Detroit-born producer Jay Dee had been quiet for a while before releasing Donuts. Aside from a few scattered beats for Common and Medaphoar, we hadn't heard much from the man who helped blueprint sounds for A Tribe Called Quest, Common, Slum Village and D'Angelo, from the man Pharrell, Kanye West and Questlove have all called their favorite producer. The reason for this is simple: Jay had been suffering from major health problems (he died on February 10, three days after his thirty-second birthday). In fact, according to a representative from Stones Throw, Jay Dee made much of this record during an extended stay at the hospital, using original 45s, a Numark portable turntable and a Powerbook. The result is a forty-two-minute peek into J.Dilla's beat-tape sketchbook, as well as a lesson learned: Never mistake silence for laziness.
Donuts is a big black pot of sonics, comparable only to Madlib's 2002 effort, Blunted in the Bombshelter, the difference being that this is all original material. One track is longer than two minutes, several are less than one; records are chopped, flipped, sped up, slowed down and slapped together; there are vocal drops, noise drops, needle drops, obscure records, soul records, electric-company ads and all sorts of pirated sounds from samples he'd never clear. This is what you call a well-orchestrated mess.
In that sense, Jay's anything-I-can-get-my-hands-on-is-fair-game process and mentality is closer to Jamaican dubmasters and deejays such as Grandmaster Flash than the majority of producers working today. If it sounds hand-crafted, that's because it is. Dilla is the master of one instrument - the MPC drum machine - and this album serves as testimony that if you equipped him with a sampler and some dusty records, Dilla would use his God-gifted ear to cut, chop and serve you up something brand new every time. There is nothing commercial about Donuts, and if it weren't for the vision of a label such as Stones Throw, this might have ended up as just another Internet rumor.
It was hard for me to imagine rappers over any of these instrumentals until I heard Black Thought and Dice Raw tear through a bootleg freestyle over "Workinonit." There is a track that invites Ghostface to give it a shot, but there is so much going on within each song that these work best without vocals. Tracks such as "Two Can Win," "Anti-American Graffiti" and "Gobstopper" will heat up speakers, leaving beat-makers to rave about his technique, but the most impressive thing about Donuts is the confidence Jay must have had in his own catalog and ability, a confidence that allowed him to throw this many beats into one project. As with any Dilla endeavor, you can really only get the full effect when the record is put to the test on a real sound system, as we at Prefix found out at the New York City listening party hosted by Koushik and Platinum Pied Pipers' Waajeed on February 9. There, a room full of smiling heads nodded to Donuts in its entirety and found an added layer of respect for a record already destined to be a classic.
Jay Dee Donuts MySpace Page (audio snips)
Jay Dee on BBE's Web site (streaming audio)Jay Dee on Rensoul.com