I first heard about J Dilla, the acclaimed Detroit-based hip hop producer, while watching Amoeba Records’s excellent series “What’s In My Bag?” a few years ago.
First things first. If you love music and haven’t seen “What’s In My Bag?”, go take a look. Amoeba sets musicians free in their store with a bag for an hour. At the end of the hour, the musicians talk about what they’ve put in their bag, usually a great mix of unexpected influences and cherished records. It’s one of my favorite ways to find great music from artists I enjoy.
This particular episode featured Disclosure. Out of the fourteen albums they picked from the Amoeba shelves, five were J Dilla records. They professed to being huge J Dilla fanboys, and since I was a huge Disclosure fanboy at the time (still am, really,) I deduced through transitive relation that I, too, must be a huge J Dilla fanboy.
I started with his first solo album, 2001’s Welcome to Detroit. It’s a good listen and one that I go back to often, but I wouldn’t put it on my all-time list. The highlight is its first full-length track, “Think Twice.”
A year later I got around to listening to Donuts.
Donuts is Dilla’s second solo album and his critic-elected magnum opus. It can be a hard album to get into. Its 31 tracks clock in at a manageable 43 minutes, but do the math and you’re left with an average track time of less than a minute and a half. It’s a rush of choppy samples. Tracks drop away suddenly with new sounds rushing in to fill their place. An irresistible hook loops for a handful of measures before tagging out with something that’s difficult and complex.
This makes Donuts an album that requires a complete listen, front to back. You can’t hit its most popular songs and run.
After a few full rotations the apparent chaos within Donuts filters away, and you’re left with an instrumental album that covers a surprising range of emotion and depth, all through its sampling. Pitchfork puts it well:
As an album, it just gets deeper the longer you live with it, front-to-back listens revealing emotions and moods that get pulled in every direction: mournful nostalgia, absurd comedy, raucous joy, sinister intensity. There's all kinds of neat little tics and idiosyncrasies, pushing Dilla's early 00s beat-tape experiments and exchanges into compositions that tinker with Thelonious Monk's off-kilter timing and Lee Perry's warped fidelity. The songs on Donuts are like miniature lessons in how to take sample-based music and use it to build elaborate suites out of all those nagging little pieces of songs that stick with you long after you've last listened to them.
There are ecstatic moments in Donuts. The opening revs of “Workinonit” and the climbing squeal of the guitar sample that follows. The guy shouting “the Fruitman!” in the opening bars of “The Diff’rence” (the ‘guy’ is Kool & The Gang.) The after school special melody of “Time: The Donut of the Heart”, later to be sampled by Drake. The funky sway of “Airworks.” The transition from the plaintive croons of “One Eleven” to the Jackson 5 vibe of “Two Can Win.”
As good as Donuts is objectively, there’s an entire new level of meaning ascribed to its tones and samples (and even its track names) when you discover that Donuts was Dilla’s last album.
In 2005, Dilla was bedridden with a rare, incurable blood disease. He spent the last months of his life in the hospital with a sampler and his 45s, making Donuts. He passed just three days after its release upon his 32nd birthday.
Knowing this, Donuts becomes more than just Dilla’s opus. It’s his farewell. Its frenetic pacing gains a poignancy as it builds towards the album’s end, with Dilla racing to add songs to what he knows will be his final work.
This context is most affecting on the closing five tracks of the album. The medley opens with “U-Love”, its sampled refrain of “love you” presumably looping for friends and family. The ensuing couplet of “Hi” and “Bye” gives a sense of foreboding return turned warm nostalgia, like a visit to your old high school. “Last Donut of the Night,” built with anxious strings, seems destined to end the album in mourning until the final track “Welcome to the Show” announces itself in a parade of brazen joy. But even this final moment of glad is tinged with sadness; the vocal sample used is from Motherlode’s “When I Die” -- a looped parse of the lyric “when I die, I hope to be a better man than you thought I'd be.” Another layer of meaning tucked away within the instrumental samples of this great and poignant album.
Right at its most triumphant moment, Donuts suddenly cuts its last song short, weaving it back into the opening sounds of the album. If you’re listening to the record on repeat, you won’t even notice that you’ve reached the end. It just keeps going. An infinite loop.
This leads us to the name Donuts itself. Donuts are round. Like records. Donuts are records. Records are flat. Records represent time. Time is a flat circle...
These musings, like Donuts, go on forever. But that’s the point. Donuts, as an album, represents both Dilla’s life of sampling and his purpose: the infinite search for meaning in music.