Apologies in advance for choosing Valentine’s Day to drop a downer, but so be it. Rap producer J Dilla, aka Jay Dee, born James Yancey, had an intrinsically old-school touch, an early-hip-hop manner that prized switching up verses and laying down dusty vinyl for the sheer beauty of its surface tension, and he leant his scratchy powers to work by A Tribe Called Quest, Slum Village, Common, De La Soul and others. Dilla, who was born and raised in Detroit, passed away last Friday, February 10, just three days after his 32nd birthday, a day that also saw the release of his solo instrumental album, Donuts, by the Stones Throw label. One of the album’s best tracks, “Airworks,” is available as a free download from Stones Throw, and it sums up what’s great about Donuts, especially how it compresses 1970s soul into rusty kernels of riffs.
Donuts has many things to its credit, but what makes it a particularly great album of instrumental hip-hop (call it i-hop) is how it emphasizes vocal samples as part of the greater fabric. Even listeners with a fondness for studio-as-instrument composition often (mistakenly, I might add) find instrumental hip-hop lacking, and Donuts‘s bits of human voice make its music all the more palatable for a broader audience. Dilla also had a sly sense of humor, one grounded in music, bringing to mind a less showy Jazzy Jeff. In the age of the mash-up, anyone can sound like a street-reared P.D.Q. Bach, but Dilla really had the goods. Juxtaposition was just one of his many tricks.
As for “Airworks” (MP3), it’s a carefully edited succession of soul nuggets, reduced to their essence, a crooner’s voice cut to a mere syllable following a skipping opening that emphasizes the fragility of the source material. And when Dilla lays an echo on heavy, it’s just to emphasize how the period hits he’s borrowing from sound in our memories, a realm where he’s now a permanent resident. More info at stonesthrow.com/jdilla.