Finding Donuts

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.

Top 5 Years of All Time: 2015, A Year in Review

In 2015, I set out to read 25 books. The goal for 2016 is 52 blog posts - one a week. I’ll be using this site as a notepad for ideas - a place to jot down what’s on my mind concerning technology, books, and anything that else that catches my interest.

With 2015 wrapped up, I wanted to reflect on the year through a list of my favorite reads and listens from the past twelve months. In deference to one of my favorite movies ever, High Fidelity, I’m taking a Top Five Records approach to the list.

For those who haven’t seen High Fidelity, its characters spend the movie lounging around a record store, coming up with top 5 lists. My brother and I have since adopted the habit, drafting top 5 lists for music, movies, ideas, cities to live in abroad, etc. It’s an effective way to structure opinion on both the abstract and the pragmatic.

A quick note on the structure of the top 5 list: its contents are in no way listed by priority or rank. The contents of a Top 5 list need no rank, for they have made it to the Top 5, and that is achievement enough. Here we go.

 

Top 5 Ideas I Read About in 2015

  • Aggregation Theory. How the internet enabled distribution at scale, and unlocked opportunities for new entrants to aggregate those parts of the supply chain closest to consumers. The theory does a good job of explaining the changing landscape of media, transportation, and hotels, as well as the success of Uber, WeWork, AirBnB, et al.
  • Messaging is the Future Runtime. In 2015 I became obsessed with the idea that in the mobile age, messaging apps will be where content search and discovery happen, and that they will happen contextually, not on an on-demand basis (as was the case with Google during the age of the web browser.) There was a lot of news around messaging this year. FB Messenger announced M, a semi-AI concierge that helps users find what they need (which also led to the anti-turing test.) In APAC markets, messaging apps have been the primary runtime for a number of years. Looking forward to see how this space evolves in American markets in 2016.
  • Growth v Fixed Mindset. We can always be learning and growing. I liked this read on the difference b/w those with fixed and growth mindsets, and how the latter worry not about proving themselves to third parties but about how they can constantly be challenging themselves to learn more.
  • The Evolution of Verbs in the Workplace. Benedict Evans did a good job of summarizing this idea, in which the on-premise, PC-generation of workplace tools (excel, ppt, email) are replaced by collaborative cloud solutions. These new solutions improve efficiency through the automation of manual work (e.g. data visualization tools replacing excel) or by giving users a single place to collaborate on content (e.g. users communicating on tasks in Slack/Asana/Percolate instead of through siloed email threads.) The workflows change. The output stays the same, it’s just produced faster.
  • The Tennis Ball Problem. A wry metaphor that articulates the importance of focus on a few (and not many) things.

Top 5 Stratechery Reads

2015 was the year I bit the bullet and subscribed to Ben Thompson’s daily update. It’s the best $10/month I spent all year (with the possible exception of Spotify) and how I start my morning when I get into the office. Here are some of my favorites.

  • Why Web Pages Suck. I love this post. It contains my favorite visual of 2015, the 2009-2014 comparison b/w % of consumer time spent v. % of advertising spend across digital and traditional channels (from Mary Meeker’s annual internet trends SOTU report.) The post also does a great job of explaining how programmatic advertising worked in the days of the web browser, and how the model will not transition well to mobile. In the future, native advertising (think Facebook feed and Snapchat Discover) will dominate media spend on mobile.
  • The Facebook Epoch. Facebook dominated 2015. This article explains how Facebook is winning the mobile epoch (after Google won the web/browser one) and how they’re positioning themselves to mimic the messaging platforms of APAC.
  • The AWS IPO. One of the biggest tech stories in 2015 was Amazon’s reveal of their AWS revenue numbers. Few predicted just how huge these numbers would be (~26B) or how essential AWS -- the default cloud infra provider for new companies -- would become across the internet. I like Thompson’s article as it posits just how big of a deal this is for Amazon, and what the implications are for Amazon in 5 years, when today’s startups (the majority of which use AWS) grow into massive companies.
  • Aggregation Theory. (Mentioned above in top ideas of 2015.)
  • Old-Fashioned Snapchat. I think a lot of people are still trying to get their head around Snapchat and how it will be successful long-term. “No targeting? No audience demographics? What’s the point?” This write-up is a nice outline of the brand advertising opportunity available to Snapchat, and how it’s enabled through Snapchat stories and Discover.

Top 5 Reads Directly Related to Technology/Startups

Top 5 Reads About Nothing in Particular

  • Astral Weeks, Lester Bangs. Astral Weeks was one of my favorite albums in high school. I put the title track and “Sweet Thing” on A LOT of burned CDs. This review from Lester Bangs says a lot about the album, and about human nature in general. It’s also a fascinating view into the mind of a legendary writer from the early rock scene in America -- the first exposure I had to Bangs was from Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s excellent portrayal of him in Almost Famous, so I enjoyed this deeper dive into his writing.
  • One Last Rave, Hua Hsu. This is a great profile on Jamie XX - includes a nice walkthrough on the 80s/90s dance scene in the UK and how it evolved into the music of today.
  • Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, John Updike. Updike takes a trip to Fenway for Ted Williams last major league baseball game. Even if you don’t like baseball, this is a must-read. At the very least, it’s a nice look into what it would be like to go to a baseball game as a literary genius. (What with the gift of perception and all.)  
  • The Five-Decade Book Party and Its Tireless Host, Warren St. John. Cool write-up on the literary parties George Plimpton used to throw.
  • Why Go Out?, Sheila Heti. I found this transcription of a Sheila Heti lecture a few years ago while living in SF, but I added it to my Pocket favorites list in 2015, so I’m tacking it on here. In today’s culture, where it’s the accepted norm to stay in and watch Netflix, to stay comfortable, this article says something interesting about why we go out and forgo this comfort.

Top 5 Novels Read in 2015

  • Moby Dick, Herman Melville. Everything is metaphor.
  • Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner. Friends are important.
  • In the Light of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman. Two friends reunite after a long time apart and discuss mathematics, exile, and how they’ve lived their lives. This book will inspire you to think critically, and to keep a list of your favorite quotes.
  • Norweigan Wood, Haruki Murakami. I picked this up after a recommendation from a friend. Much more accessible than The Wind-up Bird Chronicle but still written in the same distant tone that is so unique to Murakami. I read this book in a weekend and then listened to Rubber Soul.
  • Emma, Jane Austen. This book just turned 200 years old. A really interesting look into a different time, in which people’s social motives were not so different than they are today. A masterpiece of character development and contrast -- every character represents a different, complex foil of Emma, the main protagonist.

Top 5 Non-Fiction Books Read in 2015

  • Astoria, Peter Stark. A must-read for any person from the Pacific Northwest. It used to take considerably longer to get from coast to coast.
  • Paid Attention, Faris Yakob. A great read on the current state of the advertising industry and its digital transformation. Outside of the marketing insight, this book has some really interesting passages on thought itself. Yakob shares wise words on how we come up with ideas through connecting stolen themes from the past, and on how the prodigious thinkers come up with the best ideas - that is, most ideas are bad, you need to get through the obvious ones before you can get to the margin and find the good stuff.
  • Give and Take, Adam Grant. A great business read about how takers, matchers, and givers match up in the corporate success ladder. In reading this, I was reminded a lot of the New Yorker feature on Reid Hoffman, the uber-networker who starts all of his conversations with a written agenda and ends them with softly asking "How can I help?" I liked this book - a good reminder of how to act in the workplace and in life.
  • The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman. I picked this book up after an email from Noah on his required reading list for new PMs. It starts with the basic design principles of human-centered design: affordances, signifiers, constraints, mappings, and feedback. They're the most valuable piece of this book and a great model to keep in mind when designing anything that will be used by a fellow human being.
  • A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace. The title essay is one of my favorite non-fiction reads of all time, and probably the most endearing thing DFW put on paper. It is hilarious, relatable, and devastating in its sadness, all at once.

Top 5 Short Stories Read in 2015

Top 5 Albums Released in 2015

  • Art Angels, Grimes. Claire Boucher retains the same ethereal weirdness from her last release, Visions, but puts it through a mainstream pop filter. Great to have Grimes back on the scene.  
  • Poison Season, Destroyer. One of my favorite concerts of 2015. Bejar is the man, and this album was the perfect accomplice for my move to NYC this year. The sax on “Dream Lover” reminds me of early E Street Band -- undeniable.
  • In Colour, Jamie XX. Incredible sampling and production throughout this album. My favorite track is “Girl”, which takes effervescent vocals from Freeez’s “I.O.U.” and turns them into something distant and dreamy.
  • If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, Drake. Drake had a big year.
  • Vega Intl. Night School, Neon Indian. It’s been fun to see the chillwave artists develop their sound over the last years. I really enjoyed this release from Neon Indian, which is an impressively cohesive album. My winner for best closing track of the year.      

Top 5 Old Albums Discovered in 2015

  • Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley. Rhythm and swagger well ahead of his time.
  • Homogenic, Bjork. I started exploring Bjork’s catalogue leading up to her headline at Gov Ball. Great songwriting. Complex beats. Incredible vocals.
  • Let It Be, The Replacements. Answering Machine is a great closing song.  
  • Head Hunters, Herbie Hancock. You’ve heard this album before, you just didn’t know it. The opening bass synth line is deep and slinky. Everything else that follows maintains a similar level of cool.
  • Fresh, Sly and the Family Stone. Sly’s departure from the mainstream into more complex keys and arrangements. When Miles Davis heard the opening track from this album, he forced his band to listen to it on repeat for 30 minutes. It’s that good.

And that’s it. 2015 was a great year. Looking forward to 2016; another year of reading, writing, and learning.

See you there.