Juan Pablo Marcos/MiC.

When I think of an album that will stick with me for the rest of my life, I instantly think about J Dilla’s Donuts.

J Dilla, or Jay Dee, is a Detroit hip-hop legend. Born James Dewitt Yancey, Yancey began rapping and making beats as a kid in his family’s basement studio in the Conant Gardens neighborhood. He would go on to form the rap trio, Slum Village, with his high school friends and gain the attention of Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. This connection would eventually lead to Dilla collaborating with The Pharcyde, a Los Angeles quartet of rappers, and producing six tracks for their 1995 album Labcabincalifornia. He would go on to produce tracks for artists like Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes and Common, just to name a few, while also releasing his own solo projects.

Dilla passed away in February 2006 at the age of 32 due to complications of the rare blood disease lupus.

On February 7, 2006, three days before his death, Dilla released Donuts, the anticipated follow-up to his debut album Welcome 2 Detroit. According to Dan Charnas, author of “Dilla Time,” Dilla began to feel ill in late January 2003, and from that point on was in and out of hospitals. Dilla would leave Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on March 16, 2005, and after a few months of recovery, he had enough strength to begin making beats on his Macintosh laptop with records he had bought from Rockaway Records in Silver Lake in L.A. This burst of energy created the nearly complete beat tape for Donuts which was going to be edited by close friend and collaborator Jeff Jank to add its finishing touches. Throughout the year, Jank would visit Dilla in the hospital to show him edits and receive some more tracks. While in the hospital, Dilla would create tracks with a Boss SP-303 sampler and a portable turntable that were provided by his friends from the Stones Throw record label.

With Donuts, Dilla ended up making an album composed entirely of instrumentals and skits; no guest features or rapping, just samples that he cleverly connected. Executives were concerned that the album would flop, but ultimately Donuts would influence a generation of musicians. 

Dilla’s iconic production is so revered because he was able to make the MPC3000 drum machine a true extension of himself. He used loose, unquantized drumming patterns, accents and complex sampling techniques to really make the MPC3000 come to life. His drum machine is now displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Donuts is a mystical listening experience. When you play it all the way through, front to back, you get to hear how tracks transition from one to another so gently. You also get to hear the musical motifs — like record scratches and sirens — laid throughout the album’s 43-minute run time, keeping your ear on the edge of its seat.

There is so much love, joy, happiness and, at times, sadness behind the choice of samples and the rhythms that Dilla uses on each track.

Some highlights include the Dionne Warwick sample on “Stop!”. The repeated refrain — “you better stop and think about what you’re doing” — in the middle of the track creates an infectious head nod. Dilla goes so far as to actually pause the track altogether for a second during this section. 

The Sylvers sample and drums on “Two Can Win” creates a bounce that transitions perfectly into “Don’t Cry”, where Dilla magically slows and speeds up a chopped sample of The Escorts.

The listener doesn’t get to hear any rapping from Dilla or from any guest verses. The minute-long tracks mesh so beautifully that you get lost in the pure sonics. Dilla’s style is so unique and recognizable that you are constantly reminded of the hands and fingers hitting each pad on the drum machine.

I feel even more admiration knowing that this would be the last album Dilla released before he passed away. The album sounds like a goodbye. The soulful samples give each track a sense of nostalgia for a moment you might not have even been there to experience, but are reminded of anyway.

To some people, music is the vessel to let their souls speak.

The art of beat-making and producing is everlasting and truly special, and it’s something that I wish to try in the future. Thank you, J Dilla, for providing me with a sense of joy and wonder.  

I encourage you to give Donuts a listen. It’s a true masterpiece. 

MiC Columnist Juan Pablo Angel Marcos can be reached at marcosj@umich.edu.