The Blind Taste Tests have been ramping up recently, and with some successful suggestions in recent weeks. Fran got a lot out of Tom’s suggestion of Majical Cloudz, and Tom, in return, joined Fran’s cult of Eaves. Things were a little more mixed when it came Nick’s opinion of The Streets and Tom’s account of New York Pony Club, but we had perhaps our biggest Blind Taste Test so far when Sam listened to Phoebe Bridgers. Today, we’re going back to 2006 as Tom Burrows challenges James Spearing to listen to the legendary Donuts by J Dilla…
I know it’s a cliché to say this album sounds like no other, so I’ll try not to. Here goes…
Ok, Donuts is an instrumental hip-hop album largely constructed from samples. So in that sense, it is similar to two undisputed classics which I know you have time for: DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, and The Avalanches’ Since I Left You.
Except… it’s not really like those, because Donuts isn’t composed of formal songs nor is it a multi-genre concept album.
Donuts instead goes straight for the pleasure centre. There are 31 tracks here – but the album is only 43 minutes long. Doing away with traditional songs, Dilla focuses on the short passages which make songs great – a killer hook here, an outrageous transition there, an earworm of a phrase that sticks in your head. It’s the art of the advertising jingle (one for manufacturer Bendix is used on ‘Lightworks’), but without the ulterior motive. Rather, this was a labour of love; Dilla made this album as he battled a blood disease that he ultimately succumbed to – just three days after Donuts’ release.
What he left is basically an album that is all the best bits from the best songs, with none of the filler. And if that sounds too good to be true, that’s why it’s a classic – and why J Dilla is immortalised as one of the greats.
Well, Tom, you’ve made this sound bloody good, but you’ve left me with a problem. The most straightforward approach to these taste tests is to comment track by track. But with 31 of them and a lack of formal songs as you say, I’m not sure where to start.
Well, the beginning, obviously. Although it’s not so obvious to Mr Dilla. Before I click play, I notice that Track 1 is called ‘Outro’. Was this supposed to be prescient of his death? The beginning of the end? Difficult to read too much into it before I’ve even heard anything, so let’s get on with it.
And almost straight away I’m in familiar territory. I must have heard ‘Workinonit’ a thousand times before, without ever knowing what it was. And it’s nearly three minutes long so nothing out of the ordinary when it comes to duration either. It’s brilliant.
Like in ‘Workinonit’, the rest of the album is dotted with familiar sounds and samples. They’re not around long enough to be able to remember what they are or where you heard them before, but they last just long enough to evoke a feeling, a memory. All this means the album is doing exactly what you described – distilling down all the elements that make a song great into a little musical snippet. It seems more akin to a live DJ set than an album so far. And before I know it I’m on track seven without even realising.
As you would expect from hip-hop sampling, there’s plenty of old soul vocals and some looped beats and riffs. Gentle piano is less expected, and when you get the odd bit of rap I’m not sure if it’s sampled too, or something original laid down by J Dilla himself.
Where am I now? Track 12? 13? Who cares anymore. They seem pretty arbitrary, this could easily have been one unbroken piece of music, like LCD Soundsystem’s ’45:33′. There are distinctions between passages sure, but you’d be hard pressed to mark out where the tracks start and end if your chosen streaming service wasn’t doing it for you.
I’m at ‘Lightworks’, and I would never have known this was off an advert if you hadn’t told me. It could just as easily be taken from some early 60s pop or show tune.
The familiar samples keep popping up. The “ah yeah” on ‘One Eleven’ is killing me because I can’t place it. Is he using well known samples from elsewhere just to tease me? The urgent noises on ‘Geek Down’ are another example.
If I still had my iTunes library, ‘Gobstopper’ would be going straight on my “Summer/BBQ” playlist.
‘Walkinonit’ – I’ve finally nailed a sample guess! It’s Dionne Warwick right? [quick pause on Donuts while I listen to ‘Walk On By]. ‘Hi’ reminds me of The Herbaliser but no idea if I’m right on that one [quick pause on Donuts while I listen to ‘Sensual Woman”]. This album is sending my mind in all directions at once.
This album is great to listen to, but not great for this article – I couldn’t possibly do it justice. There’s plenty of immediacy, but at the same time it’s so dense and layered, I need to go away and listen 10 or 20 more times to try and get the most out of it. And that’s something I’ll definitely do. If that’s not the point of a Blind Taste Test then I don’t know what is.
Words by James Spearing