Sick with TTP in a California hospital in the summer of 2005, James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla, refused to be totally confined to his bed. His illness was debilitating and incurable, but the true contagion within his veins—the drive to create—superseded the deadly blood disease. Dilla infamously worked on beats for a new album with a record player and a drum machine next to his hospital bed, at times, fresh off dialysis.
The Detroit-born producer/MC was notorious for his prolific nature. Since 1995, he’d been responsible for forging a new frontier in sampling, evident with classics like Common’s “The Light” and De La Soul’s “Stakes Is High.” Unlike many beat-smiths who are mostly self-taught, Dilla was trained and fluent in several instruments besides his MPC drum machine: bass, drums, keyboards, even the cello. He was able to apply his knowledge of theory and instinct to push beat-making forward on several musical fronts.
On February 7, 2006, Dilla’s 32nd birthday, the results of those hospital recording sessions hit the world at large. Donuts, a seminal 31-track beat CD, cracked the code of hip-hop producing yet again. Sadly, three days later, Yancey passed away. In the decade since he’s been gone, ripples of Dilla’s influence have flowed throughout, as well as beyond, the pond of rap. That legacy is being celebrated further with Donuts’ exclusive 10th anniversary vinyl re-release.
The title Donuts itself was serendipitous. It’s the album that brought Dilla’s career full circle, his life ending where his career began: with a beat tape full of sonic euphoria. Those early cassettes caught the attention of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, leading him to land a gig co-producing the bulk of the Pharcyde’s 1995 classic Labcabincalifonia. The slurry savant kick-drum patterns of “Runnin’ ” shocked many a hip-hop head.
From there, Dilla’s multifaceted, multilinguistic production evolved from one project to the next. From the knocking snares and curious filtered vocal samples of ATCQ’s final two albums, the Fan-Tas-Tic groove laden, sonorous drum programing of his own band, Slum Village, to the live hip-hop transcription that marked the Soulquarian Era (D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun).
Even when J Dilla pulled double duty as a solo artist on albums like Welcome 2 Detroit and Ruff Draft, he continued to crank out batches of beats at a factory’s pace, ranging from grimy (“In the Streets”) to bouncy (“It’s Dope”), to even spooky (“Fever”). He didn’t just make beats for money or when he had a project. Dilla woodshedded like a jazz musician. The beat for Black Star’s “Little Brother”—in which he pieced together a Roy Ayers song with surgical precision—was made, as Questlove once described firsthand, “while killing time before driving me to the airport.”
With that discipline and imagination, Donuts was a last leap ahead, and yet a reach back to basics at the same time. The beats were rugged, melancholy and languid… and triumphant. Donuts’ treatment of samples changed from beat to beat, yet maintained continuity. Classic voices of the Jackson 5 and the Sylvers were beautifully mangled on “Time: The Donut of the Heart” and “Two Can Win,” respectively. An American standard like “Walk On By” was looped and stretched to their limits on “Walkinonit.” Eerie jigsaw puzzles like “Airworks” and “Waves” sent crate diggers on lifelong scavenger hunts.
It was no accident that the “Donuts (Outro)” was listed as Donuts’ first track and “Donuts (Intro)” was listed as the final track. It was a thinly veiled statement that this was the end of Dilla as a physical being, and the beginning of Dilla as an ascended deity of hip-hop, whose wisdom was left behind not to break music conventions, but to fulfill them. Donuts served as Dilla’s book of instructions before leaving earth for all who wanted to reach their potential.
Like Dilla’s other musical efforts, many of Donuts’ beats have been used by rappers in the decade since its release. Nas, Ghostface Killah, Lupe Fiasco and Busta Rhymes have all dropped their buckets in the Donut well. Even outside of Donuts, artists like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Joey Bada$$ have used Dilla beats effectively on projects as recent as 2015. Considering that his last album was released in 2006, it just shows how ahead of his time Dilla was.
Just as Pete Rock was a heroic template for him, Dilla has motivated his own crop of talented, adventurous producers. 9th Wonder, Nottz and Flying Lotus don’t just ape his sampling style, but emulate his sense of adventure and stream-of-consciousness exploration.
“I think my connection with J Dilla’s music really justified a lot of the experiences I was having in music,” Flying Lotus once said. “When I heard it, it sounded like someone was having spiritual experiences in the process of making it.”
Perhaps Dilla’s most enduring impact has been on a new generation of jazz musicians. Cats like Chris Dave, Jamire Williams and Jose James all incorporate some Dilla ideal in their artistry. Pianist Robert Glapser is one of Dilla’s most outspoken apostles. Glasper met Dilla during a 2000 Bilal recording session. He’s since carved his own idiosyncratic finesse to jazz incorporating elements of Dilla’s edict of choppy, murky melodies in his playing and composing—in particular on his Grammy-winning Black Radio projects and acoustic Dilla covers. “He’s the only producer I know that literally changed the way cats play their instruments,” Glasper has said.
The genius of Yancey has even reached beyond American soil. Australian quartet Hiatus Kaiyote incorporates the sonic atmosphere on Jay’s music, leading them to two Grammy nominations for Best R&B Performance (in 2014 for “Nakamarra,” and this year for “Breathing Underwater”).
“There’s an appreciation for rawness that’s definitely been influenced by a lot of hip-hop stuff, like Dilla,” says Hiatus bassist/composer Paul Bender. The outstretched mist of J Dilla continues to be inhaled by millions. He lives through contemporaries like Madlib and Karriem Riggins. We can hear him through Questlove’s scattershot bass drumming on D’Angelo’s “Back to the Future (Part II).” And Donuts will continue to nourish and entice us for a long time.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.