Dilla had a Midas touch which has reached beyond his tragically short lifetime.
Mike Diver 2011
I’ve never been one for Golden Eras of art – especially when it comes to pop music, a form ever-morphing beside technological innovation and fluctuations in the human condition. To say that a select few years encapsulated everything that’s ever been great about a continuing movement is, typically, madness, as what the near-or-far future holds, nobody can say.
But if one was to look at production in hip hop, they might view the years 1997 to 2006 as a period of considerably rich pickings: from Timbaland breaking through with Missy Elliott’s Supa Dupa Fly in 97, via Pharrell Williams’ work for Kelis and Clipse in the late-90s, to Kayne West’s desk-manning genius until The College Dropout. And with credits on releases by De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli, Common and Mos Def, Detroit-based James ‘J Dilla’ (or ‘Jay Dee’) Yancey was also a major mover, his talents massively in-demand.
The former Slum Village member never attained the mainstream profile of the aforementioned trio of producers-turned-solo-talents, though, as he died of the blood disease TTP in February 2006, just three days after his 32nd birthday. That day also saw the release of his first solo album proper as J Dilla, the sprawling, psychedelic, borderline-bonkers 31 tracks of slippery beats and sepia soul that is Donuts.
While sold as an instrumental affair – no featured rappers here, and Yancey doesn’t take the microphone despite past MC form – Donuts is much more than a collection of compositions without lyrical focal points. Motifs both superbly weird and instantly recognisable rise and fall, vocals snatched from a genre-spanning variety of sources acting as pivots for Dilla’s original contributions to see-saw atop of. In the first five minutes the listener will hear 10cc, the Beastie Boys, 1970s R&B singer Shuggie Otis, and a double-dose of Mantronix (whose King of the Beats is repeatedly referenced). Later, Kool & The Gang, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson have their catalogues raided for slivers of inspiration, but whether the listener spots them or not is another matter.
It’s the seamlessness of Dilla’s productions that really became his calling card after 2003’s Jaylib release, Champion Sound – how samples were incorporated as if they’d always been there, like these were the originals and, somehow, James Brown had beamed himself into the future (and back again) for his My Thang single of 1974. And Donuts’ success – it was named among the best albums of its decade by several publications – has led to it informing many a song since its maker’s death. Ghostface Killah has taken One for Ghost – though its title is a clue to its original purpose: to be used by the Wu-Tang man at a later date – and Drake lifted Time: The Donut of the Heart for use on his Comeback Season mixtape, an act acknowledged on his 2010 album Thank Me Later when he states: "I came up in the underground though / So I’mma spend another 10,000 for Dilla." Dollars well spent, sir.
One of hip hop’s finest sets of truly singular ability, Donuts is a record that will – due to its enduring influence and the fate of the master craftsman behind it – likely remain timeless. Whether it can be held aloft as a truly golden example of its kind will be determined not by the here-and-now, but by what follows next; but something that can’t be doubted is that Dilla had a unique Midas touch which has reached well beyond his own, tragically short lifetime.