Hip hop and early mortality have always been far more familiar with one another than they ever should be.
J Dilla’s passing on 10 February 2006, however, was different to most in hip hop’s sad history.
Here was an artist who was not given the ‘luxury’ of a swift ending. With the knowledge that he did not have long left, but long enough to meditate on what this meant, the super-producer crafted ‘Donuts’; an album that is both forward-thinking and retrospective. The project is on many a favourites list and, with its urgent snippets of tracks getting straight to the point, it suits, by accident or design, this generation’s approach to music. ‘Donuts’ paid homage to fellow iconic producers; acted as a goodbye letter to those he was to leave behind; and is as shrouded in mystery and nuance as much as it is immediate. Released on 7 February 2006, Dilla’s birthday and just three days before he passed away at the tender age of 32, it has become widely heralded as a masterful example of an artist detailing their own imminent demise.
‘Give a little back, in my way’
In 2014, J Dilla’s influence is as apparent as it is diverse. It is there in the heavy syncopation and choppy soul of Ackryte’s ‘gloom-bap’. It is there in the drums-as-exact-science of UK Garage duo Disclosure. However, ‘Donuts’ itself often tips its hat to some of Dilla’s favourite producers. There’s the nod to Pete Rock, which is hardly surprising from a producer whose early output was described as ‘Pete Rock on steroids’. ‘Stepson of the Clapper’ gives Mountain’s ‘Long Red’, a staple of many a Pete Rock classic (‘Return of the Mecca’, ‘Shut ‘em Down’ remix), a reworking which is both warmly familiar and electrifyingly different.
‘One for Ghost’ and ‘Hi.’ are both bathed in the melancholic hue of classic Rza. Both iconoclastic beatmakers shared a love of ‘sloppy’ drums and haunting soul samples (Slum Village: ‘Get Dis Money’, Wu Tang Clan: ‘C.R.E.A.M.’) and, at a time when many producers were aiming to recreate the sonic cleanliness of Puffy, Dr Dre and The Trackmasters, Jay Dee (as he was known at the time) and The Rza counterbalanced this obsession with production polish with dozens of organic, gritty and funkily off-kilter classics. With ‘One for Ghost’ and ‘Hi.’, Dilla not only shows an uncanny ability to pay tribute to a fellow revolutionary without losing his own identity, but also delivers two of hip hop’s most poignant productions.
Perhaps most overt in its influences and emotions however is Dilla’s nod to the Bomb Squad. ‘The Twister (Huh, What)’ is an apocalyptic wall of sound that could be culled from a ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ studio session. Public Enemy fans will note that the track is even ushered in with the same vocal used in ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ (‘Would you join me please, in welcoming in…’). Here, the producer masterfully channels the sonic anger of the production team behind The Prophets of Rage. Dilla himself is raging here, ‘raging against the dying of the light’.
And then, of course, there is that siren. Famously used on Mantronix’s ‘King of the Beats’ almost twenty years before ‘Donuts’, the air raid siren – the warning of incoming German bomber raids in World War II – was co-opted by both hip hop and rave in the 1980’s. However, with the sample now embedded in the collective beatmaking psyche as ‘Dilla’, the sound has been given an even more palpable sense of urgency in music, being deployed by an artist with not long left to say what he has to say.
‘It can hurt.’
And what Dilla has to say in ‘Donuts’ is both a mixture of the explicit and the esoteric. Perhaps most explicit are the broken Buddhist mantra of ‘hurt, hurt’ (‘The Factory’); the suffocating soul singer of ‘Airworks’ (‘Oh..no..air…’) and, in a moment showing Dilla’s resilient humour, the command to ‘light up the spliffs’ on ‘Lightworks’. When it comes to the more esoteric, ‘Donuts’ devotees can dissect words and sample choices like theologians can pore over a religious text. Does ‘Workinonit’, that high-speed car chase of an introductory ‘Donut’, say ‘play me’, ‘buy me’, or ‘save me’? Does Jadakiss ponder ‘is death real?’ on the introduction to ‘Stop’? What is the disembodied voice trying to tell us on ‘Last Donut of the Night’?
Listening to the album for the first time, still reeling from the news of his passing, I became convinced that the jarring-yet-hypnotic ‘Waves’ repeated the word ‘chronic’ again and again. I proselytized to friends about this clever triple-entendre. I reasoned that ‘chronic’ referred to the West Coast weed of choice for many a hip hop head (Dilla had spent time on the West Coast, after all), the game-changing hip hop album by fellow ‘Producer’s Producer’ Dr Dre, as well as the severe pain that Dilla bravely endured whilst crafting the album. It was only upon learning of ‘The Shining’ – a project that he had intended to complete following ‘Donuts’- that the droning, trance-inducing ‘chronic’ became ‘Here’s Johnny’, itself loaded with double-meaning. Jay is looking to the future, referencing his next project, ‘The Shining’ whilst evoking Jack Nicholson’s character in Stanley Kubrick’s film of the same name: Dilla’s imminent demise is given a face, staring its way through the half-hacked down door.
This layer upon layer of meaning is also especially evident in ‘Walkinonit’. This track repeats the line ‘broke and blue’ from ‘Walk On By’. Understood. However, listen closer: is that ‘glow’? Is this another reference to ‘The Shining?’ Or is this a reference to hip hop’s material trappings, which Dilla was never one to shy away from? He loved Range Rovers, fly clothes and icy jewellery. Is Dilla urging impoverished people to ‘get the money’, even when the odds are stacked against them? Or is this a message about the nature of the soul? Is Jay telling us that the body might be broken, the emotions may be blue, but the human spirit still shines on?
‘You better stop, and think about what you’re doing.’
There is a paradox in an audience consuming art from an artist exploring their imminent demise. The artist leaves behind a document which is inclusive and public, yet deeply exclusive and personal. We are all connected by mortality, but our mortality is separate from everyone else’s. ‘They won’t go when I go’.
How can one album be so many different things at once? This is the final project from a dying artist, filled with personal messages to his family and feelings of anger, sorrow, loss and resilience, which is played in honour of his memory. With boundless poignancy, this can be the soundtrack to the mourning of loved ones and reflections on our own mortality. And yet, with its inherent funkiness and brilliant flashes of humour, it makes you want to dance and celebrate the fact that you’re still alive. Something tells me that Dilla himself would urge us to ‘turn it up’ and ‘get live with it’ while we can. After all, ‘Hi.’ is swiftly followed by ‘Bye.’…
James D. Yancey, Jay Dee, J Dilla, Dill Withers, Dilla Dawg. With ‘Donuts’, he represented the most real, the most raw.
Image Credits: Graph, Author of "Behind The Beat" (Gingko Press, Inc.)