In the store | J DILLA'S DONUTS 33 1/3
33 1/3's book on J Dilla's Donuts will be released April 24, 2014. When we first heard about the book, the first reaction was pride that one of J Dilla's records would make it into a series that has honored classic albums from Paul's Boutique to The Velvet Underground & Nico. And the second reaction was, who the hell is writing this thing? Is he going to get in touch with the label that put out the record?
The author is Jordan Ferguson, and he did get in touch. He interviewed everyone he could who was associated with the album, and many of Dilla's colleagues from years before. The book is not just about Donuts – it covers his background, the music scene in Detroit, how he got into beat making, and the audience relationship with this final album he completed.
We didn't read a word of the book until it was in print, with no say or sway in what was written – exactly as it should be.
33 1/3 has kindly allowed us to post an excerpt from the book. The chapter "Workinonit" deals with the actual creation of the album and what was happening in Dilla's life in the months leading up to its release.
Everyone at Stones Throw agreed the music that
would end up on Donuts was exceptional (Jank remembered
thinking it was the best beat tape he'd ever heard),
but Egon had some reservations; he was more interested
in pursuing a follow-up to Champion Sound.
"If it wasn't for Chris, Donuts wouldn't have
happened because Chris said, 'We're making an instrumental
record around Jay Dee because that's all he can
do.' I was the first person to say 'That's ridiculous, you
need to get the next Jaylib record done because the Jaylib
record is the one that made him healthy during his first
bout with lupus.' And Chris is like, 'No, we're going to
do an instrumental record because it's all he can do, that's
what we're going to do.' Period, full stop."
There was one problem: Because it had originated as
a "beat tape" – short sketches of the kind producers would
use to shop their work to rappers and labels – the CD
Dilla had given them was only 22-minutes long.
"So the Donuts beat CD comes around and I really
remember it as being a mutual understanding that we
wanted to release this as a record … It's a little out of the
ordinary for a label to put out a whole record of beats,
some of which could potentially be profitable for the
producer later on, but we decide to wing it," said Jank.
"The only question is, how is this 22-minute CD
with some rugged transitions going to become a record?
Dilla wasn't saying he was going to turn it into an album
overnight, and Wolf and Egon weren't going to work on
it, I think because they were both a little afraid of making
a wrong turn and getting on Dilla's bad side."
Dilla's temper was no secret to those who knew him.
While not quick to anger, he didn't hesitate to voice his
opinion if he thought he'd been slighted: he let Wolf
have it over the Jaylib bootleg; he chewed Egon out for
inadvertently letting it slip to someone outside the circle
that he was hospitalized; he almost came to blows with
House Shoes over a crate of records, prompting him to
slide a diss into his verse on the Jaylib song "Strapped."
"If you was really fucking with Jay, it wasn't always
a bed of roses," said Shoes. "We'd be in the studio and
there'd be like some hoe-ass business shit going on that
he'd be upset about, and then somebody completely
unrelated to that would call and he would just go in on a
Even Ma Dukes could acknowledge her son was not
without his moments: "He got stronger, I guess from
the knocks of coming along in [the music industry],
and he became just outright belligerent at times. He
never backed down … we would get neck and neck
With Egon and Wolf not looking to press their luck,
there was one person left on the label side to act as
liaison and guide the project.
"I never had my chance to get on his bad side, so
I became the exec[utive] producer," said Jank. "The
process from [there] was, which other music to include to make it longer—without changing what we loved
about the original—and a process of editing, mastering,
and whatnot. This happened entirely when Dilla was at
There were business concerns as well. Stones Throw
was a small label, but they wanted to figure out a means
to ensure Dilla was properly compensated. So, in the
sort of move that could only fly somewhere like Stones
Throw, they worked out a deal where the label would
retain the product of Donuts the album as an asset, but
Dilla was still free to take the beats contained therein and
shop them to other artists.
"It was a very open-ended deal, you know," said Egon,
"it was meant to say … you're a working musician, we
will market a beat tape for you. You can sell the beats,
you can do whatever you want, and we're just going to
put this out, because we believe in you."
If anything, Donuts emerged as a sort of unanticipated
side project. The primary focus was The Shining, his
follow-up to Welcome 2 Detroit on BBE, most of which
was completed in 2004. Trying to chart an accurate
chronology for the music of that time is difficult at best;
when a man is known for building beats in 15 minutes,
and is consistently ahead of the curve, keeping it all
straight becomes nigh impossible. Jank remembered
going to meet Dilla once and having him hand over
a disc with seven new beats on it that would end up
comprising the last half of Donuts. Whether they were
newly created, or older works he thought fit the mood of
the album, is unclear.
"He was always concerned with getting out the beats
he'd made in 2002 and 2003 which still seemed new. Like that MED beat [2005's 'Push'], he probably made that
beat in 2001," said Egon.
Even though they weren't working on anything
official, the spiritual connection between Dilla and
Madlib continued as well. During one hospital visit, Jank
brought Dilla a copy of The Further Adventures of Lord
Quas, by Madlib's helium-voiced alter ego Quasimoto.
"He asked me on the spot if I'd do the cover for The
Shining, 'with some of this Quasimoto type shit.' So I
originally planned to have those two albums linked in
some way. I put Dilla on the cover of Further Adventures and drew a foldout that would match a foldout for The
Shining. But that ended up going into Donuts." Indeed,
when placed together, the interior art of both albums line
up to form two blocks of a slightly surreal Los Angeles,
from the crowds flowing out of "Dilla's Donuts," down
the street from the chain-smoking aardvark, Quasimoto
himself, checking out the Blaxploitation flicks being
shown at the Pussycat Theatre.
Jank recalled, "It's incredible to think about now, but
he had this crazy full-face mask at the hospital for some
procedure, and he wanted a photo of that on his album
cover [for The Shining]. I took a picture of it!"
It was a difficult time. Dilla's kidney function had
dropped significantly; dialysis became a regular part of
his life, three times a week. Long periods spent sedentary
in a hospital bed weakened his legs; he would get
around with a walker or cane, sometimes a wheelchair.
The diagnosis of lupus came just before his thirty-first
birthday in 2005. But he refused to be limited by his
condition. Dr. Aron Bick, Dilla's hematologist in L.A.,
told the Detroit Free Press, "He didn't want to be a professional patient. The treatment was difficult because
he would not want to go to the hospital. He was very
intelligent. He said, 'I hear you, doc. But here are my
decisions about my own life.'
"I admired that on a human level. He got the medical
care he needed. He really did not let his medical situation
handicap his life. To him, life came first. He made peace
with himself before we even knew it." "He really did not let his medical situation
handicap his life. To him, life came first. He made peace
with himself before we even knew it." – J Dilla's hematologist at Cedars-Sinai
When Madlib and photographer/filmmaker Brian
"B+" Cross offered him an invitation to tag along on
their trip to a film festival in Brazil, Dilla enthusiastically
accepted, even if it quickly became apparent his body
wasn't up for it.
"[H]e was just hype, 'Hell yeah, I wanna do it.' But we
didn't realize how sick he was," said Cross. "So we picked
him up from the house and I noticed when we took him
out to the car he looked kind of bent over a bit and he
looked very weak … [We realized] he was far too weak
to be traveling. He shouldn't have been traveling. Put his
life in danger basically."
Dilla made it through three days on the trip, seeing
the sights and digging for records before he had to be
flown back to L.A. on an ambulance flight to Cedars-Sinai. "His hand swelled up like—Madlib called it the
'Hulk hand'—his hand just swelled the fuck up. Like he
was really in pain and … he locked himself in the hotel
room," said Egon.
His sudden and unexpected return to L.A. derailed
another reason for the trip: Stones Thrown had asked B+
to snap some photos for the cover of Donuts. Back in the
hospital, and in his current condition, taking new photos
wasn't an option, and the label already went through what photos they had promoting Jaylib. So Jank reached
out to Andrew Gura, a Los Angeles-based video director
who had done the clip for MED's Dilla-produced song
"Push." In the long tradition of hip-hop videos but a rare
move for him, Dilla made a cameo appearance, so Jank
asked Gura if there were any stills from the shoot that
could be used. He sent back three, including one of Dilla
with his head in a downward tilt, laughing at a joke he
and MED cracked moments before, his face half-covered
by a Detroit Tigers fitted cap. It was a compromise to
circumstance, now considered by many to be an iconic
Stones Throw's mandate for the album is clear in the
rest of the cover's design: remind the public of who he
was. It uses both the "J Dilla" and "Jay Dee" monikers,
and (on early pressings) included a one-sentence rundown
of his notable collaborations, as well as quotes extolling
his greatness from the biggest hit makers of the time,
Pharrell Williams and Kanye West.
By October 2005, Donuts was ready for release, but
Stones Throw hit a roadblock in their supply chain.
Their distributor, EMI, didn't think a weird, difficult
instrumental album by an underground producer would
move the projected 10,000 copies.
"That wasn't just some loser at EMI, that was like
people that we respected, that believed in Stones Throw
… and they were like, 'It ain't gonna happen,'" said
Egon. "You know to be fair to them, Champion Sound had flopped … it had just absolutely and utterly flopped.
For a company like Stones Throw, that was next to
disastrous." Coming to an agreement with the distributor
pushed the album's release back to early 2006.
With the album finished, Dilla was already looking
to his next move, one few could have predicted. In early
December 2005 he boarded a plane and flew overseas
for a short series of European dates with Frank-n-Dank
and Phat Kat. His health had deteriorated so much he
had to travel confined to a wheelchair, but he refused to
allow a silly thing like standing prevent him from rocking
a crowd, performing songs from Welcome 2 Detroit and Champion Sound while in the chair. As reports and photos
began to circulate, the public received a rare glimpse at
the effects his illness had wrought.
"For somebody who was so concerned with keeping
his health kind of to himself, or keeping it a secret, I
was really surprised that he did that. It showed so much
character," said Wolf.
For Dilla, the trip to Europe was a chance, in some
ways, to close a circle, to see the world with friends old
and new (Ma Dukes, Rhettmatic of the Beat Junkies,
and Dave NewYork accompanied him on the trip) and
perform for crowds that had always supported him.
"It was like his farewell tour. It was postponed like
twice, and he was the one who wanted to do it," said Phat
Kat. "We did that because that's what Dilla wanted to do
… and in between, you know, days we had off, he'd go on
dialysis. I mean, this nigga was a fucking soldier. Still up
there every motherfuckin night, spittin. There wasn't no
night where he was like, 'Yo, I can't do this,' and even if
he had done that, motherfuckas would have understood
that. But this dude rocked every night. He was making
beats in the hotel room while we were over there."
Having come to an understanding with their
distributor, Donuts was set for release in early February,
2006. Stones Throw also pressed up a bonus for some
retailers, a seven-inch single of "Signs," a beat made at
the same time as the Donuts batches but never intended
for inclusion on the album. There was excitement to
finally see the project through to completion, but it was
tinged with melancholy.
Questlove swung through to visit in January 2006,
during Grammy week. Even he wasn't fully aware of just
how sharply Dilla's health had declined. "When I stepped into his house in California, I was totally unprepared for
what I saw. It was just Dilla and his mother, and it really
wasn't Dilla at all. In his place was a frail, eighty-pound
man in a wheelchair. He couldn't communicate at all. He
was mumbling and gesturing weakly … all I knew at the
time was what I saw, which was that he was dying."
J Dilla's Donuts 33 1/3 by Jordan Ferguson was published by Bloomsbury.