Review #386: Donuts, J Dilla

Karla Clifton
3 min readMay 13, 2023

#386: Donuts, J Dilla

J Dilla’s production CV is kind of legit. He helped produce songs for De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Raekwon, MF DOOM, Janet Jackson, Erykah Badu, and Ghostface Killah. And while he isn’t credited as a producer on D’Angelo’s Voodoo, RS and Questlove both say that he had quite a lot to do with the way it sounds.

I knew that J Dilla had died, but I didn’t know how tied this album was to his death. J Dilla suffered from the blood disease thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), which became particularly bad in 2005. He was forced into bed rest in LA’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and that’s where most of this album was recorded. His mother, opera singer Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, brought him a stack of vinyl records, from which he built this sample-heavy electronic record. Donuts was released on Dilla’s thirty-second birthday. Three days later, he passed away.

In his final interview, Dilla called this record “just a compilation of the stuff I thought was a little too much for the MCs.” That quote stunned me, because I realized that the impetus behind recording this was that he didn’t want his coolest ideas to die with him. Not to be cheesy, but that kind of makes me want to make art as fast as I can.

I barely even know how to review this record, which is made up of thirty-one songs, only one of which is longer than two minutes (“Workinonit”). Robert Christgau says that this record is “more about moments than flow,” which I think is maybe the best way to approach it. He’s capturing moments of music culture. In some ways, literally — for example, the moment before a band is introduced (see “Stepson Of The Clapper” and “The Twister (Huh, What)”).

But the real magical way he “captures moments” is by taking an ethereal sample from the past and framing it within a one-minute beat breakdown. See: “Stop,” “The Diff’rence” and “U-Love” for some of the most beautiful examples of this. But also see: the whole rest of the album, because nearly every song is a blend of two or more other songs. I have to mention a few of my favorites.

— The Beastie Boys’ “The New Style” appears several times, but most prominently on “The New.”

— Lou Rawls’ “Season of the Witch” mixes with Frank Zappa’s “Dance Contest” on “Mash.”

— Eddie Kendricks’ (of the Temptations) “My People… Hold On” on “People.”

“Walk on By” performed by The Undisputed Truth on “Walkinonit.”

— The same two samples by Luther Ingram and Mantronix were used on both “Gobstopper” and “One For Ghost.”

— Interestingly, Africa’s version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” was used on “Light It.” Even more interestingly, that song used to also be called “Light My Fire” before it was, for whatever reason, changed.

I could do this all day but I’ll spare you.

There are some punk rock moments (“Anti-American Graffiti,” “Geek Down”), even some songs that use the extremely 2000s laser/siren trick (“Waves,” “Thunder,” “The Factory.”) You can tell that he’s trying to fit in as much as is humanly possible, which is probably why all the songs are so short. It’s frantic, a crazy work of desperate art.

I also appreciated that J Dilla was kind of a wiseass. He’s ironic (“Two Can Win” features a sample that declares Only one can win, and “One Eleven” is titled after the song’s timestamp, 1:11). He gives some songs siblings (“Airworks” & “Lightworks,” “Hi.” & “Bye.”). He folds the end of the record (“Welcome To The Show”) into the beginning (“Donuts (Outro)”). He makes his audience hungry (“Glazed,” “Time: The Donut of the Heart,” “Last Donut Of The Night”).

I don’t always vibe with strictly instrumental albums, but this one burrowed right into my skin, like one of those scarabs in The Mummy. Who knew a swan song could be so much fun?

Final Thoughts? “Don’t Cry,” “Dilla Says Go.”

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