Death, Donuts & Dilla by Tolu Olorunda

  • September 21, 2011

Tolu Olorunda's essay on J Dilla was published at, where you can read the complete article.

"So let us melt, and make no noise," John Donne urged his wife, forbidding mourning upon their brief separation. "No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move." J Dilla, four centuries later, proved more succinct: "Don't Cry." Flipping The Escorts' "I Can't Stand (To See You Cry)," Dilla squeezed out a short declaration full of pain and passion and, perhaps most importantly, incompletion-stifled vocals playing and pausing in short bursts of wailing wonder. This was Dilla, 2006, a man whose soul-stirring music had grown gradually darker as his body bowed to the great gods of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, which snatched from our world one widely acknowledged the greatest producer Hip-Hop has ever produced, born with an uncanny ability to elude time signature and construct drum patterns that disabused conventional standards, always with a touch of heaven layered between.

For years, his health had been waning, a shock to many fans who watched their hero persistently grow and prodigiously produce, even while trooping through the dark alleys of death-never once complaining or soliciting pity. News came that Friday evening, up on most Hip-Hop websites; his mother announced death by cardiac arrest, from pneumonic complications, brought on by the slow-killing fangs of Lupus.

Only with Dilla's death would most fans grow conscious of the causes (then still undetermined) and effects of Lupus, an autoimmune disease which, they learned, turns the body's defense system against itself, unable to determine between friend and foe, commonly causing kidney and heart disease. Like shell-shocked soldiers on battlefields, clear judgment is lost, and friendly fire is trained upon those fighting the same front. With Dilla, death seemed certain, for this disease, which claims nine women for every man, called his card with precision, rendering nearly futile all hopes of recovery. (Last approved cure: 40 years ago.) But to compensate, the gleeful gods bestowed upon his mother the honor during the last year of his life.

In 2002, Mrs. Yancey confirmed two years back, Dilla began noticing early signs of debilitation. And a hospital visit soon confirmed the worst-platelet count below 10 and a diagnosis of thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP), "a rare disorder that causes blood clots to form in the body's blood vessels."

Three years later, Dilla, unable to walk anymore, had taken up residence at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where two icons, Biggie and Eazy-E, had passed on a decade earlier. Death was paying a visit soon, and Dilla, fully aware, knew his lips didn't have to talk or his feet walk to produce a living testament that would confirm his greatness forever. So even with swollen hands and stiffened fingers, Dilla, on death's bed, punched out his MPC, chopping up crates of records spinning on the turntables transferred to his hospital room by friends and family. Through three seasons, Dilla worked tirelessly, eyeing death's closer leaps. And come February 7, 2006, incidentally his 32nd birthday, this testament, Donuts, was released on Stones Throw Records. Three days later, the knock of death rang, and Dilla answered.

"Dying ain't the shit but it's pleasant / kind of quiet," said a witty man who months later collapsed under the onrush of bullets spat out of a 9mm pistol at a mid-city Los Angeles traffic light. Dilla's death seemed more agreeable-an earned liberation from the torture of a demon with no certain cure. Donuts, for many fans, marked a paid debt, a contractual release from this world; for all fans, in the end, are as selfish and cannibalistic as hawks in search of prey: their very survival depends on detachment and indifference. An artist in time of health crisis cannot be too thrilled by the love and support fans shower down-the smart ones know all support rests on the condition great art would come of this experience: compensation duly paid once recovery is full. Great artists know, then, that pleading fatal health is an excuse too tepid for fans to accept, and should death occur untimely, an artist with an unfinished classic (e.g: The Shining) holds as much value as an empty fridge following a 12-hour work shift.

Dilla, a most brilliant mind, clearly deep in this wisdom, knew his legacy hung on the line if death came before Donuts was wrapped up. Consequently, the songs, 31 in all, hold for 1 minute and 4 seconds on average. Time (the donut of the heart) was crucial for Dilla-life time and track time. His mastery of time management on the MPC had crept into real time as the tick tock of life inched closer to the hour of death. No surprise that three days following Donuts' release, the hour was up.

Fans are cannibals, Dilla understood, and as a parting shot of humor he titled the first track "Donuts (Outro)," and the last, "Donuts (Intro)." The album cover speaks enough-eyes shadowed by a Detroit Tigers fitted hat, head cast downward: nothing visible but a beaming smile which, in a sense, stabs a golden steak through the heart of death. Dilla had the last laugh. The genius, again, outwitted us all!

D-I-L-L-A: The man, the myth
...Cause panic when I spit

The sounds, of course, do their maker justice-undoubtedly the most passionate album of 2006, and the most powerful instrumental album in Hip-Hop history. Chopped samples flow between genres like mighty rivers, with sharp transitions from one track to the next; Dilla, each step through, setting standards nearly impossible to attain. Brief sounds, vocals, raps are meticulously interspersed through the collection, with conceptual balance betraying the touch of a genius at work.

Today, Donuts is his most discussed work, and for good reason. His many accomplishments—with artists varied as Janet Jackson and Common, A Tribe Called Quest and Busta Rhymes, De La Soul and Frank-n-Dank, eLZhi and Erykah Badu, Bilal and Spacek, Biggie and Talib Kweli—all take backseats these days to that final offering.

And since passing, fans have made sure his memory lives on forever. Mixtapes and benefits, concerts and celebrations are annually hosted and held in Dilla’s honor. Murals and street posters hang ubiquitous in public sites nationwide. “Donuts are Forever” shows are mass-attended each year about this time, with shirts on the backs of fans reading in large capital letters: J DILLA CHANGED MY LIFE. Not bad for a global culture lacking physical institutions where the works of lost legends could be preserved for eternity.

Former friends have stepped up in big ways; so have some who never even knew or met him. Four posthumous releases, all affirming his brilliance, have been welcomed well by public consumption. It’s clear death has dealt Dilla a greater legacy than life did. Producer Phat Kat confirmed this much: many of his competitors “knew that he was the fucking best when he was here,” yet refused to acknowledge his greatness until news came that haunting February Friday that his heart had succumbed and pumped the last blast of oxygen. Then the perp walk began, peers far and near trolling to pay homage to a man many, if not most, had imitated endlessly.

They Say,
Legends aren’t legends til they pass away
Do you wonder why we have to wait
Til we bury they caskets or spreading they ashes
To be more than a half awake?

The tune picked up quick—he was inimitable, distinct, versatile, peerless, prolific; a perfectionist, an addict; always on search for new, eclectic sounds; he was Coltrane-esque, blew most of his competitors and even former mentors into obsolescence; and yes, grew darker, even dangerous, as he neared the deathly valleys. “Jay is like the only producer in Hip-Hop that has surpassed all of his influences,” said House Shoes, a producer and friend.

Black Thought of The Roots attested this much in the band’s powerful tribute, “Can’t Stop This,” featured last on their 2006 album, Game Theory. “My man, Jay Dee, was a true Hip-Hop artist,” he said. “I can't explain the influence that his mind and ear have had on my band, myself, and the careers of so many other artists. The most humble, modest, worthy, and gifted beat-maker I've known. And definitely the best producer on the mic. Never without that signature smile and head bouncing to the beat. Jay Dee had a passion for life and music, and will never be forgotten. … And although I'm happy he’s no longer in the pain he’d been recently feeling, I'm crushed by the pain of his absence.”

Dilla’s last tour (November 2005), held in Europe before emotional throngs of supporters, certified his passion. Rapping while confined to a wheelchair (Odetta sylte), with a voice frail as his failing heart, he passed through London, Norway, Finland, and Paris (“It’s a blessing to be out here right now, bringing you this celebration from the D. I’m like, Fuck it: I want to see my peoples…”), strong-willed as ever. “Music is my total existence,” Dilla announced on “Music For Life,” off producer Hi-Tek’s Hi-Teknology²: The Chip, released the year of his death. “Everything in my life revolves around music. It’s like you can’t get a relationship because I’m still with my first love which is music. You know what I’m saying?”

We do, Dilla. And rest assured your legacy is forever secure, come what may. We’ll never forget your revealing words a decade ago: “When I make my music, I want people to feel what I feel, that energy ... because I make it straight from the heart. So, it’s like, to be taking for anything else is crazy to me.”

Your heart gave out five years ago, but your music lives on. Rest in peace and keep shining, Dilla.

From a grateful fan.