Those who love Jay Dee’s (a.k.a. J Dilla’s) production often cite his modesty—he was a hip-hop producer who rarely got on the mic, showed infinite dexterity in genre and tone, and often recorded without taking credit—but, honestly, nobody cares about modesty. Critics just recognized one of their own: a guy who really loved music and wanted to share his record-store finds with anyone who’d listen. Donuts, his most celebrated solo record, plays less like an album than a mixtape, and I don’t mean the kind of mixtape that’ll get you written up for RICO charges like DJ Drama, or the kind of soapbox recordings MCs hop on to bitch at each other. I mean the mix tapes dubbed by the High Fidelity kind of dorky guy in headphones who prefers Dolby to metal and Maxell to TDK, spending hours in his room trying to figure out if his feelings for a potential significant other are better represented by Sly Stone or The Modern Lovers when he probably just should have sent flowers. Fittingly, the intro to Dilla’s Ruff Draft claims that the record sounds “like it’s straight from the ma’fucking cassette!” His mix or ours?
The posthumous re-release of Ruff Draft (Jay Dee passed away from complications due to Lupus last year) is made up of an obscure EP from 2003, two new tracks, two alternate takes of the intro and outro, and a disc of instrumentals. Ruff Draft is slim—even with four bonus tracks, the first disc doesn’t crack 30 minutes—and, like its title implies, it sounds like a sketchbook. The tracks, most of which are under two minutes in duration, begin and fizzle as though Dilla is auditioning ideas for a soon-to-come masterpiece: “Would the Quiet Riot hook go better before or after the Robert Fripp-style guitar loop?” On the one club track, “Crushin’ (Yeeeeaah!),” Dilla even switches up the vocal hook midway through the first chorus from “I wanna fuck all night” to “I wanna crush all night.” Ruff Draft is a work in progress for the discriminating listener, or, as the intro puts it, “for my real niggaz only.”
With that caveat in mind, Ruff Draft opens with the most sonically experimental tracks—the loop and synth-heavy “Let’s Take It Back,” “Reckless Driving,” and “Nothing Like This.” Most of Dilla’s samples on Donuts are from soul records, and though I can’t quite place the source material here, there seems to be more of an art-rock influence than R&B (Ruff Draft was originally issued by the German label Groove Attack). Even with the “whump-wa-wa-whump” chorus and name-dropping The Low End Theory, “Reckless Driving” reminds me more of Brian Eno’s ambient records than N.E.R.D. The rest of Draft is a touch more conventional—Dilla’s not an extraordinary MC and the rhymes on “The $” round up a lot of hip-hop clichés (hustling, “gangsta shit,” bling, “deez nuts,” etc.). His vocals on “Make ‘Em NV” are okay, but I’d rather spend more time getting to know the church bells and astounding rhythm track, where a record pop fills in for a snare beat. Guess that’s what the instrumental disc is for.
Ultimately, Ruff Draft is a curiosity—an offshoot rather than example of Dilla’s genius. The intro suggests listening to the album while you “bounce in your whip,” and though I don’t know exactly what that means, I think Ruff Draft is more likely to send you back to your stacks with a plate of ideas than it is to bounce or whip anything. Fuck this review. I just pulled out Donuts, Ambient 1: Music For Airports, Jay Dee’s Jaylib collaboration with Madlib, and Remain In Light. I’ve got a mix to make.