J Dilla, 'Donuts'

The Clash Essential 50, in a nutshell: the 50 greatest, most significant, downright brilliant albums of Clash’s lifetime. We need them, which means you, too, most probably need them.

Why? Clash celebrates its fifth birthday in April. It’s not an anniversary to make too much of a fuss about – we’ll save that for our tenth, thank you very much – but worth marking all the same. And what better way to look forward to the next few years of Clash than a look back at some of our ‘greatest hits’.

The Clash Essential 50 was compiled by the core Clash editorial team – should you disagree with any of our selections, which will be counted down throughout April, you know where to go to have your own opinion heard.

For the top ten, we’re focusing on one album at a time – the best of the best needs its own space. Catch up with numbers 50 to 11 via the links below…


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J Dilla, ‘Donuts’
(2006; Stones Throw)

Though he died of the blood disease TTP only three days after the release of this album, J Dilla’s reputation was solidified by ‘Donuts’: a production maverick with a meticulous ear for the smallest instrumental detail, the man’s legacy remains strong today as a result of the accolades this record attracted, from the hip-hop world and far, far beyond.

Born James Dewitt Yancey in ’74 and based in Detroit (and also known by the Jay Dee moniker), Dilla’s pre-‘Donuts’ work saw him collaborate with a wealth of well-known talents, including Janet Jackson, Busta Rhymes and Q-Tip, albeit without too much recognition beyond his closest circle of friends and peers. He tasted success as an artist in his own right when Slum Village – in which he acted as both producer and emcee – began to cause a stir, ultimately reaching a commercial peak with the release of ‘Fantastic, Vol 2’ in 2000. The album opened many an ear to Dilla’s singular talents, which were presented exclusively to the fore a year later with ‘Welcome 2 Detroit’, his debut solo album.

Following a collaborative release with Madlib under the Jaylib banner, namely ‘Champion Sounds’ (2003), Dilla began to craft ‘Donuts’, the album that would be both his parting gift to a ever-growing (to this day) fanbase and the array of artists who sought to utilise his talents on their own releases; indeed, a number of ‘Donuts’ tracks, all of which are instrumental (all vocals are samples) have been used on songs by other rappers, such as MF DOOM and Ghostface Killah. He worked on the record while in hospital, where he was regularly visited by his mother; she saw ‘Donuts’ slowly come together, and has often spoken to journalists about the experience. “He tried to go over each beat and make sure that it was something different and make sure that there was nothing that he wanted to change,” she told The Fader at the end of 2006, and one listen to the finished product reveals that Dilla did indeed craft something unique on each and every one of these 31 tracks.

DOOM told Clash of Dilla’s personality, how he could light up a room, in a recent interview: “He was a good dude, and I’m sure he touched everyone hard. He was the friendliest guy I ever met, always with a smile on his face.” He also told us about just how unprecedented ‘Donuts’ was in the hip-hop community: “If you listen to ‘Donuts’, that as an instrumental piece is bonkers. I mean, the arrangements and slight nuances that separate it from a collection of four-bar loops… There are certain things that needed to be done by hand. That record is like a conversation piece.”

The way the album alternates its tone does indeed play out like something of a conversation between two completely different producers – slick, R’n’B grooves butt heads with deep, dark beats that creep from the shadows and threaten to choke you… until, again, brilliant light beams through the murk and, suddenly, ‘Donuts’ becomes the greatest disco record that never was. Kept under wraps until it was absolutely ready – Dilla’s mother caught snippets, but her son was said to be angry at her for hearing his work in progress – this album glistens with a perfect completeness that means, whatever the moment, it has a soundtrack for it, somewhere amongst its assortment of fantastically imaginative arrangements.

Some of the track titles seem to allude to Dilla’s knowledge that he would soon die from his illness(es) – ‘Bye’ sits third from the end, and ‘Don’t Cry’ is a beautiful mid-section breather from the hyperactive beats around it – and there’s a definite sadness present when you listen between the lines, to the shifts of tone from boisterous fare to a more introspective feel. But ‘Donuts’, as a whole, should be regarded as a celebratory piece of work, the stunning climax of one of hip-hop’s most naturally gifted musicians' too-brief career, and life.

It’s yet to get old, and one can honestly say it probably never will.

J Dilla – ‘Don’t Cry’ (audio only)

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The Clash Essential 50 so far…

50: The Killers, ‘Hot Fuss’
49: Kasabian, ‘Kasabian’
48: Deerhunter, ‘Microcastle’
47: Bat For Lashes, ‘Fur and Gold’
46: Vampire Weekend, ‘Vampire Weekend’
45: MGMT, ‘Oracular Spectacular’
44: Portishead, ‘Third’
43: Elbow, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’
42: Amy Winehouse, ‘Back To Black’
41: Santigold, ‘Santigold’
40: Late Of The Pier, ‘Fantasy Black Channel’
39: Sigur Rós, ‘Takk…’
38: Efterklang, ‘Parades’
37: Liars, ‘Drum’s Not Dead’
36: The White Stripes, ‘Get Behind Me Satan’
35: Hot Chip, ‘The Warning’
34: Fleet Foxes, ‘Fleet Foxes’
33: Benga, ‘Diary Of An Afro Warrior’
32: Feist, ‘The Reminder’
31: Broadcast, ‘Tender Buttons’
30: Battles, ‘Mirrored’
29: Klaxons, ‘Myths Of The Near Future’
28: Tunng, ‘Mother’s Daughter And Other Songs’
27: The Libertines, ‘The Libertines’
26: Kanye West, ‘The College Dropout’
25: Apparat, ‘Walls’
24: Burial, ‘Burial’
23: Gallows, ‘Orchestra Of Wolves’
22: Caribou, ‘The Milk Of Human Kindness’
21: Broken Social Scene, ‘Broken Social Scene’
20: Sufjan Stevens, ‘Illinois’
19: Soulwax, ‘Nite Versions’
18: The Bug, ‘London Zoo’
17: Brian Wilson, ‘SMiLE’
16: Isolée, ‘We Are Monster’
15: My Morning Jacket, ‘Z’
14: Franz Ferdinand, ‘Franz Ferdinand’
13: Joanna Newsom, ‘Ys’
12: Modeselektor, ‘Hello Mom!’
11: Bloc Party, ‘Silent Alarm’
10: Animal Collective, 'Merriweather Post Pavilion'
9: J Dilla, ‘Donuts’

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