Earlier this year, music legend David Bowie passed away following his 18-month battle with liver cancer. Two days before his death he released the album Blackstar, which was also the day of his 69th – and final – birthday. Blackstar is being praised by fans and critics alike who are truly amazed with the quality of the release so close to Bowie’s death. Music critic Anthony Fantano neatly sums it up by saying, “…[Bowie] was able to document his final moments in life with his artform. I mean, that’s going out with a bang.”
Ten years ago, the legendary hip-hop producer J Dilla passed away after going into cardiac arrest. Three days before his death, he released the album Donuts, which was also the day of his 32nd – and final – birthday.
Death and music have been intermingled before any recording device existed. The topic has influenced many great musicians and their work. The classic “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan in 1973; The Blue Oyster Cult’s warning to not fear “The Reaper” in 1976, and James Hetfield’s self-proclaimed suicide song – “Fade to Black” – with Metallica in 1984. For hip-hop, death has loomed both inside and outside the studio. Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur’s fixation with death was prevalent well before their own time came. In recent years, Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead, or Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” stand out as some of the most acclaimed pieces of music in modern hip-hop.
While these artists were inspired by death in these examples, they didn’t have the darkness of doomsday creeping around the corner – or at least it wasn’t to their knowledge. Dilla and Bowie’s cases are unique in the sense that they knew their days were slowly decreasing. To find the courage to acknowledge the proximity of the end of your life, and put it towards your craft – that’s artistry in its most dedicated form. And with that in mind, it’s no wonder as to why both albums are so magnificent.
In Dilla’s case, it seems as though he packed as much he could into 43 minutes; like one would pack as much as they could into the final minutes of their life. Donuts is rich in detail. Especially if you consider the masterful percussion, blaring sirens, constant vocals, and beautiful soul samples. The ADHD nature of the record neither gives you a chance to get cozy, nor weary. It’s a constant onslaught of great beats that are taken away from you before you can appreciate their perfection. That’s what makes Donuts equally addictive and infuriating. It’s like watching TV with someone flipping the channel every minute or so.
It leaves a weird taste in your mouth. The fact that something so joyous could be recorded on a deathbed. One can’t help but feel energized when those sirens blare in at the beginning of “Workinonit,” or when the emphatic “Let’s – go!” is dropped to begin “Waves.” Nearly every vocal sample on Donuts is molded in a way that adds a positive vibe to it. Even the sample that repeats, “She used to whip me with a strap, when I was bad,” oozes a euphoric feeling. It’s sounds like that, sounds like the high-pitched “O-o-only!” vocal sample on “Two Can Win,” that wiggles its way into your head and keeps you coming back for more. Whether it’s the seductive lingering of “Time: Donut of The Heart,” the horns on “Gobstopper,” or whatever else grabs your attention, Dilla ensured that at least one of the plethora of sounds will make you come back for more. It’s just sad that for 10 years now, he didn’t have that opportunity.
However, the work that he’s left us with is transcendent and hugely influential to the genre. To this day, rappers have continued to use Donuts for instrumentals (most recently – Lupe Fiasco over “The Diff’rence”). Fans and rappers share an equal love for this album, and that’s probably all Dilla wanted for this album – to turn his talents into something beautiful.
“You’re gonna want me back,” Dionne Warwick sings on “Stop!”. It’s something that’s on the minds of us all as we listen to Donuts 10 years later – we wish Dilla was still here to bless us with more of his work. But for what he is able to accomplish before his life was taken too soon – it’s only fitting that this February 7th we take just 43 minutes to listen. I ensure you, you’ll be back for more.