The true genius that survives deep within great artists can often be pinpointed down to a single body of work that encapsulates their ethos and heaving talent. Michael Jackson showed us Thriller, Stevie Wonder swooned with Songs In The Key of Life, Miles Davis had Kind Of Blue and J Dilla gave us Donuts. Settling into the 10th year anniversary of the record’s release in February of 2006, it’s astonishing how much heart and soul continue to spill from inside. Pause, play and soak in the absolute nigh perfected sonic lengths in James “J Dilla” Yancey’s quintessential album that elevated a new benchmark for producers and beat aficionados alike.
From the jumpy sample use to the sharp micro-inclusions of vocals and reverbs, it illustrated a new direction in instrumental hip-hop few have exceeded even ten years on. Subtle, strong and packed with vibrancy, his 2006 release saw him meld together the power of sound obscurities and interminable music knowledge – smelting together an album comprised of post-modern zeal measured in cataclysmic volumes. Yancey fused his unfathomable knowledge of music curated through countless hours of crate digging, together with his unbridled love for hip-hop. It’s not merely sampling, however. Whether it be engaging hooks from rare groove titles or the thunderous bass line snippets that unite the flow, Donuts exceeds the limitless patterns of hip hop musicality with exquisite perception. The sounds in Stop manage to extract emotions from the original recording as Dilla cuts and chops through the fine elements hidden within. Dionne Warwick’s You’re Gonna Need Me carries with it an oozing cry for understanding. Dilla manages to flip the intro, leading it into the sultry vocals as thick drums slam and spoken word micro samples filter through over the memorable hook once more. The result rallies with it an eccentric and reflective flow that speaks amplifications of extensive emotive weight.
Whether it’s the skippy pitched down gospel vocals layered over the top of tempo tense switching drums in People, or the nostalgia-driven momentum in Two Can Win – Dilla’s innate focus is clear and explicit. The fine-tuned moments highlighted in Dilla’s re-imagination of Kool and The Gang’s Fruitman in The Diff’rence confirms this. The unmistakable intro gives birth to deep drum combinations, as the sample migrates through the piano keys and microscopic vocal pauses skipped over the filtered hook venture. It is only through taking the time to navigate through each track, researching their obscure sample sources, can one ultimately understand the depth and level Yancey envisioned for the record.
The sample archaeology process of stretching out tiny fragments of original work, looping them just enough to squeeze out a sliver of material for use is perhaps the most breathtaking element in any of Dilla’s output. This is fully apparent in Airworks as a thunderous bass line and guitar strings flick over the looped vocal cries. The reinterpretation of such detailed parts tie together with radiating polished class, and in a minute and forty-four seconds we see what Dilla can accomplish with an MPC and a copy of L. V. Johnson’s I Don’t Really Care. It is a convergence of styles both new and old. With distinct flavour and focused thought that breathe new life into the dusty original works. The listener is carried through an orbit of his music appreciation, his attention to profound detail and an enormous creative direction that ultimately shaped the way music can be spun through revivification and fresh direction.
Not only did Dilla manage to indulge in countless prominent points across plentiful music planes, the most delicate and preserved minuscule fragments of sound were magnified into a free flowing comfort – capturing the essence of soul and limitless character. Clarity through listening to these sculpted sampled masterpieces further extends the senses – manifesting true beauty and expansive intensity. As Flea of the Chili Peppers once lamented – “Some people just have the ability to touch you – and J Dilla does”. Donuts proceeds to touch the hearts and ears of all music die-hards. It’s a monumental sound piece, memorable and charismatic, revealing the greater workings of a passionate master producer and intellectual beatsmith – truly planting it among the greatest post-modern illustrations of our time. Rest in beats, J Dilla.