To music lovers across the globe, February 7th is Dilla Day. On this day in 1974 visionary hip-hop producer James “J Dilla” Yancey was born, and in 2006 his highly celebrated album Donuts was released three days before his death. Fittingly, the world today pauses to remember the monumental contribution of J Dilla to the evolution of hip-hop and celebrate the musical memories he left behind.
Born and raised Detroit, J Dilla has long been heralded as having revolutionized hip-hop with his ambitious and expansive work as a producer. Donuts, an album recorded in part while the artist was in the hospital with a rare blood disorder, is hailed as one of the best-produced and most remarkably cohesive albums of all time. It’s a first-rate testament to his legacy as one of the all-time great hip-hop producers, and it’s also a fitting farewell.
The album was recorded in Dilla’s hospital room using a 45-rpm record player and a Boss SP-303 sampler, and its 31 tracks – most of them under two minutes – are an impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness collection of moods and sentiments. From the very beginning, Donuts is an exercise in the art of sampling. Dilla was an expert when it came to sampling; he had a deep understanding of musical composition and theory on top of being versed in multiple genres of music. This allowed him to find hooks in songs that other producers might not have normally considered.
Donuts is an example of this mastery at work. The samples are looped and layered into multidimensional songs, heavily processed and sequenced in a way that swings but retains their gravelly sound. Tracks aren’t just sampled, they’re eviscerated, chopped up and rearranged to make beats that sound both organic and synthetic.
Just as crucial as the samples themselves is the way they’re used: shuffling along on a bed of warm vinyl crackle and dust bunnies, they often enter and exit abruptly, like radio broadcasts cutting in and out. Dilla’s drums tie the whole thing together and are remarkably fluid yet lighter than those heard on hip-hop beats at the time. Today his “unquantized” drumming technique (patterns that mimic the imperfections of live playing) is the norm and used by producers the world over.
For all the technical talk about song structure, Donuts is a human album. It’s full of emotion because it’s full of life: Dilla was making it while he knew he was dying, and his attitude was as positive as his music. Donuts is the sound of a man using the time he has left to make his final statement. It isn’t just a masterpiece, it’s a highly influential piece of art that has inspired a generation of producers.
J Dilla’s magnum opus feels destined to never truly fade away and remains a testament to his preternatural talent as a producer and artist. Donuts is a sprawling, idiosyncratic record that’s the perfect final album. It’s the sound of an artist leaving on his own terms, having succeeded in creating a body of work that’s unlike anything else out there. It’s 31 tracks that are, almost without exception, the best representations of what hip-hop can be when it’s not chasing hits or trends. And it’s a swan song from one of the genre’s most important voices.