The first time I ever heard somebody reference J Dilla was the night of Christmas 2006. I was a freshman in college and an aunt bought me Game Theory by The Roots. I immediately became obsessed with the album and the name Dilla became ingrained in my mind, especially with the closing track “Can’t Stop This,” which served as a tribute to the iconic producer who died earlier that year. As a kid who was only familiar with Top 40 hip-hop, I had no idea who J Dilla was, but I knew by the end of that first listen that he was somebody special. In a month defined by celebrations of love, presidents and Black History, February is also the month of J Dilla. It was the month he was born, the month he died, and it was the month he released one of most iconic albums in hip-hop history, Donuts.
The entire album flows so effortlessly track to track and is constructed in a way that is meant to be listened to all at once as opposed to be broken down in tiny segments. However, if I had to choose one, my favorite track is “Last Donut of the Night,” available on Spotify, Apple Music, and Soundcloud.
The song clocks in at about a minute and 40 seconds, but it packs a tight groove that could run forever with no complaints. Dilla takes a soothing string line along with a light guitar lick from a sample of “To You With Love” by 60s R&B Group The Moments and is able to manipulate it into a recurring line that serves as the backbone of the song. The waves of this sample become dual purposed, almost feeling percussive as a line of syncopation. He takes some of the vocals from the same song and intersperses them with a sample from a live recording of Gene Chandler’s “Rainbow,” utilizing scratches here and there that result in what feels like a perfect sendoff for the album even though it’s not the last song on the album.
For albums that are predominantly instrumental, any use of vocals will feel significant and “Last Donut of the Night” is no exception. Dilla takes part of the vocal line from “To You With Love” that comes off as “what I give to you,” and then right when you feel a climax is beginning to take form, the song stops abruptly. It may feel innocuous without context, but J Dilla died days after the release of this album, having been battling a rare blood disease and lupus. In hindsight, the track almost feels prophetic as if he knew his days were numbered.
From his early days as Jay Dee producing tracks for Tribe and Pharcyde to his solo career, J Dilla led an amazing career and “Last Donut of the Night” may very well be his coup de grâce.
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