Dilla’s chastening experience with MCA certainly presaged the producer’s sharp change in direction but another catalyst was his worsening health and perhaps growing sense of mortality. After moving out to Los Angeles and collaborating with fellow producer Madlib, his illness – a rare blood disease called thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura – worsened considerably. Dramatic weight loss left no option but to go public about his condition in 2004, confirming months of speculation.
By November 2005, Dilla was performing on his tour of Europe in a wheelchair and the severity of his illness became clear. Finally, on 10th February 2006, James Dewitt Yancey died of cardiac arrest at home with his mother by his side. He was just 32 years old.
Three days before his passing, Dilla had managed to release one final recorded statement – ‘Donuts’. An instant classic and a fitting epitaph for a near-imperious production legacy, the instrumental, beautifully strange LP was pieced together from samples while the producer was literally on his death bed. As one reviewer noted in a retrospective review, its skittish stop-start sequencing and time signatures, scattershot tension and patchwork of melancholic soundscapes, point to an artist who knew he was running out of time.
In an entry for the respected 33 1/3 book series on the LP, author Jordan Ferguson suggests that ‘Donuts’ in fact isn’t a hip-hop record at all. “It’s hip-hop as musique concrete,” he says. “Even knowing all the sample sources doesn’t make the sounds any more discernible in one’s mind… No, ‘Donuts’ is a game of resonant emotion, a mind meld between its maker and the listener.” It is at its core, Ferguson says, a record about death and dying; an exercise in self-reflection on mortality.
Knowing all of this makes hearing ‘Stop’ – with its sweeping strings and Dionne Warwick refrain: “You’re gonna need me, you’re gonna want me back in your arms” – all the more harrowing. It also makes listening to ‘Donuts’ and the rest of the Dilla cannon even more essential. Just ask Flea.
Oft-bootlegged throughout the 14-year wait for its arrival, Alapatt’s meticulously-crafted release of ‘The Diary’ might not match some die-hard fans’ preconceptions but there’s no arguing that it’s the definitive version of Dilla’s long-lost LP. Its 14 tracks pinball between the bass-heavy funk and minimal rhythms that would inspire Pharrell Williams (‘Fight Club’, ‘So Far’), and the scratchy, uncompromising sample work for which Dilla would become a hip-hop icon (‘Fuck the Police’, ‘Drive Me Wild’). As a record that straddles two distinct phases of Dilla’s career, some songs will land better with fans than others but all make for essential listening.
Starting off as an obscure, vinyl-only EP released exclusively in Germany in 2003, ‘Ruff Draft’ was posthumously expanded into an LP’s worth of material in 2007. Representing the apex of Dilla’s fearless repudiation of commerciality after he was dropped by MCA, the record makes no allowances and brooks no compromise but is all the more compelling for it. Most tracks clock in at no more than two minutes or so but it doesn’t matter: each one makes its mark like a drive-by shooting. ‘Reckless Driving’ is probably the hardest thing Dilla ever recorded – its sheer power remains unmatched even today.
Recorded on the producer’s deathbed and released three days before his passing in 2006, ‘Donuts’ is the point in Dilla’s oeuvre at which his music transcends hip-hop and becomes high art. Its 31 instrumental tracks abruptly start and stop, snipped seemingly at will by a man perhaps reflecting on the premature end to his own life. Some of the samples are obvious, others oblique but none have been so masterfully woven across a record before or since. It’s a truly sublime parting gift from one of the greatest producers to have ever lived and the bible for students of sampling.
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