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Q&A

Doing DONUTS

J Dilla Donuts

J Dilla

Armed with a laptop, an MPC sampler and a stack of 45s, hip-hop producer J Dilla created his magnum opus DONUTS while on his deathbed, struggling with a rare blood disease.

Emerging from the nascent Detroit hip-hop scene in the early ’90s, Dilla started with the rap trio Slum Village, where his woozy, soul-based, asymmetrical beats caught national attention. Eventually, giants came calling: A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, MF Doom, the Roots, and Janet Jackson all courted his beat-making genius. In 2006, during this zenith of activity, DONUTS, Dilla’s weird, wonderful, quasi-dada instrumental solo album was released on his 32nd birthday. He died three days later.

Dilla was already a hero at the time of this death, but DONUTS was immediately heralded by fans and the press as his crowning achievement. Despite lacking any hooks, raps, or choruses—and most tracks clocking in around 60 seconds—it’s not a beats tape: DONUTS bears the weight and spirit of a Grand Final Statement. Amplified by Dilla’s death, the album has escalated to a talismanic level among hip-hop heads, with many, including ?uestlove of the Roots, claiming that Dilla, who was often unable to speak due to his illness, was sending final messages to family, friends and the public via his music. J Dilla Donuts Bloomsbury Publishing

In May, Bloomsbury Publishing’s 33 1/3 book series tackled the album with a 130-page take on DONUTS, written by Toronto-based journalist Jordan Ferguson (“The Hip-Hop Chuck Klosterman of The North”). I talked with composer/contrabassist Evan Flory-Barnes, a fellow lover of Dilla and DONUTS, about the book, the artist, death, ecstasy and the Black American Music continuum.

CITY ARTS: I got DONUTS when it came out: a week hasn’t gone by since without listening to it. When did you first hear it?

EVAN FLORY-BARNES: I heard about it when it came out. Various tracks here and there. But where it first hit me was in 2007. I was hanging out at Lofi Performance Gallery before a weekly gig I had, and it came on the speakers at the bar. “Waves” is the track that just floored me. I began my dance that I call the “Dilla Sway” at the bar, and I was hooked.

We should take photos of you demonstrating…

Ha! I didn’t want to start the gig until the album was finished. It inspired my playing for the rest of the evening and has continued to inspire my work. “Welcome to The Show” is my strut down the street music.

J Dilla Donuts

Among Dilla’s catalog, DONUTS sticks out. A typical Dilla track, like his work for A Tribe Called Quest, found a deep, loose, satisfying groove and locked in. DONUTS doesn’t give you that satisfaction: each track is dense, baroque, shot out of a canon, then careens 180 degrees elsewhere. He’s moving here at an uncharacteristically elevated pace.

Yeah. The trip for me is I didn’t know the story around it in depth. I knew it was his last work, but I wasn’t aware of the particulars of his health when he wrote it. When I read about the condition he was in when he produced DONUTS, I began to weep.

I always felt the emotional range and depth on DONUTS and used to wonder why. I felt part of it was the sadness of knowing no more new work would be created by him. When I hear the story, the range of emotions comes through.

DONUTS also appeals to the part of me that has always loved short instrumental interludes on hip-hop albums. I listen to DONUTS as an album and put my favorite tracks on repeat. I find the shifts of the album to be a bit startling, but then Dilla brings you into more goodness.

Jordan Ferguson sees within the structure of DONUTS the idea that Dilla is expressing the classic Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief over his fatal illness: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. At first that seemed like a simplistic framework. But Ferguson makes a compelling case.

I don’t feel that framing of the Kubler-Ross Stages, although I can see where he’s coming from. I definitely resonate more with the joy and playfulness of the album.

Right? There’s all this talk of death and sadness around its legacy, when much of the album is mischievously ecstatic, or flat-out hilarious.

It’s called DONUTS. You know exactly what you are getting into. Short, sweet treats of beat-making goodness. The emotional depth I feel is that depth you feel in Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. Or the recordings of Charles Mingus, disabled towards the end of his life, singing his last compositions into a tape recorder because he was too weak to play anything. I feel the joyful essence of the creative spirit throughout those works and all over DONUTS and that always brings joyful tears to my eyes.

Until reading the book, I never noticed how much the signature Dilla siren-alarm sample (taken from the song “King of the Beats” by Mantronix) evolves throughout the album. In the beginning, it’s what we always associate with sirens: emergency. But as the album progresses, sometimes that siren gets somber, regretful. Then in “The Diff’rence” it’s suddenly giddy and goofy. Dilla played the siren sample like a piano.

The signature siren always makes me smile. For me, it says “Here’s Dilla!” Tying the siren to Dilla in the different stages becomes compelling. Sirens can be alarming, annoying and disruptive. But when it is involves an emergency you’re in, it can become comforting and assuring.

Typically with samples, the juice comes from the familiarity the listener has with the original song; short of that, there’s the words or the emotion of the singing. But on DONUTS—with hip-swing soul of “Waves,” the wordless gospel uplift of “Time: The Donuts Of The Heart,” or indecipherable R&B utterances in “Airworks”—Dilla chops up the samples on a microscopic level—vowels, consonants— rearranges them so the sample is unidentifiable, the melody is out of order, the words are unintelligible. And yet a direct emotion still comes through. It’s still charged with humanity.

I agree. I always sing the vocal part to “Waves.” I don’t know what it is, but singing it puts me in this trance. Humorously, I imagine Michael McDonald signing that part. Those techniques of Dilla’s are what made him so amazing. “Airworks” is a great example. You hear that it’s Teddy Pendergrass, yet the sample makes me forget the words that Teddy was actually singing, even though I know them.

“Welcome to The Show” is another one: that hyped feeling comes through and you have no idea what they’re saying. But you feel it! And the hyped feeling happens. I also love how he creates little mysterious mantras: “U-Love,” “Stop,” “The New.” Sometimes, I hear these as little messages from somewhere else.

You mentioned “Waves.” Such a deep pocket of wordless soulful vocals. But the source of those vocals? A silly 1973 doo-wop parody by English art-rockers 10cc called “Johnny Don’t Do It”. [I play the original 10cc track for Evan.]

[Good luck figuring out how J Dilla did this.]

How Dilla pulled soul out of that totally square tune is straight-up wizardry: he slowed it down, chopped up some long notes, put it out of order and suddenly a limp comedy record by some British white boys is alchemized into a legitimate R&B sway.

Wow!

Yeah. It’s nuts.

I’m damn near speechless. The genius of Dilla… It makes me think of the folks who dismiss sampling as some “lower form.” [Continues listening to the original 10cc tune] You hear this …and then the soul of “Waves”… I can’t even find where he extracted the idea.

In the book, Madlib talks about Dilla’s surgical sampling style. We’re not talking measures, or even a beat: he’ll get down to a granular level of a 16th or 32nd note sample of a voice—between a snare hit and a bass note, where it’s exposed—then stretch that out. It’s DNA work.

Indeed.

Ferguson searches for meaning everywhere: the number of tracks (there are 31; Dilla died when he was 32), the title of the samples, etc. The book changed my mind on the one track I sometimes skip: “Glazed.” It’s mostly one aggressive measure played over and over with a relentless pounding. But Ferguson mentions the title of that sample, “You Just Can’t Win” by Gene Chandler, and suggests this was Dilla lashing out with anger over his illness. Now, when it comes on I let that track play. Respect it. Let Dilla lash out.

Indeed. Earlier, I mentioned Bartok’s “Concerto For Orchestra” which was a work that brought Bartok back to life. And as life affirming as it is, you can hear the struggle and fear while wrestling with death. Great work carries the range of emotions and experiences, be they explicit or implicit.

Ferguson also brings up the Edward Said book On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, which, oddly, came out around the time Dilla died. The book details how many great artists, faced with physical limitations toward the end of their life, often use those limitations to make Final Works of Assessment, using newly-learned techniques. It made me think of Beethoven and Mingus.

Yes! There’s something that one gets in touch with at a more profound level as death is certain. On one level, death is always certain, but when there’s a knowing of it, access to other realms comes through, be they other realms of the self or some other dimension. I imagine an intensity coming with the knowing that you will not create in this form in this way again. It also makes me think of the 27 Club, the [jazz trumpeter] Clifford Browns and [jazz bassist] Scott La Faros of the world who seemed to live at that intensity and died young. Dilla is interesting because he acquires a disease so young and it debilitates him slowly as if he were aging rapidly.

Ferguson points out some cosmic poetry: the last tune on the album, the reverse-titled “Welcome to the Show,” contains the same samples as the first tune, the also reverse-titled “Donuts (Outro).” So the album is one big circle-of-life loop with no seam. Gorgeous.

No doubt.

And knowing the two samples reveals a second level of poetry: “Not Available” by Shuggie Otis and “Stay With Me” by Reverend Gary Davis. Two ideas most of us will probably think when facing death.

It feels like an acknowledgement to a return to something beautiful. Heaven, source, the unseen, whatever one calls it. It has that feeling of affirmation. And “Outro” leaves this mystery, as if it were saying, “You’ll know when you get here.” That poetry permeates the album.

How does Dilla’s style come out in your own jazz/orchestral work?

I consider my work in the lineage of the Black American Music continuum. Duke is in this continuum. Bird is in this continuum. James Brown is in this continuum. Curtis Mayfield is in this continuum. Dilla is in this continuum. And ultimately, this continuum is that of what I refer to as “Big Music.” From Mozart to Kanye. Ives to Q-tip. Like all these influences of mine, I have never been a fan of classification. Something that moved me in the book was that Dilla wasn’t a fan of this either. It is all music, all expression, all sound.

I’m influenced by Dilla’s sense of soul and the beat. I love how he creates anthems. Like much of the soul that he samples, he aims to create grandeur and beauty from the city, from the streets, from the mundane. Something I also love to do. I love his openness to “mistakes” and the moment—a sensibility that comes out in the smaller groups I play in.

Dilla openly freaked out when Madlib came on the scene, once telling ?uestlove: “Madlib is going where I wanna go. There’s nuances and tricks in his music that speak to me, and only me.” As a composer, do you have any kindred-spirit competition?

Oh Yes! Ahamefule J. Oluo pushes me to create deeper. L.A’s Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who was the conductor/arranger for the Suite for Ma Dukes [a chamber-group arrangement of Dilla’s beats], is definitely an inspiration and someone I “compete” with and want to collaborate with. Hanna Benn is a musical soulmate and inspires me to push my work. Jherek Bischoff. Samantha Boshnack. They all inspire this desire grow my music in my own unique way. It’s what I love about living here: My favorite musicians who push me are also my pals.

Listen to J Dilla’s DONUTS here.

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