What we’re listening to (#12): ‘Donuts’ by J Dilla

J Dilla was an Detroit-based producer and rapper who rose to fame during the late 1990s, and is known for his work with many prominent artists such as De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, A Tribe Called Quest, MF Doom, The Roots, and many others. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential artists in the genre.

Donuts was J Dilla’s ninth studio album, released in February 2006, only three days before he passed away from what was reported to be a cardiac arrest – he was allegedly also suffering from a rare blood-clotting disease, as well as lupus. Dilla recorded the majority of the tracks heard on Donuts whilst still in hospital.

Dilla was a prolific sampler, and had a sizable vinyl collection at a very young age – this can be heard on the album, where he samples a range artists, from big names like Frank Zappa to the more obscure like Joeski Love. All of it is done with supreme precision, manipulating the tracks to make them, at often times, the complete opposite of what they were before, whilst still making it sound like the samples were meant to be there. The drums are punctual, never lacking to provide a spine to a track, and yet the klaxon alarms throughout the album wrench you back to reality before you get too focused on them.

Throughout the album he explores plenty of sounds, there’s no one core theme that’s followed even though Dilla samples mostly from soul music, and so every track you listen to will have nuanced differences which you’ll pick up on, yet the tracks seem to flow together. There’s rarely a moment where the songs don’t flow into each other.

The track ‘Lightworks’ is a standout, an eerie adventure splashed with spacey sounds throughout, the klaxon alarms making an appearance, and J Dilla’s adlibbing providing an underground polish to it. The sample, although clearly from a late 50s/early 60s upbeat song, takes on a much more minor sense of it’s own as it travels from ear to ear. The slight pitch shifts in the main sample provide a sense of uncomfortableness during the track. MF Doom went on to use this beat on his album Born Like This.

My favourite track of the album is the penultimate ‘Last Donut of the Night’. The heart-wrenching sample of The Moments’ ‘To You With Love’ providing a sadness that most instrumentals cannot – that most if not all hip-hop instruments can definitely not.  

A seminal album, a must listen to.

This article was written by Mo Hafeez

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