JULY 11, 2014
J DILLA WAS NOT well as he worked to finish his now widely heralded Donuts. Friends recall him frail, tirelessly tinkering with the final tracks from his hospital bed. A lasting photograph reveals the sight of a diminished Dilla alone with his drum machine set atop two tables elbow-jointed together to form a makeshift studio in an otherwise empty room.
On Dilla’s birthday, February 7, 2006, Donuts was released. On February 10, 2006 he died from complications due to a rare blood disease TTP in a hospital bed in Los Angeles. He was 32 years old. The proximity of the album’s release to Dilla’s death has imbued it with a measure of mythology, especially in light of that fact that Donuts is at times painfully prescient. The album carries tracks like “Don’t Cry,” “Stop,”“One Eleven,”“Time: The Donut of the Heart”and “Bye,”and fans, admirers, fellow DJs and rappers all to some degree understand the album as a final letter from the hip-hop pioneer.
But Donuts is not so easily contained.
“You can cut into The Naked Lunch at any intersection point,” William S. Burroughs wrote of his own novel.
“His book,”Mary McCarthy explained in The New York Review of Books, “he means, is like a neighborhood movie with continuous showings that you can drop into whenever you please—you don’t have to wait for the beginning of the feature picture.”
If Dilla’s friends, family and most ardent admirers listened to the album as a last goodbye, then just as many up-and-coming MCs and producers encountered it, in Burroughsian fashion, as a work that “you can drop into whenever you please.”
This, too, is how to listen to the album on the basis of its more traditional promise: a collection of beats to be rapped over, tinkered with and employed as one-offs. Donuts, as Dilla’s photographer friend Brian B+ Cross said, is“a compilation of minute-long ideas, musical ideas that could be turned into songs.”After all, Dilla, despite being a notable MC, was most famously a producer for artists like Slum Village, Common, A Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo, The Pharcyde, Busta Rhymes, and others. And Donuts might just be a parting provocation to his beloved MCs and collaborators. Of the album, Dilla told an interviewer he was “flipping records that people really don’t know how to rap on but they want to rap on.”
This conceptual tension —is it a goodbye letter or isn’t it? — should come as no surprise. Donuts is not an easy album, neither sonically (a cutting siren sounds precisely at moments one begins to grow comfortable) nor conceptually. Adding to its already complicated history are the documentaries, interviews and essays devoted to better understanding Donuts’ aim, influence and sentiment.
These are a few reasons why a patina of cult worship (count this author among that group) grows around the album, changing how we come to know and listen to it with each passing year. This posthumous adoration also explains the latest foray into investigating and understanding the legendary producer’s final work: Jordan Ferguson’s endearing, if undercooked, contribution to Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, J Dilla’s Donuts (33 1/3).
As an album, Donuts is a natural addition to the 33 1/3 series. On its face, the album contains a peculiar mix of musical history and media ephemera that alone would elicit further examination. Then there are the cryptic messages, the unmistakable drumbeats, the puzzling stylistic choices — Ferguson astutely points out Dilla’s penchant for dropping intentional mistakes, blips in the otherwise exquisitely timed bars, for a rawer sound — the startling brevity and the alienating difficulty. Taken in for the first time, it’s hard not to wonder if Dilla’s putting one over on us. But there’s also the story of its unlikely ascendance to fame. In its original draft, we learn, the album was a 22-minute beat-tape and thought of as an “unanticipated side project” to Dilla’s other slated release, The Shining. How then could it come to mean so much? How does an “unanticipated side project” become, as Jazz critic Giovanni Russonello called it, “his magnum opus?” Questions cloud Donuts, and in the absence of answers, its legend grows.
Ferguson is keenly aware of the album’s mythic presence, its critical importance and, finally, the difficult task laid out before him:how to explain Donuts?
Writing early on in the book, Ferguson all but admits his trepidation and consequently reveals the project’s most glaring issue: he has yet to convince himself what Donuts means or is.
As a result, in place of assertive insight or examination, there is a lot of hedging.
No matter what evidence can be pulled from the album, no matter how sound my arguments or anyone else’s might seem, the purest truth is that no one knows what Dilla was thinking when he selected those samples and manipulated them in the ways he did.
Ferguson seems so intimidated by the very nature of Donuts that sentences after copping to his unsteady footing, he employs a self-soothing counter-argument:
Any inference I make regarding those intentions is, in a way, speaking for Dilla, and that’s a proposition I find more than a little discomfiting. But isn’t that, to some extent, the entire purpose of criticism?
Uncertainty rears its ugly head throughout, subverting each carefully constructed argument Ferguson offers up. It is particularly glaring after Ferguson finishes his attempt at applying famed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’sfive-stage model of grief to the album. Soon after carefully working through the five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance —in accordance with various movements in Donuts, Ferguson sheepishly backs away:
None of this is to say that Kubler-Ross’s model is a checklist to be ticked off (“Done denying? Better get angry!”).
And what of the book’s promise to answer the album’s many questions, particularly its promise to understand Donuts’“late style”influence? Well, Ferguson spends only a few pages (roughly five), quickly and vaguely shuffling through Edward Said’s literary proposition — which challenged, as the noted theorist put it, “the accepted notion… that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works”— and how it might apply to Dilla’s record, demonstrating the same discomfort with which we’ve quickly grown familiar. Regarding Said’s literary inquiries and how they might directly relate to Donuts, Ferguson stays at the shore:
Look at the adjectives frequently incorporated to describe what is considered “late style”: Fragmentary, difficult, irascible, nostalgic, and introspective. Donuts can be legitimately described with an identical vocabulary.
It seems the most important question is the one Ferguson failed to ask himself: am I prepared to fight for this argument?
Concerning the many philosophical and theoretical questions Ferguson superimposes onto the album and then sets out to investigate, the answer is a clear “no.”
Despite Ferguson’s hesitancy, the book has many bright spots. The author, clearly, is most comfortable when discussing the album’s tracks:
If you know what he’s working with, these moments of stupefying brilliance happen more than once. Did he really lift the drums for “The Twister” from that Stevie Wonder live track? How the hell did he snag clean vocals from James Brown’s introduction on “My Thing” to use on “Light My Fire?”
These are esoteric questions, and they are a welcome addition to the book. Coupled beside praiseworthy quotes and behind-the-scenes stories from hip-hop legends like Pete Rock, Madlib, Questlove and Common to name only a few, these questions continue to grow the Dilla legend. And no friend or fellow musician has propagated the legend more actively and with such success as Questlove.
About the making of the now legendary Black Star track “Little Brother,” Questlove offers this:
Dilla goes through the entire two minutes and twenty-seven seconds of ‘Ain’t Got No Time’and he literally takes one second, or less than one second …half-second pieces, of all the parts of the song that Roy Ayers is not talking …and what he does is, he masterfully places it together, and somehow makes it sound fluid. When you play ‘Little Brother’ for anybody you’re just like, ‘Oh, okay, it’s an eight-bar loop.’ But no, he literally took half-second chops, thirty-two times, and made it sound fluid … This was like when Matt Damon saw that math problem in Good Will Hunting, this was that.
That we are able to fully appreciate this sort of hip-hop head praise and its implied intricacies is in large part thanks to Ferguson’s admirable work in laying the historical groundwork, contextualizing Dilla’s influences and, finally, giving his many friends and admirers the space to cultivate the legend.
The Donuts cult is not random. There’s a reason we still cherish this album, and it’s not just because it’s the artist’s final offering, or even his best work. Donuts, for all its stubborn difficulty and subtle intricacy functions like an initiation. When we spin it, it peels away any limitations (musical or emotional), existing on its own plane, with its own logic and its own history. (One only need spend a few minutes listening to Dilla’s beats beside their sample sources to truly understand his transformative genius.)
The album, like its creator, demands that you do the hard work, that you change your mind; when you do, you learn how to hear it.
In an interview with Pitchfork, Animal Collective’s Panda Bear accurately captured the Donuts experience:
The first two times I listened to that album, I couldn’t wrap my head around it because it would go from piece to piece really fast. The rhythms really ground it, but I had no idea where everything else was coming from. It might have been alien music for all I knew. Nothing really waited around for very long. But after listening to it a couple of times, it was like a sea change — my mind just totally connected to it, and suddenly it was the best thing.
The reason its legend persists might also be the most basic, human explanation: Donuts is a portrait of the artist, a sonic depiction of the man and his mind. Early on in the book, just as he begins to make his case, Ferguson offers up a rather exemplary articulation of why Donuts deserves a book, why its myth is manicured so delicately, and why we love it so.
Songs careen and crash into each other, starting and stopping without warning, never giving a listener the opportunity to fully enter them; just when you’re getting comfortable, as you familiarize yourself and align your perspective to the workings of Dilla’s mind, he flips it on you. For a man who loved to frequently master and switch musical styles, Donuts acts as a document of his career in miniature.
Donuts, then, might just find its historical anchor as a sort of keepsake — a stand-in for all the music that might’ve been. All the noise, the persistent questions and anecdotes, is just another way of saying we’re not quite ready to eat the last donut of the night.