Legendary producer J-Dilla has firmly earned his spot on any list of all-time hip-hop bests, and his most celebrated work didn’t even feature any rapping on it. Completed on his death bed while battling the incurable blood disease TTP, "Donuts" stands as the magnum-opus of experimental hip-hop instrumentation. It was released three days before his death in February, 2006 at the age of 32.
The album plays like a record collector shuffling through a warehouse full of favorite obscure tunes. Every minute or so, the 31 track album changes tempo and tones, drawing listener in with muffled vocal samples that are decidedly everything that modern hip-hop is not: soulful, intelligent, and musically challenging.
During his final interview with Scratch Magazine a few weeks before his death, Dilla described Donuts as a “compilation of the stuff I thought was a little too much for the MCs… [M]e flipping the records that people don’t know how to rap on but they want to rap on.”
It was this universally acclaimed release that gained Dilla worldwide fame and a posthumous cult fanbase, though hardcore hip-hop heads already recognized him for his stellar production with popular acts like Common, Erykah Badu, De La Soul, and his own group Slum Village.
Beats like this, we learned, only come around once in a lifetime.
In a rare feat, Dilla was able to make the producer the star of hip-hop idolatry. While a handful of rappers are widely praised for their lyrical dexterity and ability to capture emotion and narrative in sixteen-bar bites, as far as fandom goes the beats are typically background fare. Dr. Dre is a notable exception to this rule, though you could easily deduct a few points from his credibility since most of his early work that formed the ‘G Funk Era’ was basically looped George Clinton samples (Yep, I said it.) And unlike Dilla, who regularly rapped with Slum Village and with Jaylib, a collab project with Madlib, everyone knows that Dre has probably never written a rap in his life.
Nope. Dilla was an artist who crafted incomparably complex, yet smooth compositions out of thousands of disparate soundbites. Sources were sampled from everything from rare soul and gospel records to contemporary hip-hop and reggae classics. Listening to a record like "Donuts" from front to back, the listener cannot help but expand musical tastes and appreciation.
Ultimately, Dilla’s virtuosity sharpened all of his admirers’ ears for music, and we thank him for it.
But his legacy isn’t even over yet. Thanks to a personal collection of records and unreleased tapes found by Detroit record collector Jeff Bubeck in an abandoned storage unit, there is still an untold amount of releases coming in the future. Bubeck left all the material with Dilla’s mother, Ma Dukes, who had not received any money related to his recordings, and who remains in debt from funding his medical expenses.
Tonight the hip-hop world is celebrating Dilla’s legacy with an “NY Loves Dilla” tribute show in NYC, featuring Talib Kweli as the headline act. The show is a fundraiser for the J Dilla Foundation.
Even if you can’t make it to the show, you can pay tribute to the master by listening to these classics below, starting with the new De La Soul track 'Vocabulary Spills' just released on Friday, featuring an unheard Dilla beat. Their new mixtape "Smell the DA.I.S.Y." is being released for download on March 27, featuring all the beats by Dilla for your listening pleasure.
And of course The Roots’ tribute album to Dilla titled 'Dilla Joints.'
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.