Sometime last year, in the midst of making one of my numerous Spotify playlists, I noticed that a couple of songs I added sounded similar. In fact, when I went back and really listened to the songs, I wasn’t sure if the lyrics were that great to start out with, or if the beat they were on made them sound that much better. To get to the bottom of this, I went straight to the source, and suddenly it all made sense to me.
The producer of many of these songs that I loved, was one of, if not, the greatest producer of all time: J Dilla. To everyone who keeps up with this column (thanks, Mom and Dad), you know that last week I talked about the emphatically smooth sounds that came from Slum Village’s album Fantastic, Vol. 2. Nearly all of the tracks on that album were produced solely by J Dilla, which explained why I loved the album so much despite its lyrics.
The more I explored, the more dumbfounded I became at this man’s grotesquely extensive list of songs he produced. From A Tribe Called Quest to my favorite Common song ever made, “The Light,” J Dilla has had his name attached to some of my favorite hip-hop songs of all time.
To top it off, I discovered he even has a few albums of his own, one of which was Donuts, which I knew was a Detroit underground classic. My expectations of this album before I listened to it for the first time were astronomically high — I expected songs that were more along the lines of “Find A Way,” “The Light” and Fantastic, Vol. 2. My expectations weren’t exactly met.
This album is anything but consistent. With almost every song on the album lasting under two minutes, this feels more like a spastic mixtape hyped-up on caffeine. This is both a blessing and a curse, since you can hear many styles, from jazz, funk, R&B, soul, rock n’ roll and many more mixing and matching with other genres simultaneously to create something never heard of before. The longest song on the album, “Workinonit,” has samples from eight songs in it alone.
However, it can get really annoying when you land on a track that has everything you like— from the drum sample down to the obscure soul sample that even your grandpa might not recognize — mesh together to form a match made in heaven, only to have it suddenly switch to something you’re not really feeling. The upside is that with all of the dynamic sounds on the album, something else is going to come along and make you say, “Damn, how did he do that?” with amazement all over again.
J Dilla is someone who accomplished great things in his career and actually made a difference in the world of music. Despite not being the most well-known producer, anyone who considers themselves true fans of hip-hop know that J Dilla is nothing short of a god in the genre, and his influence has helped to change the music scene in more ways than one. Many hip-hop artists, such as A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde and The Roots wouldn’t be hailed as legends in their craft without J Dilla, who changed the genre of hip-hop as a whole. Even NPR commends J Dilla as “one of the music industry’s most influential hip-hop artists,” and rightfully so.
Donuts, unlike the food it’s named after, only gets better with age. Each time I listen to this album, I gain a newfound respect for it. If you’ve ever wondered what the blueprints for an artist’s thought process is like, this is it.
This album is the manifestation of Dilla’s sketches, spitballed ideas and what ifs all in the form of dozens of short songs that have almost no relation to each other. It’s intentionally paradoxical in nature, sounding like controlled chaos for the entire album, but it’s entirely unique and unlike anything you’ve ever heard before.
Unfortunately, J Dilla died at the age of 32, just three days after this album was released. In a way, Donuts represents the last spark of J Dilla’s brilliance, which only adds to the album’s significance. It’s another great work of art from this Great Lake State native, and it’s one I can take pride in when it comes to Michigan’s music history. He’s an icon that’s an inspiration to anyone from the great state of Michigan.
Being from Michigan and sharing a birthday with J Dilla, I think of this man as a role model, as he shows how anyone — no matter where you’re from — can make such a profound difference in the world doing what you love.
Rest in beats, Dilla.
Spencer Lee is a junior majoring in narrative studies. His column, “Spencer’s Soapbox,” runs every Tuesday. He is also the chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan.