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A quiet classic: Dilla’s ‘Donuts’

Published: Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Updated: Wednesday, February 12, 2014 03:02

If rappers are the face of hip-hop, producers are the backbone. One of the classic four elements of hip-hop, DJing can make or break a song. Great production can send a track skyrocketing to mainstream and critical success; lesser instrumentals can leave even the greatest rappers sounding whack. Yet for such a crucial component of the music, producers consistently go underappreciated. Of course, it’s easy to see why: after all, it’s the rapper’s name on the album cover, and you can’t well sing along to an instrumental. Indeed, purely instrumental albums are a rare commodity, let alone one that receives any sort of popular or critical attention. However, there is at least one such album that made clear to the world that rapping is only half the equation: J Dilla’s “Donuts” (2006).

The legendary Detroit producer compiled the 31-track album while hospitalized for an incurable blood disease that eventually took his life. Released Feb. 7, 2006, just days after his death, “Donuts” immediately garnered vast critical acclaim and has developed something of a cult following among rap fanatics. Devoid of any un-sampled lyrics, it can take a few listens to appreciate. Hidden amongst the chopped loops, a certain roughness lays evident. An exercise in sampling — Dilla borrows from artists as diverse as Frank Zappa and the Jackson 5 — “Donuts” is a masterpiece of production and a hip-hop landmark.

The album opens with the 12-second “Donuts (Outro).” More than mere title trickery, the “Outro” introduction is significant because the album itself serves as Dilla’s personal outro. “Workinonit,” the album’s second track, quickly sets the stage for the record with its airy guitar plucks, abrupt screeches and builds and groovy vocal sample. The careful placement with which Dilla arranges this diverse range of sounds creates an emotional dichotomy right from the start. It is simultaneously uplifting and foreboding. This melancholic happiness continues throughout the album and is in full force on “Stop.” Dilla uses piano crescendos and swirling synths to create a reflective tone, as a sample of Dionne Warwick’s “You’re Gonna Need Me” (1973) serenades the listener with an insistence that “You’re gonna need me, one day, you’re gonna want me back in your arms.” It’s one of the clearest acknowledgments Dilla makes to his looming expiration date on his sign-off magnum opus.

“Time: The Donut of the Heart,” a favorite on an album for many, is the Jackson 5-sampling song that is perhaps the album’s most enjoyable. Dilla intersperses indecipherable vocal samples over a head-nodding progression. It’s one of most easily enjoyable tracks on the album and a how-to in smoothness. Dilla continues to come to grips with his mortality on “Don’t Cry,” as the vocals of The Escorts — a late ‘50’s rock band from Iowa — plead, “I can’t stand to see you cry.” Perhaps he has his friends and family in mind here, or perhaps the words are, to an extent, aimed at himself. In any case, it’s clear that the sample resonated with him in making the song.

On the penultimate “Last Donut of the Night,” Dilla uses elegant high notes to carry a heavily chopped loop. The song’s many layers spin the listener in circles, creating holes for Dilla’s perfectly curated notes. It’s a classic Dilla beat: a microcosm of his entire style. The ability to make jagged rhythms sound natural and foreign sounds cohesive is what drives his music, and it is at its best on his “Last Donut.”

The depth of the instrumentals on “Donuts” is both enjoyable and thought provoking. It’s music for the soul — creative and emotive — even if not at first listen. It’s a reminder of the full potential of the DJ booth. Faced with his own mortality, Dilla poured his soul into his music and created a masterpiece.

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