It’s sometimes worrying when a thoroughly modern album is approached as part of the 33 1/3 series. Maybe we’re more sympathetic with the passing of time, ready and open for nostalgia and of course, more simply, there’s more weight attached with the wait, the passing of time lends credence to a work – whether justified or not in fact.
But the volume dedicated to J Dilla’s Donuts by freelance culture writer Jordan Ferguson is among the very best in the series. Not only did it reintroduce me to the record – it’s never that far from the stereo, but I certainly felt this book helped me get back inside it – there’s some shrewd analysis here. It’s with deft skill that Ferguson manages to weave the various vestiges of the Dilla/Donuts story – so this isn’t just about an instrumental masterpiece, this isn’t just about an album as death letter, this isn’t just about taking hip-hop seriously, this isn’t just about dissecting the album as something more than hip-hop; something beyond…this is all of that and then also an understanding of the actual sound, of the reasons, the choices, the selection, the “weirdness” of this sonic road-trip. It’s the end-point of a decade long career as a beatmaker and Ferguson understands that context but finds room to update anyone new to the Dilla story with the long road out of the bedroom via Amp Fiddler and The Pharcyde and eventually to Madlib collaborations and Peanut Butter Wolf’s Stones Throw label. And then from there to his position now – bittersweet, forever tinged with sadness – as a gone-too-soon shining light in the development of hip-hop as high art.
Ferguson uses key moments – the breakthrough that was Little Brother, the mainstream moments such as working with Janet Jackson – to paint a picture of a constantly curious and confidant beatmaker. This is the story, after all, of a set of offcuts made into the star attraction, of an album that in anyone else’s hands might have remained an afterthought, the recorded-music version of a DVD’s special features or Easter egg. But the hands that shaped this album and the mind that made this album belonged to James Yancey aka Jay Dee, J Dilla. And his story – and the separate but related story of the album Donuts is told in fitting tribute here.
There’s so much in this slim volume. But that’s in line of course with the album Donuts. That’s, in a sense, to be expected. The perfect tribute.