingle turned musique concrete in ‘Lightworks’.
To understanding Donuts and its importance it’s helpful to look back at why J Dilla is so revered. Dilla cut his teeth making beats for hip-hop groups like The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest and The Roots in the mid to late 90s. From the start it was obvious Dilla saw the sample as a much more malleable and formable product; like with The Pharcyde’s Drop where he uses a sample playing in reverse, or Black Star’s Little Brother where he remakes a Roy Ayers song sans vocals by chopping out each minuscule segment without singing and reconstructing it.
But a lot of Dilla’s innovations to hip-hop have their root in neo-soul, a genre he was also heavily involved in. Neo-Soul was a reaction against the producer driven R&B that had become widespread in the 80s and 90s and instead tried to reclaim some human aspect for the music. Though not opposed to Hip-Hop it did attempt to provide an alternative to its rigid structure and clean production. Neo-Soul at the best of times was muddy, loose and jammy; it reclaimed a sense of humanity through its, for want of a better term, imperfection.
Hip-Hop’s structure was in many ways dictated by the precarious role that the sample did and still does play in the music. The court case between De La Soul and The Turtles had permanently poisoned the well in regards to sampling as decrepit old baby boomers realized they could make big money by stifling the creativity of hip-hop (not bitter), so most hip-hop after that either payed the artist royalties (Dr. Dre) or decided to sample as obscurely as possible (DJ Shadow). With this context in mind the idea of how a sample could and could not be used became very rigid, fuelled in large part by the fear of being sued. A sample should be fairly obscure, preferably not be the chorus of the song, and last for only four beats. There was a definite ‘grid’ structure to hip-hop reminiscent of Techno or House music, and one of Dilla’s greatest innovation was to dislodge Hip-Hop from this imposed grid.
By 2006 Dilla had become much more experimental and much more interesting. While most drums were made in a 4×4 grid and were quantized Dilla would play each loop individually unquantized. What you end up with is a natural swing to the rhythm; even if it’s not wholly perfect it just feels right. Dilla also wasn’t afraid to insert what appears to be a mistake into his samples. Listen to Dilla’s ‘Says Go’ and you’ll hear a sample that ends on the pickup note, almost any producer pre-Dilla would have scrubbed this out but he keeps it in. It’s obviously not just carelessness, the philosophy behind the samples and the drums is the same: reinsert the human back into the music, keep it loose, keep it informal.
These innovations were present in all of Dilla’s career to some extent or another but Donuts is the manifesto, it’s where every aspect of Dilla’s idiosyncratic discography is given space to breathe. It’s impossible to surmise because it’s so multifaceted; no one song particularly sounds like any other, of the 31 songs any one of them could be taken out, studied, and made into a career in their own right. It’s like a blueprint for how Hip-Hop should work from here on out. Even Hip-Hop that rejects Donuts’ innovations still has to engage with it.
Dilla’s legacy is everywhere but it is at its most obvious in the LA Beats scene. Was he Jazz’s last great innovator as artists like Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins argue? Certainly it’s impossible to imagine artists like Flying Lotus or anyone else on the Brainfeeder label being able to make such loose and improvisatory hip-hop music without there first being Dilla. Most people don’t even call those artists Hip-Hop it’s ‘Beat Music’ or ‘Future Beat’ but it’s still definitively Hip-Hop, just what was left of the genre post-Dilla. Even To Pimp a Butterfly, Obama’s favourite album of 2015, LA hip-hop’s Woodstock moment, has Dilla embedded in every drum loop and every sample.
A lot has changed in these ten years and Hip-Hop has evolved almost beyond recognition; the genre we see today is looser, more experimental and less conservative than at any time in its history; and a lot of this, a lot more than is immediately apparent, can be linked back to Dilla and Donuts in particular. J Dilla caused a sea change from his death bed, and currently the jury is out; J Dilla’s position as Hip-Hop’s greatest producer is not only established, it’s unquestioned. But J Dilla is odd, he’s idiosyncratic, and what makes him great is not immediately apparent. Dilla’s innovation while vast is so subtle that it’s almost unrecognizable to untrained ear; when listening to his work it sounds like every producer before Dilla was just getting it wrong.