Detroit hip-hop producer J Dilla (aka James Yancey) passed away February 10, 2006, just three days after he turned 32 and Stones Throw released his solo album Donuts. Dilla had been suffering from a rare blood disorder called TTP as well as lupus, and he famously made most of Donuts while confined to a bed in LA’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. A sample-based rap album without any rapping, some at first described Donuts as merely a novel effort. It’s since been romanticized as a beautiful swan song, though both interpretations undercut the album’s continued vitality.
Donuts has become one of Dilla’s most beloved works, and his style is evident all over the album’s 31 tracks; his drums sometimes land off, or behind, the beat, giving the songs a slightly lackadaisical flow; his samples are chopped and dropped in odd angles, and at times they’re looped in ways that sound like a broken record, or a turntable needle skipping over vinyl; and his use of side-chain compression makes the samples and drum patterns cut in and out of the mix, which gives the music a woozy and warped effect. The whole album is intoxicatingly giddy, and given the loose vibe it feels as though you might hear something unexpected even if you’ve listened to the album multiple times.
Now Stones Throw is giving fans the chance to experience Donuts in an entirely new way; they’re reissuing the album as a seven-inch box set. “The concept of doing Donuts on 45s comes in part because that’s one of the meanings we always thought of with the title—seven-inch records,” says Stones Throw art director Jeff Jank, who executive produced the album. “We’re doing Donuts on doughnuts.” The eight-piece box set comes with a few additional songs, including a cut with Doom and Ghostface called “Sniper Elite & Murder Goons”; pre-orders for the box set begin shipping January 7.
It’s an opportune time to revisit Donuts. Dilla appears to be as influential as ever; everyone from Flying Lotus to Animal Collective continue to draw inspiration from the dude. “There’s a lot of people in the Chicago scene that are influenced by him,” says producer Peter Cottontale, who makes loose, jazz-inflected hip-hop tracks. To commemorate the Donuts reissue I spoke with Cottontale and three other local producers about that album, Dilla, and actual doughnuts.
Half the production duo Odd Couple; has worked with rappers including Skyzoo, Mikkey Halsted, and Smoke DZA
On Donuts: He’ll totally throw convention out the door, and just use stupid amounts of compression. That’s why I love Donuts. It sounds so beautiful.
It definitely feels more personal to Dilla, because it’s his sound. It’s this really, really suffocating sound. You’ve got these soul samples, like dripped in this suffocating compression. It just sounds incredible.
Favorite track: “Stop.” Dionne Warwick has been sampled by so many people, and it constantly reminds me of how great his version of it is.
When Dionne Warwick is singing it sounds like she’s so heartbroken and then the sample that Dilla throws in on that is like a Jadakiss sample and it’s saying, “It’s not real,” but he’s scratching it, so it sounds like he’s saying, “Is death real?” That’s where it makes it—again—really, really personal to where Dilla was at in his life, because he was in the hospital for a lot of the production of the album.
Favorite doughnut: I’m gonna have to go with maple Long Johns. I think they’ve probably been my favorite since I was like a little kid. They’d always have doughnuts after church. It seems like such a fat kid thing to say, but people would go—a mad dash—to go get the doughnuts after church.
Producer for Lili K. and Chance the Rapper; plays keys in funk group Mathien
On Donuts: I was like 14, 15. The first track I heard was “Gobstopper.” It was sooo nasty. And then I just found out about the whole project. I’m a big Tribe Called Quest fan, and to hear that and then hear a lot of the things he did with Tribe, that was something I really looked up to.
Favorite track: “Gobstopper” is my favorite, the way he flipped that sample—he flipped it twice, too. It was real tight. T
Favorite doughnut: The Boston creme is my favorite doughnut—it’s really good.
In-house producer for local clothing brand and record label City of Win
On Donuts: I listen to a lot of A.M. radio, talk radio; a lot of it is when I’m driving. I feel kind of lonely, and it’s like having that conversational element. It kind of makes me feel like you’re not alone. That’s what Donuts is to me. An hour’s worth of Dilla is like conversation. It moves in that way. It moves so fluidly and in and out of moods, and in and out of different elements, different grooves, that it feels like a conversation. It’s almost like you’re listening to him talk for an hour, if that makes any sense at all—listening to him wax poetic about music.
Favorite track: It’s hard to name a favorite but I have three that I always go back to and they would be “Mash,” “Time: The Donuts of the Heart“—which, if you think about it, is a really intriguing title; I might be reading too far into it but that title is mind-blowing—and “Anti-American Graffiti.” The funny thing about those three is they’re the most loop-based tracks. They’re basically just loops. Like one’s a Jackson 5 loop, the other one’s an obscure 70s rock group loop. But they’re so emotive. Those are probably the three most melodic tracks on that record.
Favorite doughnut: If I were going for a doughnut, I would probably go for one of those glazed donuts that also has the chocolate frosting on top.
On Donuts: I love it. It’s like one of the best. I consider it more of a mixtape than I do an album. It’s very heavily sampled. He used like huge loops and then just kinda threw his drums behind it. It plays like a mixtape because a lot of those songs are like classic songs that a lot of people know, and I feel like he just kinda took all the music he loved and just kind of paid tribute to everyone.
Favorite track: That one where he sampled that Jackson 5 song, I think it’s “All I Do Is Think of You.”
The track name on the album was “Time.” I really like that beat a lot, only because it’s so universal. When I want to spin out at clubs and stuff and I need a transition song, that’s a perfect song to use because it’s smooth, but it’s still got a nice groove to it.
Favorite doughnut: I think doughnuts are doughnuts; they’re all kind of good. I don’t really like when they get too crazy with the sprinkles and stuff, but a good glazed donut with a coffee, that’s a good time.