There’s a certain groundbreaking point in every young music fanatic’s life when they begin to connect the dots between overarching movements in musical history. Realizing that Kevin Barnes just filled in the missing link between David Bowie and The Beatles or that Liars basically thought This Heat ought to be a little more user-friendly is an important development in understanding artists’ creative output, but it can lead to shaming certain bands for lifting their ideas from those who came before them. It’s a natural knee-jerk reaction to try to call an artist out on his supposed lack of originality, but it unfortunately overlooks how communal the music world really is.
J Dilla was the kind of artist who wore his favorite records on his sleeves. From the second his 2006 opus “Donuts” kicks into gear with its untouchable 10cc sample, there’s no mistaking whatsoever what bands James Yancey fantasized about during his short lifetime.
It’s only been about seven years since “Donuts” first hit shelves, but in those years J Dilla’s influence has expanded so profoundly that Stones Throw has decided to reissue Yancey’s swan song as a set of 7″‘s, supposedly in order to highlight how Forrest Gump-esque this package of bangers really is. Dividing up the songs this way seems slightly antithetical to the endless party nature of the album –the intro and outro that perfectly segue into one another to restart the album is obviously moot– but ultimately, approaching these songs individually is a rewarding approach to an album that sometimes blurs together.
After the check box for rock n’ roll is crossed off on “Workinonit,” “Donuts” immediately gives way to “Waves,” the beat that would figuratively and literally serve as a template for every producer who considers “Adult Swim” a way of life. The way Yancey transforms yet another 10cc sample into “Waves'” Gregorian chant is a classic example of Jay Dee’s artistry with a vocal sample. “Mash” bursts in with an atonal jumble of sounds while Frank Zappa delivers his hilariously commanding intro, until the beat drops in with possibly the most eclipsing bass on the record as well as one of the most pleasing piano loops.
So many historical stepping stones are crossed over the course of record, from the blatant Jackson 5 nod in “Time: The Donut of the Heart” to the disco-night interlude of “Two Can Win” to the random remix of Raymond Scott’s “Lightworks,” “Donuts” can sometimes seem like a glance over one’s shoulder at African American music’s past. Yet Dilla’s forward thinking is always the driver of the album; even the sprinkling of old soul samples on “Bye” can’t overpower how sweetly celestial Yancey can make a synth sound. His unquantised drums pop up all over the album, hinting at the Shlohmos and Flying Lotuses to follow in his footsteps.
Dilla shares these influences with us and asks us to take the same away from him. He is the kind of artist that anyone who has built his life around experiencing new music can relate to on a personal level, because music ultimately is the process of artists becoming inspired by other artists. In that way, “Donuts” really is the ultimate DJ album. Stacked with as many samples as a Gregg Gillis release while conveying the most sincere form of appreciation for the art form, Dilla created a celebration of musical expression that feels eternally new, yet always familiar.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Sam Goldner at Samuel.email@example.com.