James Yancey has always been a gifted drummer, but as a hip-hop producer, he was extraordinary. Alternately taking the name Jay Dee and J. Dilla, Yancey has produced, sometimes uncredited, some of the most sonically interesting music in the last two decades. The Pharcyde’s one huge hit, “Runnin'” sprung from Dilla’s talents, as well as most of Q-Tip’s solo album, Amplified. Pharrell Williams called Jay Dee the best producer you’ve probably never heard of, and his star was consistently on the rise, making his tragic early death even more shocking. Just as with Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley and countless others taken before their time, the question persists, does tragedy cloud our artistic judgment, or can the work stand on its own merits? In the case of J. Dilla, his work is exquisite, no matter what the underlining circumstances.
Donuts is one of three different high profile releases from Dilla, the others including a previous solo affair and a collaboration with Madlib, creating the new name Jaylib, and their album, Champion Sound. Donuts is unique, however, as it was written and produced during one of Dilla’s hospital stays after being diagnosed with Lupus. Dilla samples from both the likeliest and unlikeliest of sources, alters the noises and BPM, and ultimately creates a sonic quilt of short songs that unify into a larger whole. Various tracks and samples allude to the producer’s ailing health and mortality, with even the tracklisting, at 31 separate cuts, seems to predict that he wouldn’t reach his 32nd birthday. He did, but died shortly thereafter, three days past the release of Donuts, an infectious piece of hip-hop mastery, finding J. Dilla at the top of his game, which is how he unfortunately went out.
DJ Shadow – Endtroducing
Jaylib – Champion Sound
Dabrye – Two Three