J Dilla

Stones Throw, 2006

REVIEW BY: Shane M. Liebler


Though no LP can quantify what J Dilla (aka Jay Dee) gave to hip-hop, Donuts is an appropriate final word.

There are no lyrics on this record, though, only sounds -- tweaked to perfection -- by a master of the medium.

As the anchor of Detroit trio Slum Village, he gave the underground group relevance at a time when Eminem and his brethren were defining an emerging scene. His cut-and-paste soul stylings and deep bass grooves gave reprise to luminaries like A Tribe Called Quest, Common and Pharcyde.

James Yancey died at age 32 on a hospital bed in his mother's arms, just three days after his birthday and the release of Donuts. He loved music, sound, dreams, whatever you call it. These 31 sweet, circular jams comprise only a chapter of his story. Jay Dee had a mental jukebox stocking about a gazillion records. His art came from organizing those vinyl slabs into something meaningful. He was a hip-hop scientist.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

I once read that if you stop a melody halfway, three-quarters of the way through a cycle, your brain -- the nerves, synapses and blood swimming in your skull -- fills in the blank spaces. Dilla's trademark experiment is sprinkled generously throughout this volume.

Using the vehicle of soulful exclamations and outbursts of yore, Jay Dee seizes the opportunities to pause and inject a drug in split-second doses -- yelps, choruses, a quarter of a half step -- when your brain least suspects it. In his own avant-hop style, pieces were sewn together ends to middles, beginnings to silence, fuzz to flourishes.

On Donuts, Dilla uses his signature deep, rolling bass as the control and encyclopedic knowledge of music as the x factor. The result is a sometimes dark, always pleasant and unmistakably Detroit style worthy of front porch perchin', quiet reflection and backyard barbecues alike.

The album crawls forth from the ironically named "Donuts (Outro)" with a wavy taste of repetitious crooning. With most cuts ranging from 30 to 90 seconds, it feels like Dilla has a few crates of records he wants you, just you, to hear, but only 40 minutes to get the job done.

If they were any shorter, you'd be annoyed. If they were any longer, he'd be pretentious. Cuts like "Lightworks," "Stepson of the Clapper," "Twister (Huh, What)" and "One Eleven," are a fine introduction to Dilla's sound. Things really get cooking at the climax of "Anti-American Graffiti," "Geek Down," "Thunder," and "Gobstopper" around track 20, but the remaining bites wither in their shadow.

Of course, with the clunkers hogging up all of about 10 minutes of this radio station-change style mix tape record, who's complaining? There's still a good two dozen treats in this collection.

The spirit and style of this piece was enough to make a 17-year-old white kid from the suburbs throw $9.98 down for the J-88 (Slum Village's alter-ego) EP in 1999. It's enough to make me disappointed over the loss today.

Donuts will serve as the period on the run-on sentence of his life. Dilla's body of work, including the essential Fantastic, Vol. 2 by Slum Village, promises to inspire many more generations of sound artists and aural scientists. Donuts is an ending and a beginning, much like its circular namesake. Rest in peace, James Yancey.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2006 Shane M. Liebler and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Stones Throw, and is used for informational purposes only.