I'd like [people] to remember what his music was about. It was very simple: it's about love. Sometimes it was negative, sometimes it was positive. I didn't appreciate that until he had passed. Dilla loved people, he loved doing what he did, and he loved those he worked with.
- J Dilla's mother, Ms. Maureen Yancey
On February 10, 2006, the music world lost a legend.
James Dewitt Yancey, aka Jay Dee, aka J Dilla, passed away six years ago this week after a battle with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood disease, and lupus. It was just three days after his 32nd birthday and the release of his final album Donuts.
That collection of 31 short instrumentals has been hailed by critics as a "fractured," "meditative," "crazed," "postmodern," "wistful," and "world weary" masterpiece. More than any other of his songs, I think Donuts will go down in history as something special - not only because it is his last album, one which he made mostly on his death bed, but because it sounds like it. There is a raw, elemental urgency to the structure and cadence of the songs, which compress a lifetime of experience into a collage of strange of soulful samples, all exploding and crackling with firework-like intensity.
Donuts was Dilla's final will and testament to the world, the swan song of a musical soul through soul music - and for those with ears to hear, is imbued with some powerful meditations and lessons.
The wikipedia entry on Dilla notes that:
It was during that same year that Donuts was conceived. According to close friend and fellow producer Karriem Riggins:
"The impetus for Donuts came during an extended hospital stay in the summer of 2005. Dilla's friends from the L.A.-based indie label Stones Throw came to visit and brought him a Boss SP-303 sampler and a small 45 record player so he could make music while in the hospital. Dilla completed 29 of the 31 songs on Donuts while still in the hospital."
Dilla is well known in the hip-hop and r&b worlds for producing music for groups like Slum Village, Janet Jackson, A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu, and Madlib, placing him on The Source's list of the 20 greatest producers in the magazine's history.
I grew up a fan of Dilla's earlier work, particularly his production for De La Soul, The Pharcyde, and Common's "The Light" - which, to me, is one of the greatest beats of all time.
But nothing could have prepared me for the gorgeous insanity of Donuts.
I first heard the album from the back seat of a tightly packed car, rolling through the Bronx on a hot summer night - and when the first siren-and-engine-roar of the first bar of "Workinonit" hit, I knew I was going on two journeys that night: one in the car up north, and one with J Dilla at the helm to God-knows-where.
This track - which is the longest of the album - sets the "ground rules" of Donuts. The rushing crescendo of guitars, the choral chant, and the violent utterances and chops all till the soil of the listener's ear in preparation for a dynamic climb through wild and sometimes disorienting terrain.
With this type of musical structure, the listener is really forced to check their linear, left-brained habits at the door, and experience the music, before making any grand assertions about it.
Donuts also generates much of its power from its loops. The looping of samples, in principle, takes the one part of an older song that really "gets" you, and repeats it over and over again, drawing you up into an almost ecstatic state of self-forgetfulness. But if the repeated sample is something dissonant or strange, the repetition can have the opposite effect, and feel like a maddening plunge into the chaotic.
Dilla, in his producer wisdom, takes us to the extremes of both experiences, leaving no leaf of life unturned.
Tracks like "The Twister (Huh, What)," "The Factory," and "Lightworks" all scuttle and grind through your bloodstream with varying degrees of industrial insanity and electronic mania, and give the feeling of an unnameable and disorientating darkness. Some of these tracks can be unpleasant to listen to, even if you grew up listening to hip-hop - Dilla seems to be purposefully tugging at us, smacking us around, making us squirm with discomfort. (Or as one vocal sample moans: "It's straaaange....for sure!")
But just as soon as we feel like we've been kicked into the mud and left for dead, angelic voices of old soul singers swoop down and carry us up on their wings toward an equally unnameable peace. This happens memorably in an early track called "Stop":
The sample of Dionne Warwick singing an old love song ("you're gonna need me one day, you're gonna want me back in your arms") meant one thing when it was recorded - but now, in Dilla's hands, it's transformed. Knowing that Dilla made this when he was dying, all the questions of mortality stir in our hearts - and suddenly the song becomes more than a break-up song, but a "lover's quarrel with the world."
As many have noticed, Dilla even chops up a sample of rapper Jadakiss saying "it's that real" to make it sound like "is death real?"
The refrain ("you better stop and think about what you're doing") is pointed right at our hearts like a sword. Life is short, Dilla seems to be telling his loved ones and listeners: look at me; think about what you do; remember the only guarantee in life, the end; don't wait until it's too late.
"One Eleven" (which samples Smokey Robinson's "A Legend in It's Own Time"), "Anti-American Graffiti," "People," and "Time: Donut of the Heart" all explicitly reference time, and their heartbreaking beauty and brevity further reflect the lens of Dilla's own dwindling clock.
But what's so great about Donuts is just how unexpectedly it takes us from one extreme to the other. Just as soon as we've settled in with a nice, soulful track, we're shoved back to a wild, brutish track, and then back again, and so on. This dance between the absurdly beautiful and absurdly makes the album flow, not like a nice walk through the countryside, but like a roller coaster through a blizzard, blindly turning corners and constantly surprising you. Sometimes it leaves you giddy, sometimes discombobulated and even terrified - but it's never dull. As Dilla's mother Maureen Yancey put it:
"It's like being taken along for a ride. Dilla would always say, 'are you ready for a ride,' and that was what he felt with that album."
The last three tracks of the album are especially profound. First, there is the haunting "Bye," which samples an old Isley Brothers' song called "Don't Say Goodnight." Again, this otherwise simple soul song is transformed into a love letter from a dying man to the world - one final wave from Dilla as he prepared to leave us.
The next track, "Last Donut of the Night," is equally haunting and sad - but in a different way. It sounds less like Dilla is saying goodbye to us, and more like he's now concerned with some interior struggle. The track is ethereal, mysterious - and as Dilla's mother notes, the title carries as much importance as the last one:
"I didn't even understand the way he arranged things at first. I hadn't given thought to the arrangement, with the 'last song of the night.' He knew his time was winding down and that album was his way of letting you know."
Finally, there is the last track, "Donuts (Intro)." There are a few things to appreciate about this - first, that Dilla chose to end his album with the "introduction." For me, this always called to mind TS Eliot's profound line, "in my end is my beginning," and suggested the glimpse of some other journey just beginning as the curtain falls on our earthly life. That was just a hunch - until I heard the sample the song is fashioned from. In chopping the original sample the way he does, Dilla's final music act is one of sheer genius - he transforms a song focused on death into what sounds like a song focused on eternal being. What was once "When I die, I hope to be a better man than you thought I'd be" is now the thunderous, victorious-sounding refrain: "I Be. Be. Be. Be. Be. I Be. Be. Be. Be. Be."
So what is the "bottom line" of Donuts? What do the dual styles, the siren, and the oddly coded soul amount to?
First and foremost, I think a hell of (and a heaven of) a musical experience. Dilla just wanted to inspire the hip-hop generation once more before he left - and he succeeded. Drake, The Roots, Talib Kweli, Common, and Ghostface Killah have all recorded songs to beats from Donuts; a jazz trio wrote and played a live jazz version of the entire album; and online music service Rhapsody ranked the album #3 on its "Hip-Hop’s Best Albums of the Decade" list.
But in another way, I think the "bottom line" of Donuts is what Dilla's mother Maureen Yancey insisted all of his music was about: love.
The theme of love persists in much of Dilla's music - from the early instrumental for "Fall In Love," to the Marvin Gaye-strewn "Love Is," to the newer instrumental for "Love" on The Shining:
Like many of his songs before, I think that Donuts has its sights set on love - but in a more attentive and accelerated way, with an intensity unmatched in his earlier work.
But then, why all the dark songs? Why the chaotic, grinding samples throughout?
Personally, I've always felt that the darker songs on the album might have been a sort of purging of inner darkness, an exorcism of whatever pains Dilla harbored in his heart before his untimely death. If this is true, these tracks might reflect a great truism: that with love comes great pain and confusion.
Or, as philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it: "Love and pain are a package deal. The only way to avoid pain is to avoid love, to give your heart to no one, to put a security system around it. It will be safe there in the freezer. But it will not beat."
I agree with Dilla's mother - Donuts, to me, is about love, a love more powerful than the passing world. The album definitely has a special focus on time passing - and that unmistakable siren blaring through the album always seemed like a wake-up call for those who think their time on earth is forever. But the samples that are chopped up - "don't ever say goodnight," "don't cry," "is death real," "it's all right, I'll get over it baby," and especially the final phrase, "I be" - all seem to point to a journey of love that continues well beyond Donuts, and even well beyond our mortal coil.
That's my take on Donuts - what's yours? And I can't end without asking: what's your favorite donut?