James “J Dilla/Jay Dee” Yancey has produced hip-hop songs with some of my favorite rappers and DJ’s—De La Soul, Common, Talib Kweli, MF Doom, Madlib—but I guess I wasn’t paying enough attention to the liner notes to notice him. I’m just now getting around to hearing about him. His work is quieter and less flashy than the beats of, say, the Neptunes or Kanye West, so he doesn’t stand out as much as he should. But his music is incisive, surprising after multiple listens, and strange enough to fire up all kinds of synapses in the brain.
So, I’m trying to catch up with his back catalog. You should, too.
Start with Donuts. It’s a collection of 31 instrumentals with a broad range of tempos, melodic structures, time signatures, and tones. Playful, sexy, and smart, each tune makes me bob my head or at least giggle.
Most hip-hop instrumentalists, following the lead of DJ Shadow’s 1996 masterpiece Endtroducing…, try to construct epics. Producers from El-P to RJD2 to Money Mark to Moby treat instrumentals as excuses for long compositions, with several movements, as if they feel they won’t be taken seriously as artists unless they have at least two 10-minute tracks on an album. Music critic Robert Wilonsky once wrote that DJ Shadow’s stuff sounded like “aural term papers.” I disagree with regard to Shadow, but I see his point. In bids for cultural currency, instrumental hip-hop albums tend to dispose of the pop sensibility that makes hip-hop fun in the first place.
That being said, Donuts frustrated me on first listen. There’s only one track longer than two minutes, and several cuts—including one of the album’s best—don’t pass the 60-second mark before abruptly moving on to the next one. The whole thing’s over in less than 45 minutes. I’m glad I stuck with it.
J Dilla started growing on me around track 4, “Light My Fire.” A bongo beats, and then melts into a breakbeat as an obscure, crackly soul sample plays over it. It’s misleading to say that Donuts is all instrumentals, as there are actually lots of lyrics. J Dillas pastes together found snippets. Here, a soul singer sings “light my fire, baby,” while a chorus (possibly from a totally different original song) croons in time, “come on baby, light my fire, come on, set the night on fire” over the snappy bass line. Echoing around this sweet, sexy soul song is a rapper’s disembodied voice calling out to what we imagine is the audience on the dancefloor that the singer’s singing to. It’s the best cover of the Doors song I’ve ever heard, because it doesn’t even bother to sample from the original.
The whole thing’s over in 35 seconds. As soon as I get used to it, a new track—a bluesy guitar lick, looped, while Mike D brags about how he’s putting “the new” stuff on wax. Of course, Mike D’s shout-out is a sample, a found item, perfectly in sync with Dilla’s beats, which in three iterations have completely ceased to sound bluesy at all. J Dilla is subtly bragging on his ability to isolate such moments, cut them, paste them, and loop them so precisely that they feel like they belong only to the songs he’s written. “The New” is, too, over in less than a minute.
J Dilla is no schizophrenic, as hard as this might be to believe. Although his songs (and they have enough structural transitions and variations of ideas to justify the word) are short, Donuts is of a piece. It feels like a cohesive album, not a hodgepodge. His songs hum with warmth and goodwill. There’s no cursing; the braggadocio seems justified, given what he can do with turntables and a mixing desk; his basic song structures come from full-blooded, clit-stiffening soul.
In fact, he sounds almost old-school, like a crackpot re-inventing soul. In “Stop,” after a long and weird preamble (complete with flute and abbreviated string section), a woman sings, “You better stop, and think about what you’re doing.” It could be a lost Supremes song. She sings the line once, then Dilla loops it once more. On the third time around, she gets to “You better stop—” and then the whole song stops for a millisecond, and then continues on as if nothing happened. The point is clear—don’t take Jay Dee for granted; slow down and pay attention to what you’re hearing.
These disembodied voices float in and out of Dilla’s songs. You’re almost not sure that you heard what you think you heard, and—like that quick pause in “Stop”—Dilla often chooses not to repeat a sound. I found myself rewinding the songs more and more, just to make sure that I wasn’t making things up. In “The Diff’rence,” he only plays the full looped beat once, and then spends the rest of the time chopping it up, and playing half measures, frustrating my desire to hear the full loop and dance to it. In “People,” there’s what sounds like a muezzin’s call to worship amidst the organic, almost breathing drums.
Donuts clearly is fine with fragmentation. What’s surprising is how complete, how satisfying these songs feel, despite the fact that we sometimes have to fill in the loops. While jogging today, I couldn’t get “Two Can Win” and “U-Love” out of my head. J Dilla believes in brevity, but he’s no minimalist. His music is layered and dense, with echoed sounds, hard beats, horn blasts, stray chatter, and sung lyrics that interrupt the songs before disintegrating altogether. Each of J Dilla’s tracks probably incorporates elements of at least five different pieces of music, but I can’t tell. Everything sounds like it belongs to J Dilla, and J Dilla only. The song lengths are slight, but nothing else is.
You may have noticed that I’m writing about J Dilla in the present tense, as if he’s still with us. Sadly, he’s not—I first heard of him two months ago, through his obituary. He died at the age of 32, from complications of lupus. Donuts is his last hurrah, released a week before his death. That’s my loss, and yours, too. But at least he left us with Donuts, the first true instrumental hip-hop masterpiece in almost a decade. Seek it out.