Mythos and Emotion: Reflections on J Dilla’s final creative statement, Donuts
In the March 2004 issue of URB Magazine — the now-defunct, Los Angeles-based music publication — Detroit-born producer/rapper James “J Dilla” Yancey appeared on the cover with his musical right-hand, Madlib. In between colorful details of the duo’s musical exploits, there was one grim detail that immediately stood out in my mind: J. Dilla was, or at least had been at some point, very sick.
“I had never been so sick in all my life,” he said in the interview. “I had never been in the hospital for nothing. What happened was that the doctor told me that I’d ruptured my kidney from being too busy and being stressed out and not eating right. He told me that if I’d waited another day, I might not have made it.”
For the next two years, there would be whispers about his health amongst Dilla’s faithful tribe of musical devotees. Message boards on sites like Okayplayer were full of speculation about Dilla’s health and well-being. Stories of extended hospital stays and illness kept circulating. On Friday, February 10th, 2006, Dilla passed away in Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles. I’ll never forget the night I got the news. My man Terron called me and gave me the news as I sat on my couch smoking a blunt:
“You know your mans died?” he said.
“Who?” I replied. Thinking that he meant someone that we knew personally, as we both grew up together and had mutual friends in our neighborhood.
“Jay Dee” he replied. I don’t remember the rest of our conversation.
Dilla’s final album, Donuts was released on February 7th, 2006, 3 days before his death at age 32. The story of how Dilla spent his final days in the hospital, finishing the record has become the stuff of legend. The image of Dilla powering through the pain caused by symptoms associated with lupus and a rare blood disease called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura has helped make him an icon today.
Writing for The Detroit Free Press, Kelly L. Carter details Dilla’s final days in the piece, Jay Dee’s Last Days: Serious Illness Couldn’t Stop The Drive To Make Music.
“It was near the end of summer 2005, and James Yancey (Dilla’s birth name) was sitting in a hospital bed at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. He couldn’t walk. He could barely talk. And after spending most of the winter and spring in the hospital, receiving treatment for a rare, life-threatening blood disease and other complications, he had been re-admitted. His body was killing him, and little could be done about it. It was a grim prognosis, but it wasn’t deterring him.”
But the tragedy of his early death and the adversity that he surmounted to deliver his final artistic statement is only part of the J Dilla mythos. Taking the album itself into consideration, separate from the circumstances of its creation, Donuts is a striking technical and emotional achievement. Crafted using only a Boss SP-303 sampler and a crate of records brought to his hospital room, the album finds Dilla composing catchy instrumental songlets out of microchipped bits of sound.
For an instrumental album, Donuts is surprisingly vocal. Nearly every track uses speech and singing to convey ideas and feelings. The album’s opener “Workin On It” chops a guitar and vocal loop from British pop-rock band 10cc’s “Worst Band in the World” and transforms it into an oddly-metered gem of a track. “Light” mines a loop from Los Angeles garage band Africa’s raucous cover of The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and comes out of the other side of it with a fiery, shouting anthem. “Stop” is equal parts heavy and sweet. Dilla samples Dionne Warrick’s Holland-Dozier-Holland-crafted tune “You’re Gonna Need Me” setting the song’s dramatic fuzz guitar riff off to play against Warrick’s confidently indignant vocal. “You’re going to want me back in your arrrrrms…You better stop and think about what you’re doing…”
Although the album is incredibly diverse and a clinic in sample-based music’s ability to capture a wide variety of sounds and moods, so much of the music on Donuts has a sad and longing air to it. From the dreamy, Sweet Soul of “Don’t Cry” and “One For Ghost” to the swooning guitar and vocal piece “Last Donut Of The Night” the heavy, mournful tone of these songs give us a clue into the sadness and unnerving vulnerability he had to have been experiencing while creating them.
In the decade and a half since Donuts was first released, J Dilla’s importance in Hip Hop culture and music at large cannot be overstated. In addition to influencing the work of so many musicians outside of Hip Hop, Dilla has been elevated to the status of the patron saint of beatmakers. Dilla has become the standard for countless young producers with his singular production style of brilliantly swung and syncopated drums, complex sampling, and jazz-informed harmonic techniques permeating most corners of music.
Every February, friends, family, collaborators, and music fans around the world post songs, host events and share loving words about the man and his music. In the years since his passing, the myth of J Dilla and the celebration of his life and work have only grown but they remain bittersweet. To understand why he is so revered and why the music world misses him so deeply, we have to look beyond the technical and creative innovations that he left. What lies at the core of this deep, global outpouring of love for J Dilla is the feeling that we were all cheated. In remembering J Dilla and revisiting his final piece of work, we not only mourn for a friend, a father, and a son, we mourn the loss of a master craftsman who left us way too soon.
This piece is dedicated to the memory of Oronde Gibson. In addition to being an unbelievably kind and brilliant man, Oronde was the most knowledgeable and passionate Dilla head that I ever knew. I hope that you and Jay are in heaven turning it up.
In 2016 I made this mix of psych, prog, and trippy records dedicated to Oronde.