In 2002, James Dewitt Yancey, previously known as Jay Dee henceforth known as J Dilla, left his longtime group Slum Village and took aim at major label exposure. MCA Records wound up shelving his two projects (Frank-N-Dank’s 48 Hours and a solo album), and his efforts on Common’s Electric Circus didn’t take off quite as expected. Perhaps those setbacks were a blessing in disguise since much of J Dilla’s best work came after 2002, starting with his EP Ruff Draft.
Ruff Draft was originally released in February 2003 on vinyl and in limited numbers, making it a much sought after album amongst collectors. Stones Throw’s re-release adds 4 unreleased tracks, yet the EP barely cracks the half-hour mark. Compared with some of J Dilla’s best-known works, Donuts and Champion Sound (his 2003 collaboration with Madlib), Ruff Draft is exactly that: rough. J Dilla appropriately enough says in his intro: “sound like it’s straight from the motherfuckin’ cassette.” The music pops and it sounds raw, like it was put together quickly but also with a lot of enthusiasm. The EP is also rough in the sense that Ruff Draft did come at a transitional time for J Dilla. After his projects at MCA failed to connect, it seemed as though Dilla was looking for a stylistic shift. Ruff Draft is the sound of a producer trying to blend together the components of his record collection; It’s the pivotal transition that came before Donuts.
Unfortunately, Ruff Draft is also plagued by too many interludes, which is quite a feat considering that it is an EP. In addition, of the eight full-length tracks, all but two come in under 2:45. In that little time, Dilla manages to pack in a lot of sound making the EP more than just a transitional record but a study on how such an exceptional producer worked. Take a track like “Nothing Like This” for example, a hazy song that rides on a backward psychedelic guitar groove. Its massive beat echoes throughout and along with Dilla’s halting vocals emphasize the haze of being lovestruck: “there is nothing like this/ I never felt-a-like this.” It’s a captivating song and it’s a remarkably vulnerable love song from a genre that rarely shows such bare emotion.
“Reckless Driving” is one of the best tracks on the EP and it’s almost worth the purchase for this song alone. Relying heavily on a droning synth line (punctuated with almost Barry White-sounding harpsichord sounds), “Reckless Driving” has Dilla vastly experimenting sonically. Though the rhymes are no different from other hip-hop tracks (even name dropping The Low End Theory), the instrumentation is more Music for Airports than The Blueprint.
J Dilla was, first and foremost, a producer, so it comes as no surprise that some of his verses lack the poetics of, say, Nas or Mos Def. “The $” is particularly clumsy, mining hip-hop clichés like hustling, “gangsta shit”, bling, etc. “Make’em NV” is okay, but it’s the church bells and the record fill between the snare beat that makes the song so interesting. Luckily enough, Stones Throw’s re-release also includes a disc of instrumentals.
Ruff Draft is exceptional compared to the lackluster, recycled sample hip-hop that plagues much of the genre, but compared with J Dilla’s own catalog, it pales against Donuts or Champion Sound. However, while the EP doesn’t hit its stride as his full lengths do, that’s not what the role of an EP is. An EP is more of a short entry in a journal—a short exposition to explore creatively. By that definition, Ruff Draft truly shines. The best material is brilliant, and it’s just more evidence of how great a talent we truly lost last year.