J Dilla - Donuts

Interview by: Martin Bauman

I’m going to make a broad assumption and guess that if you’re reading this, you probably know who J Dilla is. For that reason, I’ll skip the introduction. For a better idea of Dilla’s magnitude, let’s just say this: there aren’t a lot of people walking around with t-shirts that say “Swizz Beatz changed my life.” For that level of respect, it takes a special kind of producer. Last year, word started spreading that Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 book series would be releasing a volume on Dilla’s iconic album, Donuts. As can be expected, questions from skeptical hip-hop heads followed: who the hell is Jordan Ferguson? What gives him the authority to tell Jay Dee’s story? Seeking to answer these questions, we caught up with the Canadian author to talk in-depth about the book, his upbringing in the shadow of Detroit, and of course, all things Dilla. Read the interview below.

TCUS: What was your introduction to J Dilla’s music?

Jordan Ferguson: It’s weird. I always say Dilla is what brought me back to hip-hop – repeatedly. As a kid, I fell in love with hip-hop on the playground. A kid was playing the Raising Hell tapes on a boombox, and I was just enthralled with it. On top of that, I grew up in a little town called Amherstburg, Ontario, which is about 30 kilometres south of Windsor, but across the river from Metro Detroit, so all of the media that we consumed came from Detroit. [I was] hearing this music on the radio and seeing the videos on MuchMusic, and [I] was able to dive full force into this music that just fascinated me.

I got kinda surly when I hit my teenage years and didn’t like the fact that all the kids who made fun of me for listening to [hip-hop] as a kid were now singing Snoop Dogg lyrics on the bus. [Laughs] It really irritated me, so I kinda put hip-hop down for a while. Then one day I heard “Runnin” by the Pharcyde, and it had the exact same effect on me as hearing “Peter Piper” by RUN-D.M.C did. It was the first rap CD I bought in years, and I put it on, and I was happy to find [that it was good] – you know, this was back in the days when you couldn’t really preview things; you bought it for the song you liked and just had to hope for the best. There were like five or six other bangers on [that] album.

I started reading the liner notes – because I was that guy – and started seeing [that] the same guy did every song I liked on the album: this guy Jay Dee. That was the first time I ever saw his name. I didn’t fall fully back into hip-hop at that point, but every time something connected with me again, it was always one of his songs.

TCUS: Being from the Windsor area, at the time, did you even recognize he was a Detroit guy?

Ferguson: No, I had no idea. I didn’t know Slum Village; I didn’t know any of that. I think I kind of knew he was this guy who hooked up with Q-Tip, and he was doing work on the Tribe albums, but even then, at the time, I didn’t really know how production worked. You know, I assumed that the deejay always did the music, so I would hear a Tribe record and just assume Ali [Shaheed Muhammad] did every beat. I had no idea Q-Tip was doing the production. But I would hear “Breathe & Stop” by Q-Tip, or “The Light” [by Common], or “Dynamite” by The Roots, and I would just keep seeing [Dilla’s] name pop up. Every hip-hop song that seemed to get through to me again was always [produced by him]. He was always kind of the thing that brought me back to it.

Whenever I did tune into one of his songs – I’m an amateur drummer myself, so I like beats and the way [they] sound, and I think most drummers have within themselves these beats that they want to hear – he just always seemed to have a way of taking sounds and beats that I didn’t even know I wanted to hear and making incredible music with it. And that’s just on the drum side of things; that’s not even taking into account his bass lines, or his keys, or his sample flips, or anything like that. He was always able to connect with me, even when I wasn’t paying attention, and that was kind of the start of my appreciation for his music.

TCUS: You mentioned growing up in Amherstburg earlier. It’s a really unique place of growing up, because you have such an influx of American radio stations and media in general. Having grown up there, how significant was Detroit’s hip-hop scene to you?

Ferguson: Oh man… You know, they say that as writers, everyone has that one story that only they can tell. I’m still trying to figure out a way to tell the story of what growing up there was like. [Laughs] I’m really happy you asked that question actually, because I love talking about it, because it was such a weird experience.

The image I try to give people [is this]: imagine you’re at a friend’s house, and there’s a cornfield and a tractor, but you’re hearing Cybotron on the radio. It’s that sort of juxtaposition of what the reality around you is, and these mind-boggling sounds you’re hearing on the radio. At the time, I didn’t know I was listening to The Electrifying Mojo, or The Wizard, or that I was hearing this groundbreaking sort of techno, ghetto-tech, whatever you want to call it – the Kevin Saunderson/Derrick May school of techno. Even on top of that, [there was] the hip-hop. MC Breed was the first one from the area who really connected with me, and really kind of the first one who broke on that level.

It didn’t really connect with everyone the way it connected with me, but the joke that we have down there is that Ontario stops at London, because you’re so Americanized [in Southern Ontario]: you know everything about American politics, but you don’t know anything about Canadian politics. I heard one arts activist recently say that he was asking Detroiters how many times they even think about Windsor, and it’s such a weird question for them, but for us, we’re bombarded with Detroit; it’s always at the forefront of what we’re thinking about. [Laughs] I still think in Fahrenheit, you know? It bombards us, and it gives us a different kind of outlook – I just haven’t put my finger on exactly what that outlook is. It’s a little country-ish, but urban at the same time.

On the music side of things, I cherish the time that I had growing up down there, because if you wanted to find [something], you could, and that wasn’t true for everywhere. If I had grown up in Saskatchewan and all I had was MuchMusic, that would have still been really good in the eighties and nineties, but I wouldn’t have nearly as much access as I had listening to the Friday night mix shows on WJLB and things like that.

TCUS: That’s funny, I was just going to ask you whether you were listening to WJLB and 105.9FM.

Ferguson: Oh yeah, of course! I think 93.1FM was the other one; I don’t remember the call letters. I think that’s where Mojo started. You would hear George Clinton and things like that, and music that you would hear [sampled] again in rap music. I’d hear [Funkadelic’s] “Knee Deep” on some throwback show on one of the Detroit radio stations, and not even realize that’s where [all these samples came from]. That’s where I got my first clue into what sampling was, because I would love these rap songs and then hear the originals on these throwback shows on Detroit radio. That was a momentous moment for me, being an 11-year-old listening to the radio. I was an only child too, so I spent a lot of time making tapes off the radio [laughs].

TCUS: Bringing it back to J Dilla, what are some of his songs that have reintroduced you to older music thanks to sampling?

Ferguson: I mean, it took the Internet for me to really kind of dive into that, and that was mind-blowing again in itself. Now we have WhoSampled. It sounds weird to be the old man shaking his fist at the kids, like, “oh, you kids with your WhoSampled now, it’s so easy!” When I first got online, we had Encyclopedia Breakanica or something; it was like thebreaks.com and was all text-based. You had to have the song in your head and search it that way, and even then, you wouldn’t be able to hear it; you had to find it through file sharing or whatever.

I think the first [song] that really floored me was De La’s “Stakes Is High,” because that flip comes so deep in the song. It’s like a ten-minute Ahmad Jamal song, and [Dilla] took this four-chord phrase near the eight-minute point. You know, I would hear this about Dilla later, that he would go out and buy records, and he was really meticulous and clean, so he would put on records and have them play while he was cleaning. He’d have [this music] in the back of his head while he was organizing, or putting records in their sleeves or whatever, and if he heard something he liked, then that’s when he would go and make a note of it – normally in his head. Premier is like that too; when you can pick something so deep in a song, that’s really impressive to me: that you’ve put in that kind of work; you’re not just doing needle drops or checking the first four bars to see if there’s a drum loop you can lift.

Not only that, but when that phrase starts in the Ahmad Jamal song, Dilla picked the best version of that phrase. He does it seven or eight times I think, but when you listen to it, the one [Dilla] picks has that little something extra on it. It’s hard to explain. It gives that added sense of drama to the song for me. So that one’s really amazing.

And [Dilla] took these really narrow snippets, like if you listen to “What Up” by Busta [Rhymes], you think it’s this insane electro [beat] – there’s just all these bleeps and bloops, and the hardest drums you’ve ever heard – but it’s a collaboration between this French musician and this rock band [called] Psyché Rock. He just took like three bleeps from it and made one of the hardest-hitting songs I’ve ever heard. He has this way of finding the best thing to lift and [making] something fantastic with it, which, when I first started to think about Donuts, that was the question I started turning over in my mind. This was a guy who could zero in on the best part [of a song] and make something beautiful or head-cracking with it, so why did he make something as weird-sounding as Donuts is? Because it’s a really weird-sounding record compared to everything else he’s done.

TCUS: Yeah, and not even something that’s necessarily clean or polished. It’s very rough and lo-fi.

Ferguson: Oh, and deliberately. He could have taken every record he used to make Donuts and made something that sounded incredible, but completely different. Like, you listen to “Airworks”: how does your brain even think to chop a vocal sample like that and make a completely different rhythm out of it? It’s a soul ballad. He could have made something much more contemporary for the time, you know? It’s the type of thing that Just Blaze or Kanye would have taken and flipped, but [Dilla] just put it in a blender and made something totally his own and unique, and that’s what I always appreciated about him.

TCUS: When you were doing all of the research for this book, who did you speak to?

Ferguson: I [came to the conclusion] early on that I had to realize what the project was. This was never meant to be the be-all, end-all, definitive biography of J Dilla. That’s not what this is; that’s for someone else to write, and I really hope they do, [because] I want to read that book. [That said], I did feel like I had to touch on his life a little bit. If you’re commenting on this work he made at the end of his life, you do need to touch on everything that came before it and hit the major bullet points. It’s a hard record to write about in that sense, because he really kind of did it on his own.

There’s been some rumour and speculation about [when he produced the music], but the people I talked to at Stones Throw, like Egon or Jeff Jank, they gave me the impression that essentially, the beats were already made before he had this long stay at Cedars Sinai in 2005. The record was done a lot earlier than when it came out. There were some hiccups as far as getting it released, but it was probably ready to be released even before he went on that last European tour – the one that everyone remembers as him being onstage in a wheelchair. I’m pretty sure the record was done before then, but there were some hiccups as far as coming to an agreement with the distributor. But the sense I always got was that he was editing in the hospital – doing the engineering and the early mixes himself – and the beats were already done.

Because [I couldn’t] really go to studio staff or people that were around during the creation of the album – it was basically [just him] – I realized I had to go outside a little bit. I spoke with Jay Hodgson, who’s an incredible guy. He’s a professor at the University of Western Ontario. He wrote a book called Understanding Records, and he’s also a professional sound engineer. He [probably] talked to me for two hours, just so I could make sense of myself about [Donuts] from a technical aspect. I know I listen to Donuts and it sounds great, but I don’t really know how to express that; I don’t know what exactly [Dilla’s] doing that makes it sound great.

I would ask [Jay Hodgson] a question about how you make dusty drums from a sample as big and as full as he would make them sound on Donuts, and he was really good at explaining to me how that process works. He also loves Donuts, which I was surprised about. He knew everything I was referring to, and he said – and I quote it in the book – “it’s not unique for someone to do what [Dilla] did; it’s exceptional for someone to do it as well as he did,” as far as these themes [and] producing sounds as human as he was able to do – especially in the [condition] he was in when he was doing it.

As far as who else I spoke to, I spoke to Ronnie Reese, who wrote about Dilla a lot and has worked wih the family. I will say, the one I’m sure people are wondering [about], I did not manage to speak to Ma Dukes. I did attempt it, [but] it didn’t work out, [and] I don’t fault anyone for that. I’m sure the amount of requests they get for various things is monumental, and I mean, this was my first project, [so] I had no real resume to flaunt. They would’ve had no way of [separating] the serious from the not, so I don’t fault that. Fortunately, Ma Dukes has been very prolific in the interviews that she’s given, so there’s still a lot of insight to be found in the archives when you go back and look.

TCUS: Being that, as you mentioned, this was your first project, how do you feel you were received by the guys at Stones Throw? You know, to think about someone from Canada writing a book on J Dilla and his legacy, were they apprehensive about that?

Ferguson: I mean, I knew that going in, and I always tried to be very conscious and respectful of that, essentially, a) being an outsider, and b) being a first time writer. [It’s not that] I have no background in writing, but this was the first significant project that I had ever worked on. I think because of that, people came to me first. I didn’t really have to hunt anybody down; Jeff and Egon both came to me on their own. I think when the announcement came out that 33 1/3 was doing this book – music fans know the series, and there’s a certain cultural capital behind it – so they probably came to me because of that. [Laughs] I think they probably wanted to get out in front of it a little bit, like, “let’s touch base with this guy before he screws it up too bad.” But it made my job easier; both of those guys were amazing. Egon probably talked to me for three hours on multiple occasions, and the same thing with Jeff.

The reaction has been pretty good, across the board. I don’t expect everyone to love it, but I wanted to do right by [Dilla] in the eyes of the people who knew him, and the people who were there. So when House Shoes sends me a tweet that says he thinks the book is fantastic, what else do I really need, you know?

Egon sent me a very nice note; I’ve heard from Brian “B+” Cross as well, [and] he enjoyed it; Jeff Jank, being Jeff Jank, sent me a note of relief almost, like, “honestly, I thought it was gonna suck, but it didn’t” [laughs]. So things like that [mean a lot]. I don’t expect everyone to like it, but [for] the people who knew him and were there, and watched their friend succumb to this terrible illness, if they can read this book and think that I did right by him, then what more do I really need? It’s all the gratification that I really require.

TCUS: What was the most interesting thing you learned about J Dilla from writing this book?

Ferguson: I guess just that… I always had a sense of how dedicated he was, but it was to an inhuman degree. Malcolm Gladwell has that theory that to really excel at anything, you have to devote 10,000 hours to it. Dilla went far beyond that. Music was his everything. That’s what he loved doing, and to him, there was nothing else. Ma Dukes tells stories about finding out he did some interview or he was in some magazine from neighbours, you know? The neighbours would say, “oh, I saw your son in so-and-so magazine,” and she would call up Dilla, and he’d be like, “oh, yeah, sorry, it’s just this magazine that interviewed me.” It wasn’t his concern, because it was always on “what’s the next beat gonna be? How am I gonna top myself?” And that’s the sort of thing he said he got from Pete Rock and Premier and guys like that; he would call them, and they would always be in the studio. He knew early on that if he was not in the studio, someone else was, and if he was going to stay on top and be as good as he knew he could be, [then he needed to be dedicated].

Even as his health started to decline, I think that [part] has become sort of mythology surrounding the end of his life, and the making of Donuts and The Shining, and things like that, and I think it gets taken for granted a little bit. This guy went on this European tour, a) he’s performing, b) he’s going on dialysis in Europe on his off days, and then that night, he’s in the hotel room, messing around with a portable setup [and] making beats. Like, he was a machine. I had a friend who, early in the process, was like my research assistant, and when I would get overwhelmed by [everything], like, “oh my God, this is my first project, and it’s so important; it matters so much to people; I don’t know what I’m going to do,” we had this acronym, WWJDD: What Would Jay Dee Do? He’d be in the basement, making beats.

Madlib once said, after meeting Dilla and seeing what he went through, he doesn’t listen to anyone complain anymore. The thing I learned about him, and then also tried to incorporate into my own inspiration I found from him, is just that level of dedication and that focus. His level of focus was unlike anything I’ve encountered from any other artist. I mean, this was a guy who they say would hear a record and take the headphones off, and the beat was basically already done in his head. House Shoes once said, most things we’ve heard and love, [Dilla] made in like 10-15 minutes. That’s ridiculous.

TCUS: Speaking of the fact that Donuts was made towards the end of Dilla’s life, one thing you mention in the book is how you can look at the album as being part of the “late style” musical tradition. How do you think that impacts the music?

Ferguson: The thing about “late style” that I discovered is no one can really agree what it is, they just kind of agree it’s a thing. It was first put forth by this German philosopher Theodor Adorno, and he was writing about Beethoven. He was talking about how when you look at Beethoven’s last works, those last piano pieces he wrote, and even the 9th Symphony – written after he started losing his hearing – they are far different from everything before.

A book came out – eerily enough, the same year Donuts was released – by this scholar Edward Said called On Late Style, and he really wanted to take this idea that Adorno had and start applying it to other places, and that’s kind of really where it picked up steam, as scholars either agreed with or took issue with this idea. Some writers think it’s less a “late style,” because for a lot of people, you don’t really know when your time is coming, and [so scholars are] applying [the term] after the fact. Some writers think it has more to do with disability, which certainly would have been true in Dilla’s case; when you’re living with a sort of non-normative physical condition, then that impacts your work.

What I noticed is a lot of the adjectives [and] characteristics that scholars would rattle off – which they all seemed to agree were a part of these great works – could all be applied to Donuts: confrontational, fragmentary, nostalgic… “Late style” seems to think the later works of an artist are either this creative summation of everything they’ve done up to that point, or they veer completely in the opposite direction and are just buckwild crazy, because the artist essentially feels like they have nothing left to lose; they have the freedom that only an individual faced with their imminent end can have. I mean, Dilla was a guy who was never afraid to switch up his styles – he did it at least three or four times in his career – but to me, Donuts was just way out in the other direction. I don’t know how you can listen to “Fall In Love” by Slum Village, and something like “Glazed” off of Donuts, and think that it’s the same guy.

When that idea started to crystallize in my mind about this record, that’s really what gave me traction, as far as rethinking the album. A lot of people have talked about, “oh, it’s an album about death.” They look at a few of the samples and say, “see?” He was using records that say death and dying, and flipping these lyrics. You know, a lot had been written about that, and I didn’t want to just do [the same thing]. If I did do that, I wanted to go deeper with that, and what I discovered going deeper is that it’s kind of a record about life as much as it is about death. I think there’s a lot of sounds and choices he made that are as much [about life as death].

I don’t find it a sad record – not anymore, anyway. I think I did when I first started listening to it, because I did not like Donuts when I first heard it – that’s my shameful secret. I first heard it around the time it came out; I was still in Windsor at the time, and so I saw one of the local Detroit papers, and that’s when I realized that he had passed. At the time, I didn’t even really know he had changed his name, and put together that J Dilla was the Jay Dee I had loved previously. I was working at a small paper, and they had a review copy of Donuts, and I remember seeing it, discovering that he had passed, and taking home the record [to listen to]. I put it in, got about halfway through, and went, “nope, not for me!” I alway say, it took me a good four years to catch up to where he was then. When I finally got over myself and gave it a second chance, it was mind-blowing to me. But yeah, I think that record is much more life-affirming than people initially think.

TCUS: What were some of the other questions you explored in writing this book?

Ferguson: Just kind of why it sounds the way it does, musically. I don’t look at it as 31 tracks anymore; to me, it’s one long piece of music. When you look at it that way, there [are] no transitions, everything’s really short – and I know that’s partially because it originated as a beat tape, and that’s how beat tapes [were]: rough sketches that were fleshed out [later] in the collaboration – but yeah, I wanted to know why it sounded the way it did. I cared less about chronicling the samples and being like, “see, this one’s about death, and this one’s about death.” That seemed like the really basic analysis of it – and I’m not saying that it’s not there and not worth looking at – when there’s this chaotic, fragmentary, almost confrontational work of music [to examine].

The more I thought about that, and just why it sounds the way it does, it took on many different meanings to me, not the least of which is, I do think there’s a lot of braggadocio on this record. [Laughs] There’s a lot of hip-hop nut-grabbing, I think, because he’s using a lot of staples. He uses a lot of samples that, if you’ve listened to hip-hop for a long time, you recognize them immediately – you know, even if you can’t place the “Long Red” drum break, you’ve heard it in a bunch of different things.

But what he uses, to me, it’s almost like he knows this is his last pass at these, and if it’s the last chance he’s gonna get with these samples, he’s going all out. He used “Long Red” on “Stepson of the Clapper,” and to me, it sounds almost like this gospel breakdown. Where you have a quarter-note clap on the original, he doubles [that] up, and it turns into this soul clap call-and-response type thing, while he’s totally amped up the kick drum, and it [results in] this clubbing, thumping, unbelievable denseness. He does the same thing with the ESG “UFO” guitars.

There are these moments where he takes these samples that everyone knows and put his own spin on them again, and it’s almost as if it was his final lesson, you know? It was like, “alright, I’m gonna do this one more time for y’all.” There’s a video I saw floating around out there of the DJ Rich Medina saying that to him – and he sums it up very well – Dilla’s late work, when he went back to soul sampling – which was what Just Blaze and Kanye [were doing] and was really popular at the time – it was like the more mature version. He compared it as “those are the Toyotas, here’s the Mercedes” [laughs].

And Dilla was known for doing this. There’s that story of Black Star’s “Little Brother” beat – if you’re a head, you know that story. He would always do these batches [of other producers’ samples] that he didn’t intend for anyone, they were just for him [for] practice – which, again, is insane, when you think about the amount of time he spent, just on his own self-improvement, on beats he never intended to sell. He was just finding inspiration from people around him and putting his own spin on it. There’s the Pete Rock batches; I’ve heard there are Premier batches; I’ve heard there are Timbaland batches, which sounds insane to me; and the Donuts batches, and stuff you find on “History” by Mos Def and “Move” by Q-Tip, these were kind of the Kanye/Just Blaze batches. He looked at what was popular and said, “okay, that’s what everyone wants? Let me show you how it’s done.”

TCUS: What do you hope for people to take away from reading your book?

Ferguson: I guess it’s kind of twofold. If you have never heard of [Dilla] before, and if you’re just a fan of the series – and this has happened to me, where I’ve been in a record store or a bookstore, and they have a big display of the series, and I see something I’ve never heard of, [which makes me want to check it out] – if that happens to someone with Dilla, that’s fantastic. Also, the fact that this project put his name beside artists – not even rap artists like Nas, Public Enemy, and Tribe, who have had books written about them in the series – but artists like Radiohead, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and [other] canonical artists of the last 50 years, that’s a crazy humbling position for me to be in.

It was really cool for me, because I’ve enjoyed and appreciated this culture for so long, the fact that I was able to do this and give something back to the culture. For people who know [Dilla] and know the record, I guess I would hope, a) that they get a fuller sense of what an incredible production artist he was, and why he was so dope, and b) as far as Donuts itself, I really hope that it elevates the album for people into being [more than] a record about death. I really hope they see it as the much more layered work that I came to discover it is.

TCUS: Where can people buy the book?

Ferguson: Most major book retailers. It’s on Amazon; it’s on Indigo. It has not yet appeared in stores in Canada – there’s been a slight hiccup there – but as far as I know, most major brick-and-mortar and online retailers [will have it].