JGILLA’s “Gonuts”

JGILLA, a close friend of mine & contributor to Know The Ledge, shares his thoughts on Dilla’s “Donuts” in this “Kanye-era”.  Much like Donuts, this is thought-provoking and not digestible on the first run through.  I can see readers being turned off by the length of the editorial, in the same way, hip-hop heads were cynical when they knew Donuts had no guest appearances or MCs.  However, like those that persevered and took the time to evaluate the music of Dilla, our readers too will be rewarded with insight and thought-provoked opinion after reading this.  This is not for the simple-minded.   JGILLA, I hope you got as much satisfaction writing this, as we will reading this.  Salute!

JGILLA writes:


I love Kanye West’s music.

In 2005, Kanye released Late Registration which felt like the next phase of Kanye’s first album College Dropout; it was big, ridiculously well-produced, and began to add the kind of genre-bending eclecticism that has come to define Kanye West’s form of Hip Hop. Late Registration gave us Kanye West the Pop Star, not only Kanye West the Famous Rapper. The brashness and brassiness of Late Registration coupled with a media presence that eclipsed then-president George Bush Jr., brought rap music to the U2-scale stadium venue with sound, content, and performances that made Kanye less Common and more Michael Jackson. Even Kanye’s big brother could not compete with the mass appeal of Hip Hop’s young star. Kanye never seemed to be stuck in the mean streets, or worried about his viability based upon the rules of Hip Hop authenticity. He was not saddled with an old-timer’s cynicism, aloof with well-intentioned intellectualism, or pigeonholed as a bourgeois black man. With Late Registration, you got the sense that Kanye West was destined to dominate Hip Hop and Pop music not only in terms of sales and media visibility, but also in terms of content, performance, and that je ne sai quoi that fans eat up. Late Registration was, perhaps, the ushering in of an era of Hip Hop as full-fledge Pop music, not only rap music that was popular. Witness the rebirth and marketability of post retirement Jay-Z the following year, the onslaught of Lupe Fiasco and his Hip Hop-robot-skater persona, Lil Wayne and his charming of Miss Katie, and even the more “alternative” Finding Forever by Common, which felt like a slightly awkward hybrid of the Commons we had known from albums past. Kanye West seemed to be without the regular phobias of rap music as we knew it, and almost without fear himself.

2005’s Late Registration acted as a blueprint for a version of Hip Hop that embodied pre-recession exuberance; it possessed a sonic luxuriousness and genre-mixing that seemed fresh in Hip Hop and honestly it felt quite liberating. His work possessed a generosity and fearlessness that welcomed all without needing to be sweet, soft, or weird. He was still as “urban” as we would hope, as brazen and outspoken as a hip hopper should be, and as smooth a character as we have come to expect from our best. The emotional atmosphere that Kanye began to explore on Late Registration resulted in lengthy tracks, broad content, big name collaboration, massive and extensive production time and budgets, and a broad marketing strategy that resulted in an over-the-top sensibility that is rarely recapitulated in any genre of music. Kanye West worked hard and made something that many of us loved and still do.

Despite the PR ruckus, musical energy, and genre-shifting qualities that Late Registration introduced in 2005— along with the more familiar tones set by other major label albums of 2006, like Nas’ Hip Hop Is Dead, The Roots Game Theory, Jay-Z’s Kingdom Come, and Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor— one post-Late Registration release in 2006 emerged as the dark horse that may have changed the game, even for Kanye himself.

Donuts, the lyric-free “instrumental” album by the late J Dilla, emerged out of what seemed like nowhere. Even though the release was well-anticipated in many circles, it felt like we were all caught up in the un-retirement of Jay-Z, or the year’s rallying cry of “Hip Hop is dead!” from Nas. Yet, despite J Dilla’s long standing reputation as one of the premier, albeit obscure, producers in Hip Hop (and occasionally R&B), Donuts rolled in like one of the many cars in the stream of bumper-to-bumper album traffic.

Despite the torrent of posthumous J Dilla album releases, snippets of unfinished instrumentals, famous and not-so-famous rappers rapping over unused or unmastered JD beats, and round after round of heartfelt interviews that have flooded the music media since his passing, Donuts stands on its own without needing any of the above. More than the sentimentality that has driven the bulk of the writing I have read about his last official release, Donuts— minus the context of his untimely death and the profound emotionalism it inspired— created a shift in Hip Hop that haunts many of us five years later.

Where Late Registration was the sum total of Kanye’s ability to absorb, convert, synthesize, and produce massive amounts of popular information into a palatable and cohesive narrative, in 2006, J Dilla’s Donuts seemed like the exact opposite: a collection of songs that its author could have churned out over some period of time that happened to amalgamate on one album. Late Registration presents us with a type of complete album that is held together by a clever narrative; it is a pleasure to consume. On the other hand, Donuts is still something I am trying to figure out today. It represents a different kind of complete album that is not based upon the rules of marketing, listener expectations, or even common sense. Its 31 tracks seem like a string of fragments lined up in rapid-fire sequence; one tune after the other, with barely enough time to reflect on was just heard.

Donuts falls into a category of creative wholeness that reminds us of the instrumental production for the 1983 film Wild Style, or Nas’ greatest musical achievement Illmatic, or perhaps Joy Division’s Closer. Its company is a particular type of artistry that is never easy to explain, never about just one idea, but is somehow a perfect bracket for a moment in time that seems to keep unfolding for years after its release. It is not smooth, but rather is rough. It does not seem like the stuff of deep pockets, the result of the latest technology, or the product of the most expensive equipment. Quite the opposite, it feels recognizable, direct, made from things we know, and raw.

Donuts is insular and makes up its own rules: it beats you down with shortened track lengths, it leaves you guessing with its unpredictable sequencing, it makes you keep wondering about what drives its content, it seems empty with no guest appearances, it leaves you with without a starting point and without a clear theme. The track titles don’t help either. Yet, somehow it touches you without grabbing you; there is an indescribable life-affirming mood that is the album’s perfume. You can only catch it in whiffs, but when it comes, it is indelible.

A listen to Donuts is a chance to move in and out of a musical world. It is not music that assembles a crowd and gives us one thing to yell about. It is music that is omnipresent and light like smoke. It is ethereal and filled with air. It is empty and faint. It is a sunset tinting a room. One track may remind you of the smell of your first leather sneakers; another may take you to your mom’s kitchen. One may make you feel like punching a hole in a wall, while another makes you daydream of wanting more than just a quick fuck. J Dilla’s genius is his ability to suggest an idea, and his confidence in our intelligence as listeners to meet the music and add our thoughts to it— there is no need for an MC on Donuts. Dilla has a way of making songs that immerse us in a feeling even if for just a moment in time. His sounds—

not words, not pictures, not rallying cries— meet us halfway between his world and ours. Dilla’s music is a very abstract one, but one that manages to leave traces of itself all over us as it seeps into our pores, gets under our skin, and into our blood. It is complete on its own without singers, MC’s, or even Dilla’s own voice.

Donuts has moments that are deeply sad, painfully lonely and seem to carry the weight of J’s impending death. There is an impatience and nervousness that comes with every siren, every chopped voice sample, and every racing snare drum. There is the sense that he is running from something that is just a bit faster than the music he can make; it is only a matter of time before he will have to stop making things. But there is also a sense of peace and type of calmness that can be felt each time we hear an echoing drum, an empty space between sounds, or a looped hook that would seem to play to infinity if the song didn’t come to an abrupt end and move onto the next. Dilla never lingers on one feeling for very long, creating music that is neither plain nor decorated, passive nor aggressive. Its thirty-one songs carry us from war to life to love and to death, and then back again, each one just a message about a distinct possibility at some moment in time.

Perhaps Dilla’s greatest gift to fellow musicians and listeners is not only the aesthetics he championed but his demonstration of the courage it takes to make things that are true to oneself. At a moment when Hip Hop music was approaching a popular and marketable giganticness powered by the genius that is Kanye West, Donuts proved that something decidedly smaller and completely idiosyncratic and personal was perhaps the heart of an artistic authenticity that seems hard to find even now. From his production, to the atmosphere he created, to his fearlessness in bucking trends and following his own path, Donuts gave us the sense that we were simply hearing music made by a man, living his life, perhaps keenly aware that he was awaiting his own death. Whether it was made on tour, in a studio somewhere, or perhaps from a hospital bed, we get the sense that we are hearing what it sounds like inside the space of one man’s soul.

Kanye is genius enough to have figured out how to make Hip Hop music that fills stadiums with people and sound. He has managed to make his music gigantic and in the process has given us something empowering. Dilla has managed make music that seems to land off the charts at any number of possible venues, but somehow squarely inside of us.

I love Kanye West’s music, but J Dilla changed my life.

This entry was posted by on Thursday, February 10th, 2011 at 11:16 am and is filed under hip-hop. Both comments and pings are currently closed. Tags: / / / / / /

2 Responses to “JGILLA’s “Gonuts””

  1. flip illson on February 12th, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    damn, thank you sir.
    this was so on point.
    keep up the good work

    —a dying metaphor—

  2. LuvJonez on February 13th, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Each time I read about how deeply effected people are by Donuts, i am always thankful to have been around during the original drop date. I was digging in a thrift store for old 45’s and found the Gene Chandler sample that Dilla used on Donuts, the week before it was released. I had an odd tingle that I had unearthed some hidden gem and ran home to myspace to message Dilla and tell him that I found the sample he used on the bootleg copy of Donuts with ST drops all over it. By the time the real album came out, Dilla passed and I never got a response on myspace. This album changed the way I made my artwork and my music. It helped me rationalize the continued sampling of infomration (art, music, etc) despite lving in an age where copyright laws hamper creativity. I still find new things I love about this album, but I use it as a springboard for ideas whenever I am in a slump. Dilla changed my life as well.