The tragic story behind J Dilla’s iconic album ‘Donuts’
(Credit: J Dilla)

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The tragic story behind J Dilla's iconic album 'Donuts'

J Dilla’s legacy is one of a mysterious figure who created pure magic and hip-hop history from a dingy basement studio in Detroit. The late producer and emcee worked with several acts during his career. However, his impact on the culture was profound.

J Dilla produced for The Roots, Common, Erykah Badu and many other artists in the 1990s and revived people’s love for soul and jazz with his samples and, as hip-hop production became more robotic, managed to humanise music with his unique beat-making style.

Dilla (real name James Yancey) was an official member of Slum Village and gained a tremendous amount of attention with his production style that countered the gritty sound of New York with a smooth, soul-inspired sonic that was heavenly.

Yancey is known for his ingenious way of utilising the MPC 3000. A piece of technology that led hip-hop instrumentals to become highly stiff, mechanical and too perfect concerning timings. Yancey found beauty in the imperfections that humans brought to music—the slightly offbeat hit off a snare, the erratic movement that percussionists intuitively provide. As such, with his purposefully wonky drums and haphazard approach to sampling, Yancey gave his machine a soul.

In a 2006 documentary on the career and life of J Dilla, Chicago rapper Common referred to him as an “esoteric spirit” who came down to earth and returned to heaven. However, his most significant gift to hip-hop while he was on earth was Donuts, an entirely instrumental project widely considered his magnum opus.

In 2002, Yancey was diagnosed with a dreadful illness. Suffering from thrombocytopenic purpura combined with lupus, J Dilla was hospitalised and told that his body was turning on itself and destroying his organs. As such, he was hospitalised. However, wheelchair-bound and dying, the Detroit native began working on a final album.

29 of the album’s 31 tracks were made in his hospital room, and its chaotic yet beautiful arrangement was perceived by many as Yancey’s way of musically confronting death and the notion of an afterlife. Following its release in 2006, fans were made aware that some of the album’s closing tracks were made days before the musician began palliative care in preparation for death.

Donuts is widely considered to be the musical output of an individual who was aware they were dying and is one of the holy grails of hip-hop production. You can listen to Donuts and watch the J Dilla: Still Shining documentary below.