J Dilla – Donuts

February’s been officially declared “Dilla Month”; a time to celebrate one of the most influential producers in hip-hop and ‘neo-soul’, James Yancey, who sadly died on February 10th, 2006, three days after his birthday. I thought this would be a good time to take a look at his album released at that time, Donuts.

Donuts was an important album for me. Although I wouldn’t fully understand who Dilla was until the release of Champion Sound, I always looked for music with the “Soulquarian” and “Ummah” names attached. I played Common’s Like Water For Chocolate and Badu’s Mama’s Gun endlessly. I remember picking up Slum Village’s Fantastic Vol. 2 and loving it. But I still didn’t know exactly who this Jay Dee guy was, back before I had music blogs to dig through and my only resource was Allmusic.com.

I was excited to get my copy of Donuts in the mail, finally getting a proper portrait of the man behind this music I had been connecting with for years. While listening to the album for the first time I jumped online only to find out that he had passed away that day. It was a surreal experience that made Donuts more than just a beat tape. Since then it has become one of those pivotal albums that changed my views on music and influenced my own art.

I had a few questions about the packaging for the album, so I went straight to the source, exchanging some emails with Jeff Jank, art director of Stones Throw Records. He shared some great insight with me along with the images to go along with this post. Here’s a summary of what he told me.

Donuts is the album Jeff Jank has been most involved with on the label, through inception, editing and mastering, as well as the work he is proudest of. The process started as he and others would visit Dilla in the medical center. At one point he brought the handmade work he had done for Madlib’s The Furhter Adventures of Lord Quas. Dilla was currently working on his album, The Shining, and asked Jeff if he could create some similar “bugged out” art for it.

Jeff had planned to do a panoramic illustration that followed the insert of The Further Adventures (shown above), along with Dilla’s idea of taking photos in the strange medical masks they had him wear at the center. Donuts (title inspired by Dilla’s obsession with junk food) came along and focus switched. At one point Jeff threw in the idea of placing the CD inside of a doughnut, having people eat their way to the music.

Soon after Dilla was out of the hospital, feeling better. He flew to Brazil with Madlib, Eric Coleman and Brian Cross from Mochilla, with plans to shoot some photos for the album. Unfortunately, he became too ill and had to fly back to Los Angeles. Stones Throw began to question the cartoon images they had planned for the cover and decided a photo was needed. This ended up being the image pulled from M.E.D’s “Push” (produced by Dilla) video, directed by Andrew Gura (below). The resolution of the image was too low to use for the vinyl release, which is why it features an alternative cover.

While the album was in production, Dilla was on tour in Europe and his health was wavering. Soon after the tour was finished, Jeff had visited Dilla in December ’05, during the time he was living with Common. He was excited for the release of Donuts and was playing tracks from The Shining. This would be one of the last times Jeff would see him.

Jeff Jank was never completely satisfied with using a low-res image for the cover, but it still lead to a few imitators. He mentioned that there were several, mostly tributes. I only know of a few. Not that it was an imitation, but Jeff also noted the similarities between Donuts and the cover of Common’s album Be, as it also used a low-resolution image of Common smiling which had to be cleaned up in Photoshop.

I personally feel the album, art and music, was an appropriate way to say goodbye to a great artist. Dilla’s posthumous releases The Shining, the re-issue of Ruff Draft and Jay Love Japan are all amazing albums, but Donuts is special. The cover has become an iconic image of Dilla in my mind and I’m sure for other people. I also can’t look at a pink iced doughnut without hearing his music in my head.

Thanks to Jeff Jank for the help. Thank you Jay Dee for the music!

J Dilla
J Dilla @ Wikipedia
Jeff Jank
Stones Throw
Andrew Gura

6 responses to “J Dilla – Donuts”

  1. theneedledrop says:

    A rousing tale!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Great story, thanks for this!

  3. monkeyman the musician says:

    Yo, lookin’ good, good read, man! ..turn it up!

  4. Magnus Mathisen says:

    Those sketches are dope.
    Nice post

  5. Anonymous says:

    great read

  6. pj occiano says:

    great post

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