KEXP is counting down our listeners top voted albums of the last 50 years in conjunction with our 2022 fall fundraising drive. In conjunction, KEXP's Editorial team is presenting 'For Your Consideration' some of their all-time favorite albums and what they mean to them. Today Dusty Henry reflects on J Dilla's 'Donuts.' Tune into KEXP from Oct. 15-21 to find out what makes the list. Love KEXP's programming and want to support our work? Make a gift to KEXP today.
Our time on this mortal plane is finite, but the beat goes on.
Thank god it does.
It’s hard to think of ourselves as a part of a continuum. As much as we can wax poetic about it, we only see where things were and where we are right now, while a continuum stretches endlessly toward a future we’ll never see. Even if we don’t see that future, a part of us informs it – just like the past informs us now.
I can’t say for sure if J Dilla thought about his place in the grand continuum of life or understood it on some deeper level. But I feel it in his most seminal work, Donuts. In 31 rapid-fire beats across 43-minutes, Dilla conveys a history of recorded music while prompting a generation of artists to pick up the mantle toward what’s next. It’s an album that feels just as concerned with the idea of eternal life as it seems giddy to just see what cool sounds its creator can fuse next.
For all intents and purposes, Donuts wasn’t the masterpiece Dilla set out to make – despite what you may have heard.
The legend goes that Dilla composed his opus while on his hospital bed, chopping up samples for what would be his final record. Dilla released the album on his birthday, Feb. 7, 2006, and then he passed away three days later after cardiac arrest brought on from complications with Lupus. He was only 32 years old.
Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf has gone out of his way in recent years to set the record straight on the narrative, both in interviews and in the excellent recent book Dilla Time by Dan Charnas. In fact, it was Wolf who convinced J Dilla that he even had an album on his hands. Dilla played Wolf a burnt CD of beats in his car just to show Wolf what he’d been working on. To Dilla’s surprise, Wolf told him he’d be down to release the beat tape as-is. Dilla did do some final touches on the album while in the hospital, but his focused was turned toward his next project – what would become his first posthumous album, The Shining.
But whether or not Donuts was intended to be Dilla’s magnum opus or not, time has proven it as one of the most pivotal records of the 21st century – while reimagining sounds from the 20th.
For lack of a better term, there’s something “spiritual” in the making of music – or any art for that matter. I won’t confine it to any religion or creed, and really maybe “spiritual” is too loaded of a word anyway. But when inspiration grabs a hold of you, you become a conduit for something both beyond yourself and from parts of yourself you weren’t even aware of.
The narrative built around Donuts is compelling. It’s what I was told before first hearing the album and it’s hard to not have that coat your listening experience. But stripped away from that story, Donuts still shines as brightly. The timing of its release is poignant. Donuts is unlike much of Dilla’s back catalog. The short, rapid-fire beats, the lack of rappers jumping on the tracks, the whole esoteric experience of it all is so out there, even for Dilla. But that speaks to Dilla’s creative restlessness. Dilla never came in trying to replicate someone else or trying to settle into a style. He was voracious with expanding his sound. The man is credited with creating his own time signature, for god’s sake.
If his last release in his lifetime was a retrospective indicative of what we’d already heard from Dilla, I’m sure it would still be great. But in your final days to release to be something so forward-thinking, something that would inspire yet another generation of producers, rappers, jazz players, and musicians across the board… that’s a whole other level of artistry.
The first time I heard Donuts, I was disoriented. I’ve listened to plenty of beat tapes, but nothing quite as jarring as this. Just as you start to settle into one of Dilla’s beats, he suddenly spins you in an entirely different direction.
It takes a minute to get your bearings. I think about one sequence in particular that still slaps me across the face (proverbially, of course). The end of “Mash” goes from a hypnotic piano swirl into a distorted mess of fuzz with a glitched-out voice bellowing what sounds like, “Sure is strange.” It’s a strange, cacophonous moment that suddenly breaks into one of Donuts and Dilla’s most transcendentally beautiful moments – “Time: The Donut of the Heart.” Flipping and speeding up a Jackson 5 classic “All I Do Is Think Of You,” Dilla forges the album’s centerpiece. There’s really nothing in terms of lyrics to hold onto, outside of chopped-up phrases and moans. And yet, the first time I heard this beat I felt like crying. There’s a sense of melancholy and longing within the rhythm. Within a minute and 30 seconds, Dilla creates a transcendent moment that can be interpreted as grief or acceptance of the hereafter or being in love or any other sort of feeling you bring to it. And then suddenly the next beat “Glazed” interrupts the moment with a barrage of horns, jolting you out of your trance.
That’s really the magic of Donuts. How it jets back and forth, ping-pongs your emotions. Each of these beats is a triumph on its own but juxtaposed the way they are creates something unexpected. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Like any great storyteller, Dilla subverts your expectations and takes you on a journey you couldn’t have imagined for yourself.
I’ve listened to Donuts countless times, possibly more than any other record I know. At this point, I have all these beat changes memorized. Whenever the record is on, I sing along to all the beats and vocal samples. It’s weird how something so seemingly scattered can chisel itself into your soul. And yet, it still surprises me. I know where to expect the twists and turns, but it’s still thrilling each time. Like riding Space Mountain or re-reading your favorite novel.
I’m kept up at night thinking about all the music I’ll never hear. The constant output of artists all across the globe that’s only become more accessible in the digital age, but all the more overwhelming. I know I can never hear all of it, not even a fraction. I often wonder about all the great works that’ll get lost in dollar vinyl bins or in the fray of improperly tagged Bandcamp pages.
It’s a part of why I’ve always admired the likes of Dilla and Madlib. Furious crate diggers, always on the hunt for new sounds – or more often than not, old sounds ready to be rediscovered by their discerning ears. This isn’t exclusive to Dilla and Madlib, certainly. There are countless obsessive record collectors and sample-focused producers. But I think about these two iconoclasts often.
Iconoclasts? Destroyers of sacred traditions? Maybe that word is a bit more negative than I mean. I think (I assume) Dilla and Madlib both have reverence for the music they sample. But they’re bold enough to tear it apart and create something new from its pieces. Sampling is one of the most daring and inventive artistic practices I can think of. There is no better case study for this than Donuts.
Music is everywhere around us. Venture beyond your record collection or Spotify library and you still won’t be able to escape it. The hum of a radio blaring from a passing car. Softly playing in the pharmacy while you browse antacids. Royalty-free songs bouncing beneath a toothpaste commercial. There’s music in the tone of our speaking voices, the sounds of our feet lifting and falling to the ground, and the rustling wind in the trees.
Dilla understood this. On Donuts his samples vary from Jackson 5 classics to jingles for cosmetic companies, like on “Lightworks.” Samples don’t care for a musical canon or clout. It’s about what sounds good together, something Dilla excelled at. “Excelled” is putting it mildly. Let me say it another way – Dilla was a once-in-a-lifetime genius.
Of his many talents is how Dilla could also find a new song within an old song. The first real track after you get through the 12-second intro on Donuts is “Workinonit,” which heavily samples 10cc’s “The Worst Band in the World.” 10cc’s original song was playful and self-deprecating, poking fun at themselves and their industry at a sludgy pace. Dilla flips the novelty on its head, rearranging the mock engine revving, guitar lead lines, falsetto chorus, and upping the tempo. In the process, he turns supposedly “the worst band in the world” into a modern hip-hop classic. Most of the pieces were there, Dilla just had the vision to morph the sonic clay into a marble statue that’ll stand the test of time.
Donuts isn’t just remarkable because of Dilla’s skill. That’s just the means for it’s greater achievement. In my eyes, Donuts is a celebration of music. The music of life; the music of his life. Classic rock samples brush against the clatter of MCs, their voices twisted and stuttered, against a cacophony of looped soul and R&B deep cuts. I know I’ll never be able to listen to all the music in the world, but when I listen to Donuts there are moments when I feel like I’m listening to all of recorded music at the same time. And what’s even more magical is that it doesn’t sound like a mess. Delightfully chaotic sometimes, yes, but never indecipherable.
When you devote your life to music, it consumes you. Dilla and I have lived very different lives and I could only aspire to achieve an ounce of his talent. But I know what it feels like to give your life to music in some way. To obsess over it and to push yourself toward new sounds and ideas. It can be as intoxicating as it can be demoralizing. When I hear Donuts, I hear a love letter to the art form he gave so much of his life to. That finite time we have in the continuum, so much of it spent listening to and creating music. Time that’s not wasted. Music gives flavor to life. It challenges our perspectives. I’ve had so many moments in my life where music sent me down paths I never would have imagined (including working for the very place publishing this article). Most everyone has a relationship with music in some way and Dilla’s connection to the form feels as pure as it gets.
I think about Dilla nearing the end of his life, still called to create, still asking for crates of records sent to his hospital room. It reminds me of manga legend Osamu Tezuka, a pioneer of another art form, whose final words were purported to be, "I'm begging you, let me work.” When you’re that passionate, it can’t help but come out in your work. Donuts manifests that passion and makes me fall harder in love with the idea of music each time I listen to it.
How do you even begin to try and encapsulate something like Donuts? My thoughts are fractured even thinking about it. An album without a beginning or end, an endless loop of beats. But what is Donuts if not fractured thoughts creating a bigger whole? Isn’t that what life is too? Passing, disjointed moments that create your story in a way you couldn’t have planned.
Maybe that’s a good place to start.
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