J Dilla – Donuts

J Dilla in search of vinyl (liveabout.com)

J Dilla in search of vinyl


On his 32nd birthday J Dilla’s second solo album was released. Three days later he passed away to a rare blood disease. The story of J Dilla and Donuts.

J Dilla

James Dewitt Yancey was born on February 7th, 1974, in Detroit. His mother was a former opera singer and his father was a bass player. In his younger years James was wild about music, but he gradually developed a deep love for hip-hop. He James started making beats using his expanding record collection and often locked himself in his room as a means to getting better and better at his craft.

In 1992 James got his hands on an Akai MPC (a sampler and sequencer) and knew the device in and out in record time. In 1995 Jay Dee (as James called himself by then) and MC Phat Kat signed a deal with Playday Records, using the moniker 1st Down. The group would release just one single. In 1996 Jay Dee formed Slum Village, which released the brilliant Fantastic, Vol. 1 in 1997. An extremely influential album within hip-hop.

Slum Village - Fantastic, Vol. 1 & 2 (discogs.com)

Slum Village – Fantastic, Vol. 1 & 2

He became part of the production collective The Ummah, besides Jay Dee consisting of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest) and sometime later also Raphael Saadiq (of Tony! Toni! Toné!), who made productions for the likes of Janet Jackson, The Pharcyde, De La Soul and Busta Rhymes. Using his own name Jay Dee he also produced and (re)mixed for artists like Janet Jackson, Brand New Heavies, Crustation and Poe.

In 2000 the second album by Slum Village, Fantastic, Vol. 2, was released. This time the album was released by a big record company and Jay Dee’s star was on the rise. Even more so after co-founding The Soulquarians, the production collective responsible for many neo-soul classics by Erykah Badu, Talib Kweli, Common, D’Angelo and others.

In 2001 Jay Dee released a solo single, Fuck The Police, addressing his experiences with the random and violent behavior of the Detrot police force. He soon after decided to use the moniker J Dilla. In 2002 he worked together with MC Madlib in the group Jaylib.

That same year he was diagnosed with the rare Thrombotic Thrombocytopenic Purpura, a lethal blood disorder, later followed by lupus. Despite his illness he kept on producing, making beats and still went out on tour (in November 2005 he performed in a wheelchair). On February 10th, 2006, J Dilla died of cardiac arrest. He was just 32 years old.

J Dilla - Donuts (discogs.com)

J Dilla – Donuts


Donuts is the second studio album under the moniker J Dilla and was released on February 7th, 2006, on Stones Throw Records, the day of his 32nd birthday.

In the summer of 2005 J Dilla spent a lot of his time in the hospital. The recording of 29 (of the 31 in total) Donuts were done there. J Dilla used a Boss SP-303 sampler and a small record player. Despite the illness, which was gradually but steadily worsening, J Dilla worked feverishly. At times the pain and swelling got so bad that his mother had to massage his hands and fingers, just to enable J Dilla to work. The end result was 31 largely instrumental hip-hop tracks, on average 1 to 1.5 minutes in length. The mood in the tracks is so varied that a press release compared the album to searching and tuning into a radio station.

In October 2005 the album was finished, but EMI was unsure whether or not the album was able to ship 10,000 units, but eventually agreed to a February 2006 release.

J Dilla at work (observer.com)

J Dilla at work


So, what is it that makes Donuts so special? Even stronger, what is so special about J Dilla? The answer is simple, yet tricky: ‘his productions’. His samples and edits are so unique that the end result has almost nothing to do with the original sources. His way of beat making was unique and innovative. D’Angelo, by all accounts one of the major innovators of the 21st century, uses the (idea of the) typical J Dilla beats a lot, alienating rhythms, that are seemingly off-beat and yet still fit perfectly. On Donuts it all blends beautifully: instrumental hip-hop jewels that will last a lifetime and more.

Despite the use of digital instruments, his productions always sounded human and warm. The fact he manually crafted his music is a testament to his skills. Based on pure intuition and musical feel he sliced his samples and turned them into beautiful beats. A timeless album.


Why the Donuts title? Record label Stones Throw: ‘Easy explanation. Dilla likes donuts’.


  1. Donuts (Outro)
  2. Workinonit
  3. Waves
  4. Light My Fire
  5. The New
  6. Stop
  7. People
  8. The Diff’rence
  9. Mash
  10. Time: The Donut Of The Heart
  11. Glazed
  12. Airworks
  13. Lightworks
  14. Stepson Of The Clapper
  15. The Twister (Huh, What)
  16. One Eleven
  17. Two Can Win
  18. Don’t Cry
  19. Anti-American Graffiti
  20. Geek Down
  21. Thunder
  22. Gobstopper
  23. One For Ghost
  24. Dilla Says Go
  25. Walkinonit
  26. The Factory
  27. U-Love
  28. Hi.
  29. Bye.
  30. Last Donut Of The Night
  31. Welcome To The Show

The song sequence is unusual. The album starts off with an outro and ends with an intro (also known as Donuts (Intro)). The end of the last song effortlessly blends in with the start of the first song, resulting in an infinite loop (like a ‘donut’).

J Dilla Photo collage (jetmag.com)

J Dilla Photo collage

After Donuts

J Dilla’s passing had a huge impact on the hip-hop community (it reportedly was the spark that started D’Angelo’s darker years). Just like many artists before him, his true influence and importance came to light after his death. J Dilla’s influence can hardly be overstated, especially within the world of hip-hop.

Many have paid tribute to J Dilla since his untimely death, an impressive list of names:

Common, Kanye West, The Roots, Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, Pete Rock, Pusha T, Flying Lotus, Robert Glasper, Madlib, J-Rocc, De La Soul, Bilal, Thundercat, Amp Fiddler, Lettuce, Mac Miller, Drake, Big Sean, Chance The Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Badass, Rick Ross, Mint Condition, The Brand New Heavies, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Nas, Phife Dawg, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The 1975 are just a few examples.

In 2014 J Dilla’s mothers donated his Minimoog Voyager and Akai MIDI Production Center 3000 to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In closing

What do you think of J Dilla and Donuts? Let me know!

This story contains an accompanying video. Click on the following link to see it: Video: J Dilla – Donuts. The A Pop Life playlist on Spotify has been updated as well.

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