J Dilla’s “Donuts” is in my opinion the greatest album of all time and I would like to tell you why. Before we get into the album itself we must first get into the man who made it.
J Dilla was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan and early on started making hip-hop beats. He would start a group called Slum Village and would eventually get their demo tape to Q-Tip which led to him getting discovered. Q-Tip found Dilla in 1995 which was a year Tip was busy producing for Mobb Deep so when people would ask Q-Tip for beats he would recommend them instead use Dilla. This led to Dilla working with a ton of artists such as The Pharcyde, Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, and even A Tribe Called Quest.
After this Dilla became a pioneer in hip-hop and a sought after producer. People were really drawn to his unique drumming style where he wasn’t drumming in straight or swing time but instead on his own time called “Dilla Time”. He had some success but really stayed a bit out of the main stream most of his career and would develop a cult following.
Everything was going well for Dilla until around 2003 he was diagnosed with a rare blood disease and also lupus. In 2004 he started his stay at Cedar-Sinai hospital in LA and instead of resting and retiring he would start to create his magnum opus.
Most of “Donuts” was created in the hospital with Dilla sampling from records people would bring him or stuff he would pick up when he would occasionally leave. The album was completed and then released on February 7, 2005 and Dilla would sadly pass away three days after the release.
Now without the information of Dilla’s passing the album is still great but much of the content on the album would be missed. Dilla was suffering greatly making this album and he knew he would eventually pass. So the way he chose to handle it and come to terms with his eventual death was to do what he did best and make amazing beats from old records.
But once you start to put the context of Dilla’s situation with the album the hints start to show themselves like the scratching of Jadakiss to ask “Is Death Real?” on “Stop”. The song “Don’t Cry” is as blatant of a message you can get. The song “Workinonit” seems to be a message about an artist life of creating. But the most chilling on the album is on “Welcome to The Show” the outro track the message isn’t obvious until you look at the sample which is “When I Die” by Motherlode. The sample says “When I die, I hope I’ll be the kind of man you thought I’d be” which is crazy to think of him listening to that during his time in the hospital.
“Donuts” is also unique because many of the moments are up for interpretation and have no answer since Dilla never had a chance to explain his choices. One example is the album starts with the outro and ends with ” Welcome to The Show”. The song that repeats “Only One Can Win” is titled “Two Can Win”. The tracklist is 31 tracks which is the age Dilla was when he made it. The messages in the album aren’t obvious or even totally proven so finding them you never knew what he truly meant or if he truly meant it.
This album the more you listen to it becomes obvious what its goal was. The goal was to leave a message to his fans and his family that can never go away. Dilla was in the hospital and felt that his best way to communicate was to chop up old samples in a way that would create a message about his impending death that his friends and family could listen to after his passing and think about him. If that is not the craziest thing you’ve ever heard I don’t know what is.
I hear people say all the time that no one would like the album as much if Dilla hadn’t of passed and that it is the only reason people like it. But they are entirely missing the point because without the situation Dilla was in the album would not exist and is almost entirely built around the concept of his passing so not taking in that context leaves out the subject matter that is in the album.
I recommend everyone listen to this album and hopefully hear what I hear in it. It is an album that could put on for so many situations like just hanging out or studying but everytime you listen you hear something new. I hope this album is spread for generations to come and Dilla’s legacy be continued forever.