At less than thirty minutes-the fourteen tracks (six of which are interludes) rarely breaking two and a half minutes-the material on Ruff Draft EP is sparse and bare, even with the extra four cuts on this Stones Throw reissue. And although the late J Dilla has always been about brevity and keeping things moving, I wonder if his then-major-label-woes led him to further explore this sort of quasi-punk-rock approach of banging out short tracks packed with neck-snapping energy.
To be sure, Ruff Draft marked a turning point in Dilla’s sound. Where Dilla’s first solo album, Welcome 2 Detroit, featured a crisp minimal sound with occasional glimpses into his spaced-out synth work, the EP decidedly ventures in a sonic direction that is muddled with cracks and pops, compressed drums, layers of samples and freewheeling synths. True to Dilla’s own disclaimer on the album’s intro, Ruff Draft “sounds like it’s straight from the mothafuckin’ cassette.”
Originally released in limited vinyl-only quantities in 2003, Ruff Draft‘s lo-fi sketches in sound work best when Dilla is working with a palette of contrasting sounds, many of which are downright bizarre-sounding. “Nothing Like This,” released on Stones Throw’s Chrome Children compilation from last year, is a haunting leftfield ode to a loved one sung by Dilla over a droning melody that tugs back and forth between layers of stringed samples and synth work. “The $” features hard-hitting drums and monstrous keys that sound like grumpy objections to being broke while Dilla waxes poetic on getting paid. “Make ’em NV” continues the boasting that most of the EP champions: Dilla unleashes a vocal sample from Lil Fame (of MOP) on the hook over a track that pops and crackles under ringing xylophone keys. “Wild” cleverly slaps together an odd mix of a child’s melodic gibberish, electric strings and handclaps. “Crushin’ (Yeeeeaah!)” drips with funkdafied sexual energy but manages to avoid the crassness of a Top 20 club hit.
With such a short track list, the room for error is small, and the album does falter, if only briefly. For one, Ruff Draft suffers from too many interludes that would be forgettable if not for the banging tracks that accompany them (see “Shouts”). One of these beats is used for “Take Notice,” an extra cut that shows why Guilty Simpson may be one of the best spitters to ride a Dilla beat. On “Let’s Take It Back,” keys jostle for position while Dilla’s effortless flow adds little to this woefully average track.
Ruff Draft never quite hits the strides of Dilla’s full-lengths, but that’s not the intent. The EP is more creative journal than polished masterpiece. Some of the material is brilliant, though much of it only hints at the gems that would eventually make up Dilla’s collaboration with Madlib on Champion Sound.