Welcome to Timeless Affairs, the corner within Steppin' Into Tomorrow, where we shine a spotlight on essential albums that have shaped our culture (and lives in many cases). We lovingly revisit, explore and zoom in on these gems in their full length. Digging out stories and fun facts from the making of the masterpieces that have built the foundation of the music today and continue to shape the future.
Around this time each year, the life of the Detroit beat-maker legend, one of the most respected producers of all time in music: James Dewitt Yancey also known as Jay Dee / J Dilla is celebrated in all corners across the globe. February 7th marks the release day of his legendary ‚Donuts‘ album, as well as his own birthday. Today would be his 49th birthday, hence, let’s raise it up for the late great J Dilla and honour the legacy he’s left with us. The importance of the man‘s presence on this planet remains steady despite his passing in 2006, only three days after his 32nd birthday, when one of his most fascinating and beloved albums was released: ‚Donuts‘. Clocking in at 43 minutes with 31 songs, this album is definitely a high point of instrumental hip hop, without a doubt, and one of the most important albums of the 2000’s to say the least.
“His music embraces the soul, heart and mind of the listener, because it is built on love. His music is a recipe for loving others and the disappointment that sometimes affects us when we dare to care.” - Ma Dukes
Our very first Timeless Affairs two years ago on Steppin' Into Tomorrow was on his album 'Welcome 2 Detroit'. In that article, we went a bit deeper into Dilla's upbringing, influences, and productions for various artists & collectives. You are most welcome to check it out if you haven't already done so. In this edition, we're gonna focus on Donuts specifically.
A love letter to the closest family before departing to another realm, one of the most touching swan songs. The majority of this album was produced in the hospital bed during his very last days amongst us, therefore in a way it is the last piece of music that was released under his personal conduct. Brought to completion during a year most of which Dilla has spent in a hospital bed at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. struggling with a rare blood disease. The album was officially released on February 7th, only three days before his unfortunate passing, gaining the release particular poignancy and bitterness.
‚Donuts‘ as Dilla’s favourite tasty treats/record-shaped objects/circles symbolising loops, blood clots or things coming full circle.. There have been many speculative metaphors for what the album title truly represents, along with hidden messages in the choice of the original samples, circling around the theme of mortality.
A simple idea to turn a particularly good demo beat tape into a full-length release, has since became a classic hip-hop album. Definitely one of the defining works of the artist's life, transcending the rigid definitions of hip hop albums until that time, with zero rapper feat's, reminiscent of a deejay set with unexpected transitions in and out of the individual tracks. It was the 'Donuts' that unmistakably established J Dilla as a highly rated architect of soulful hip hop among his peers and fans across the globe, which keeps resonating and escalating til' this very day.
Leaning towards songs with titles like ‘Sweet Misery’, ‘You Just Can’t Win’, ‘I Can’t Stand to See You Cry’, and ‘When I Die’ seems to be a red thread throughout the album. The manner of how Dionne Warwick is sampled in the ‘Stop!’ track with music being briefly pausing after she says the word. The way ‘Time: The Donut Of The Heart’ slows down cues in my mind almost every time I think of Dilla. The ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ before ‘The Last Donut Of The Night’… Yet, the record is full of life, to say the least. Powerful demonstration of the music vibrations capacity to enable time travel. What remains certain is that ‚Donuts‘ is still widely recognized as the best instrumental hip-hop album of all times and it has forever changed the way beatmakers have been viewing their artform.
For more details on The Life and After-Life of J Dilla, the Hip Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm, do yourself a favor and read into the latest book 'DILLA TIME' by Dan Charnas. Equal parts biography, musicology, and cultural history, Dilla Time chronicles the life and legacy of J Dilla, a musical genius who transformed the sound of popular music for the twenty-first century by pioneering a new musical time-feel, an accomplishment on par with the achievements of Louis Armstrong and James Brown. Dilla, with only his drum machine, transformed the way traditional musicians play.
Rest in Beats, J Dilla.
Steppin' Into Tomorrow stands with artists & labels and encourages listeners to support by buying their music directly from Bandcamp. If you've enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to our monthly newsletter to stay in the loop.