In the store | J Dilla’s Donuts 33 1/3
We didn’t read a word of Jordan Ferguson’s Donuts 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.
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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 motherfucker.”
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 sometimes.”
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 Cedars.”
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 image.
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.