J Dilla‘s Donuts will never be an easy listen. It’s not the blaring sirens or the tempo stutters. It isn’t the breakneck cutting from track to track. What makes Dilla’s final masterpiece both deeply difficult and eternally rewarding isn’t its structure but its atmosphere, a scattershot of tension and release that only builds as each minute passes by. Donuts‘s 31 tracks of beatmaking brilliance take listeners through the throes of pleasure and pain on a trip into the mind of a genius who was running out of time.
After enough listens, you have to talk about it. It’s impossible to take it all in in isolation. The album is so loaded with brilliant moments and was made in such a heavy, saddening circumstance that Donuts demands discussion. Last month that discussion took a giant step forward with the release of the newest installment in the 33 1/3 book series, written by freelance culture writer Jordan Ferguson and dedicated entirely to Dilla’s magnum opus. The book is at once a worthy biography of Dilla’s early life, a lush blueprint of Donuts‘s sample sources and a moving personal essay on what the record might actually be about.
Ferguson is very quick in his book to insist that Donuts is not hip-hop music in the traditional sense. He hears it as something more, an emotional sonic missive that’s “a conversation between an artist and his instrument, which just happens to be the history of recorded music.” Along the way words like “irascible,” “nostalgic,” “fragmentary,” and “introspective” are tied to the record and its clear that while Ferguson has aced his listening homework (and done the extra credit), the record is still a bit difficult for him to pin down as well:
But what does one “see” as the source of the sounds on Donuts? They flicker across the mind as a collage of images, colors, and mood. It’s hip-hop as musique concrète. Even knowing all the sample sources doesn’t make the sounds any more discernible in one’s mind, it only turns the experience of listening to it into an absurdist horror movie: Galt McDermott is peacefully tinkling away on his piano when the Jacksons fall on top of him as though dropped from a flatbed truck in the sky. Michael and his brothers twitch and jerk like androids with faulty wiring, garbling out unintelligible vocal spurts. They bring the tempo down as Lou Rawls pulls himself from the much of a blackwater swamp to the side of stage left, dragging his wheezing carcass into view before being obliterated by the horns of Gene and jerry, fired with the intensity of a laser shot from a satellite. The assault is over quickly, but it’ll take more than that to finish Lou, who continues his trembling crawl across the stage, commenting on the entire affair: sure, it’s strange…No, Donuts is a game of resonant emotion, a mind meld between its maker and the listener.
That, however, is part of the point of Donuts. After enough listens you have to talk about it–and Ferguson waxes eloquent, as demonstrated in the above excerpt–but words will never be a substitute for sound.
After introducing Donuts on these lofty grounds, Ferguson launches into a retelling of the story of Dilla before he was Dilla—the Detroit tale of James Yancey. Readers get a thorough education in the young man’s favorite radio programs, his early friendship with House Shoes and the unobstructed (and uninstructed) time he spent as a teenager with MPCs and drum machines in Joseph “Amp” Fiddler‘s home studio. We’re treated to a long look at the beginnings of Slum Village and a first-hand early ’90s account of Q-Tip being handed a beat tape by a shy Dilla on a Lollapalooza tour bus in Detroit.
Some die-hards might get impatient with Ferguson for devoting so many pages to Dilla’s early, pre-Donuts career path. After all, the James Yancey origin story has been many times told. By now it’s no secret that he never used MPC instruction manuals or that watching The Pharcyde sour and dissolve into a group fistfight had a lasting effect on him. The respect he got for “Little Brother” and the disrespect he was dealt on “Got Til It’s Gone“; this is common hip-hop knowledge–at least to Dilla fans, it is well-worn material–but Ferguson knows there’s a payoff in all the backtracking. What emerges from the book is how much musical power and control Dilla had—and how quickly it came to him. By 25 the producer had already conquered his craft and nothing in the framework of time signatures and tempos could stop him. From there he took off. When you master the rules that quickly you get to start writing a whole new game. Making a record as dense and excellent as Donuts isn’t a surprise but a personal requirement.
But as Dilla was writing that new game, his health was beginning to fail. After joining Stones Throw and relocating to Los Angeles, Dilla’s new business partners—ST president Peanut Butter Wolf, label manager Egon Alapatt and most of all his kindred musical spirit, Madlib—became his support system, encouraging him to continue writing even as his debilitating battles with lupus and TTP were destroying his body. Ferguson digs up the most bittersweet scenes: Dilla’s mother telling Egon “you need to come by” and visit her son in the hospital, Madlib bringing fresh batches of 45s to his bedside, the whole “misfit” LA crew sneaking a birthday cake into his room. It’s the most amazing and fragile moment of Dilla’s life, these days when his peers rallied behind his spirit. It’s also the moment that gave birth to Donuts…