Human beings have a tendency to naturalize the world around them. Things that are fluid, constructed and historically contingent are experienced, internalized and soon calcify in our minds as universal, unimpeachable laws. In music, this tendency finds an apt demonstration. Take, for instance, our conception of the twelve-note octave or the use of 440 Hz as a pitch standard. These relatively modern ideas, despite their construction and development in particular cultural contexts, are absorbed as natural structures that form the basis of how we hear, understand and perform music. For another example, consider our approach to rhythm and musical time. One of the basic assumptions of any music class, jazz band, or drumming tutorial is the unshakeable value of “keeping time,” of synchronizing your playing as best you can with the tyrannical click of the metronome. Though Western popular music’s view of rhythm has evolved over time (the absorption of African polyrhythms, the related advent of the “swing” beat), nothing has shaken the commitment to rhythmic accuracy. Swing has tinkered with convention, delaying the eighth note to varying degrees, but it always returned to the order of the musical grid.
Given the centuries-long entrenchment of this musical “rule,” it follows that it must take an incredible mind to break free of it; to bend our experience of time to their will, to reimagine the vast possibilities of rhythm. In 1990s Detroit, from the basement of his mother’s home, armed with only an AKAI MPC and an ever-expanding stack of vinyl, James Dewitt Yancey did just that.
J Dilla entered hip-hop primarily through his work with two groups: The Pharcyde and Slum Village. Listening to these early projects—The Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia or Slum Village’s Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1)—you can already hear how Dilla was manipulating time. His beats were violating all the hallowed laws of drumming. Questlove once described his reaction to hearing one of J Dilla’s many beat tapes: “I’d just never heard someone not give a fuck.” The drum programming was loose and “drunk,” kick drums would drag, snares would arrive early, the tempo could vary, the accents would fall in all the wrong places. This was a far cry from the quantized drums present in much hip-hop at the time. As a result, some have claimed that Dilla’s great innovation was to “humanize” the drum machine. But throughout popular music history, no human has played drums like that. Dilla’s beats didn’t just reclaim a “human” feel, they created an entirely new one. Indeed, if the quantize button signaled the completion of the age-old quest to achieve rhythmic perfection, Dilla represents the deconstruction of that idea; a reimagining of what rhythm and musical time is. Tellingly, for many of his collaborators, Dilla was more “mad scientist” than simple beat-maker. For a more illuminating exploration of these innovations, it’s worth reading Dan Charnas’ terrific biography Dilla Time.
Miraculously, this new time-feel didn’t take long to catch on. Within just years of his invention, J Dilla—or Jay Dee as he was then known—was an in-demand producer, finding work with the likes of Common, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Erykah Badu. But his influence extends far beyond his collaborations. Anyone who’s heard hip-hop or R&B in the last 20 years has at one point heard the gloriously askew rhythms of Dilla.
This brings us to 2006’s Donuts, an album that has steadily become the centerpiece of his career. But there are two sides to Donuts. On the one hand, it’s simply another addition to his innumerable beat-tapes; a fascinating collection of 31 sketches, free of overly-curated structure or overarching themes. In his own words, “it’s just a compilation of the stuff I thought was a little too much for the MCs.”
At the same time, it lends itself to a certain level of mythologizing. Produced in large part while Dilla was in the hospital and released just three days before his death, Donuts exists—at least in its reception—in the shadow of his own mortality. In the most poetic reading, his rhythmic experiments—his warping of beats, his fluid tempos, his off-kilter programming, the album’s circular flow, his inversion of the bookends’ titles—become particularly meaningful; a man toying with the limited time he has left. Indeed, even the donut itself, tellingly invoked on “Time: Donut of the Heart,” is a challenge to our temporal sensibilities. (Far from the mathematical progression of Western philosophies of time, this is the food-based equivalent to the “wheel of time” used by many an ancient civilization; a “donut of time” if you will).
But this is perhaps projection. Donuts doesn’t need grand narratives or thematic throughlines. Even as a standard beat-tape, these 31 tracks are a testament to Dilla’s power. Free from the need to accommodate rappers, Dilla could craft a more personal, exploratory sound. He could freely venture into the strange psychedelia of “People” and the bizarre future-sound of “Lightworks”; the maximalist collage of “Workinonit” and the maddening cacophony of “The Twister (Huh, What)”. But alongside these more eccentric, challenging cuts, he could indulge in sample flips that would be irresistible to any crate digger. To this day, “Don’t Cry” remains a showcase for the potential of sampling. At first, we hear the untouched sample—a swooning soul track from The Escorts—but soon Dilla takes over, unlocking a hidden world within the original. The track suddenly speeds up, backing vocals are chopped, rearranged, and spliced into beautiful patchwork melodies. At one point, the established snare pattern drops out, making space for a fragmentary guitar snippet; time slows for a moment, before a return to the regular programming. Elsewhere, the lead vocal finds itself chopped into garbled fragments, sporadically dispersed throughout the beat like twisted radio transmissions. These seemingly unremarkable moments of performance from The Escorts are rescued from obscurity, contorted into unforeseen shapes, and reanimated through the pads of the drum machine.
It’s a benchmark of instrumental hip-hop, made all the more impressive by its company. On “Waves” and “Hi,” the nature of Dilla’s rhythm finds its showcase. The hi-hats are dragged along like tired children, unwilling to keep up the pace. The snare seems rushed at some moments and delayed at others, constantly toying with the listener’s perception. The rhythm is an endless subconscious tug-of-war, taking place in the smallest fractions of time.
There is an intriguing commitment to a certain creative freedom too. Wedged between an accessible R&B flip on “Walkinonit” and the sweet soul sampling of “U-Love,” we have “The Factory,” an utterly bizarre concoction that seems to exist beyond the bounds of any human genre. If you had to define it, it might be described as something akin to “children’s TV industrial.” Miraculously, Dilla still finds space for the omnipresent siren featured throughout the record. Another hilariously alienating moment comes on “The Twister (Huh, What)”. The pleasant, joyful tones of Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” are teased momentarily before being submerged into an atonal cacophony of sirens, horns, and boisterous drums. It’s a blatant provocation, a middle finger to mainstream expectations.
That being said, at times Dilla seems content to play the curator of familiar joys. “Stop” and “Light It” aren’t necessarily notable for any intense reworking, but for Dilla’s appreciation of when to step back. The original tracks, by Dionne Warwick and Africa respectively, are not so much sampled but remixed into shorter versions. Though we know what Dilla could do with his sampler, these tracks reveal an ear for isolating and rearranging melodic highlights. Similarly, “Two Can Win” strips the original of its verses, speeds it up, and mines all it can from the stellar chorus.
By the end of Donuts, we’ve heard the full spectrum of Dilla’s talents: his effortless skill in flipping a sample, his technically minuscule but ultimately momentous innovations in musical time, his ear for melodies, his occasional forays into mind-bending experimentalism, his use of repeated motifs (the recurring siren, his love for the sounds of turntablism, the incorporation of ad-libs). All of this dispersed across an unruly catalog of thirty-one sketches.
Despite its beat-tape-like composition, Donuts has understandably assumed a more central role in his bafflingly large catalog of tapes. Since 2006, it has acquired a legendary status within instrumental hip-hop; the parting gift of a truly one-of-a-kind producer. And perhaps Dilla acknowledges this poignancy in the closing two tracks. If there is a palpable melancholy to the weeping strings of the “Last Donut Of The Night,” on “Welcome To The Show” we are joyfully reassured that there is no finality here. The music never stops, the show never ends, and Dilla never dies. In its final moments, Donuts begins again.
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