In re: Jay Dilla (James Yancey), and his Donuts, I’ll offer a few entry points. As you surely suspected, this question has inspired an endless disquisition. Here’s the highlights;
– He did the music for that Common song “The Light” that we both love so much. Also, a bunch of other terrific songs, from pop to avante gard and in-between.
– He’s seen as a hip hop producer’s hip hop producer — not quite underground but faithful to it, and very much the connoisseur’s pick, a name to drop if you ever want to gain credibility with deep hip hop heads.
– And I think his music is three things fundamentally; psychedelic, postmodern, and utterly hip hop.
But it’s not for everyone, it could be it just doesn’t quite resonate. The music definitely flouts a lot of expectations, and seems to fulfill others — some good and some bad (whatever those categories may mean!). I’m probably about to fall into a classic music geek (or snob) conundrum here — the claim that “Actually [difficult, obscure, possibly overrated music] is great, it’s much better than it sounds“, but here I go anyway.
J Dilla’s music, like all sample-based music, is allusive, and a big part of his virtuosity is his command of his materials — not just the sampler and turntables, but the vast sonic fund he draws from which, as you can hear, is immense. Wolfman Jack to decades-old advertisements, live on-stage patter, records no one’s ever heard of, terrible crap and undisputed classics.
I’d call that postmodern. I don’t even really know what postmodern is or does, but my sense is that (in part) it’s a way of seeing the entirety of culture as up for grabs, scrambling ideas about “high” art and “low”, and it favors subjectivity over grand narratives and canons. I don’t really know, but that’s my guess. Not quite “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”, but definitely a perspective that proceeds on the idea that culture is never innocent or ahistorical, so we don’t really need to revere it the way we’re told. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, e.e. cummings, Lily Tomlin, Victoria Woodhull, Gil Scott-Heron, and John Lennon would, I think, agree.
And the subjectivity can be radical, in a more-familiar, modernist way. In a lot of ways, it takes its cues from Joyce, Woolf, Picasso, Hannah Hoch, Burroughs, and Warhol. When I listen to Dilla, I am always hearing other voices, other rooms, a sonic cut-up technique narrating his stream of consciousness.
For me, listening to Dilla is like walking through Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall; a thousand reflective surfaces, miles of the latest styles, box-fresh gear, athletic shoes for infants, wig set on a thousand sightless and serene styrofoam busts , stores stocked with BEEPERS GOLD FRONTS SNEAKERS PERFUME, astounding headgear, Black history books on a card table next to essential oils.
And wildly dense with sound — slick talk, hollers, fragmentary music, laughter, chatter, come-ons, sermons, bus brakes, oldies, chart-climbers and underground joints.
Just above it, floating at the second stories, is the story of what came before; the incised stonework, painted advertisements, traces of the swooping letters once affixed to facades, gilt-lettered windows for since-departed law offices, notaries public, fortune tellers, department stores, beauty parlors. Off the glittering, encrusted main drag, the parallel streets play counterpoint with buttons, notions, fish and fabric. There’s layers happening; edifices, residues, history, a lot of different times happening, all the time.
Dilla’s songs incorporate all that, and I think that puts him within a lineage that takes in “Revolution #9”, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Buchanan & Goodman, Jamaican “versioning“, and the ancient folk music practice of taking music and embellishing it with one’s own contributions (Eric Lott’s major book on minstrelsy is titled Love & Theft a title Bob Dylan later used for one of his own records).
If earlier sample-based hip hop musicians were, basically, taking you on a tour through their parents’ record collections, Dilla is taking you on a tour of his entire mind.
That’s one way, I think, that the music is psychedelic. It’s headphone music, but also, as they used to say, head music. It definitely rewards close listening on a good pair of headphones but, I suspect, especially while one’s head is itself in an altered state (truth — I’ve never tried it!). Basically, Donuts is surely a great record to listen to stoned. I assume the drifting vocals, woozily un-synced beats, and out-of-phase passages gain a lot of richness that way.
And it’s hip hop, in sensibility, in trope, in standards of achievement (its aims, its proof of concept, or whatever). In its very modality (a word you hipped me to), Donuts is ineluctably hip hop music. Hip hop’s overall aesthetic — definition, traditions, formal properties and formal problems, etc. — is a much larger discussion. But, for what it’s worth, while the work (songs?) may feel loose, unfocused, and irreverent, Dilla’s tunes are uncompromising in their allegiance to form.
Most “turntablism”, or purely sample-based hip hop music, is leavened (or leadened, depending on your perspective) by heavy doses of juvenelia. It is, after all, a form primarily created by young men in their bedrooms and basements, often in isolation, manipulating artifacts of commercial mass media. And the form usually resists the customs of song structure; it forgoes bridges, choruses, codas, reprises, narrative arc, and, of course, lyrics. None of this makes the music easy listening!
One last detail, to bring it down to Earth again; a lot of the compositions on the record were first used, in whole or in part, on other records. So, in a way, for all its revered status, Donuts is in significant part a beat tape, the kind of musical calling card a DJ/producer might create as a “sample of wares”, just to show what s/he can do. The record was a labor of deep love for sure (Yancey died, of a rare blood disorder, three days after its release), but it was also, in some ways, a practical creation. Like Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay”, it’s a tremendous work, but it only hints at what he might have done later on in life.
OK, that’s it. Talk to you tonight!