Blog 3: The Best Piece in the World, Ever

J Dilla’s “Time: The Donut of the Heart” from the album Donuts is the best piece in the world, ever. It is not only a beautiful piece, but an incredibly meaningful one that expresses itself in a variety of different ways.

The piece contains content due to its verbal supplements, including its title, the words within the song, and various accounts provided by his peers. Following J Dilla’s death, due to disease at age 32, musician and collaborator Questlove, of The Roots and the Soulquarians, spoke out about his experiences with J Dilla during the production of Donuts, the album that this piece is on, in an interview with XXL magazine. The piece and the album as a whole were created while J Dilla was on his death bed and unable to speak due to TTP, a rare blood disorder. Questlove claimed that J Dilla was using his music, and the samples within it, to communicate with the people around him when he could not do so with his voice. Each sample was chosen in order to communicate his thoughts and feelings to those around him. Through the samples, J Dilla uses or creates the phrases “I love you,” “you’re on my mind,” and “breathe” alongside the sounds of breathing, as well as other, less clear ones. Each of these “virtual” verbal additions helps to communicate Dilla’s feelings to those around him, being his care for his friends and family, and his motivation to keep breathing and creating. Additionally, the record company that the album was released on, Stones Throw Records, stated that the album, and thus the track, was titled simply because J Dilla loved donuts, a claim backed up by his mother following his death. Through these additional supplements, the title of the track gains meaning: it is J Dilla communicating a piece to show appreciation to his loved ones that spent time with him, and that he dearly wanted to spend time with, while he was still alive and recording and producing the album.

Through Questlove’s insight, it becomes more clear how “Time” gains content through the material it is created from, with the samples reinforcing the theme of the piece. The most clear samples in “Time” are the Jackson 5’s “All I Do is Think of You,” and Sweet Charles Sherrell’s “Yes It’s You” and “Strangers in the Night,” the latter of which is a Frank Sinatra cover. The first track sampled describes a boy in school’s inability to stop thinking about a girl he sees every day passing by. In “Time,” this meaning is transformed into J Dilla’s longing and love for those people who come to see him, and the little time he has to share time with them. “Strangers in the Night” follows a similar story, of two lovers that connect by eye contact, forming a bond of love that way, similar to how Dilla could not use his voice, but only his eyes, and music, to express his love. In the second track sampled, Sweet Charles describes a love who seems to resolve his problems with her presence and love, for example singing that “yes it’s you, who drives away my aches and pains.” For J Dilla, sampling this piece reinforces his appreciation for the people in his life that helped alleviate his literal aches and pains. Dilla most clearly samples the moaning of the first portion of Sherrell’s piece, an expression of the anguish that takes up most of his current existence, especially since he was confined to a bed, having to spend so much time alone and unable to communicate directly with others.

The material used to create “Time” can also be interpreted as the work’s relationship with art history. In order to construct the piece, J Dilla chose to use musical quotations of exclusively 70’s soul music, most audibly lead and background vocals, as well as the guitar. This conscious choice even extended to choosing a soul rendition of “Strangers in the Night,” rather than the original Sinatra version. In doing so, he was able to evoke the emotivity and power that is characteristic of soul music. By consciously choosing these specific quotations of 70’s soul music, Dilla was able reinforce the sentiments of affection that he desired to share through the piece, and transform his own piece into a work within the canon of soul music, rather than solely being hip-hop.

In this way, these samples that J Dilla used and manipulated for “Time” also lend themselves to the content in the piece that arises from the genre. The piece both participates in and creates new forms of expression in combining hip-hop and soul music. Throughout all of “Time” the soul guitar and vocal samples of the Jackson 5 song are played, forming the soul basis for the track through the hip-hop tradition of sampling. J Dilla creates the hip-hop foundation of the piece by layering these soul samples over his signature MPC-chopped drum’s, a hip-hop percussion technique. Dilla furthers his creative expression within the genres through his precise manipulation of the soul vocal samples. Within the piece, he chops up all of the samples into incredibly brief lengths to create new vocal melodies and lines of words, which serve as the central vocal portion of the piece, rather than the usual rapping of an emcee in hip-hop. Thus, J Dilla created new soul parts within a hip-hop framework, and crafted a piece that reflects the beauty of both genre traditions.

“Time” has a great deal of content that arose within it through time. The piece, along with the rest of the album, came to be known as one of the final pieces J Dilla produced before his death, which occurred three days following the release of the album. It is also now known that the piece was written and recorded on his death bed, which he was mostly confined to along with a wheelchair prior to his death. All of the meaning in “Time,” Dilla’s love, longing, and appreciation for his friends an family, is now viewed in the frame of his death: this is one of the last times Dilla could express these feelings before dying, and now the track seems like a part of his last words, which he could not simply say, but had to express through his music. This also became one of the tracks on Donuts that a fan made a video for, becoming one of the winners of a Stones Throw video contest. The video was thus published on the site becoming the company’s video for the piece, and the video helps visualize the samples within the track, and serves as a new context for “Time” to be heard within.

The content that arises from the scale of the piece lends itself directly to more content that has accrued to it through time. “Time” is a very brief track, clocking in at about one minute and forty seconds, and thus is perfect for being reused to make a short rap song over, or looped several times for a longer piece. Exactly this has occurred, and Drake uses one loop of the piece to rap over for his song “Where to Now” on his mixtape Comeback Season. The Roots use several loops of “Time,” manipulating it at the end of the song, for their piece “Can’t Stop This,” which as the lyrics describe is a tribute to J Dilla, and his influence on the group. and music in general. Therefore, “Time” can now be known as the basis for these newer pieces, as artists have recognized the piece’s beauty and “Time” has now been used in new, expressive ways.

Technological advancements also play a large role in “Time.” To create the piece, J Dilla sampled records into an MPC and Pro Tools on his computer in order to capture and manipulate the sounds. He made an extensive use of the “chopping” technique, which is the process of piecing samples into extremely small pieces in order to sequence them in new ways. J Dilla is famous for his precision in this process, and his seemingly momentary chops, which contribute to this piece. His technique and the technology he used made the drums of the piece and the new vocal lines possible, stitching together tiny moments of songs in order to create new musical and verbal phrases. Dilla also utilized the new digital audio software technology to manipulate the speed of each of the samples to fit into the piece and his vision. The guitar loop as a whole is sped up through most of the track, and its tempo is manipulated slower and then back to speed. J Dilla also seems to have altered the speed of individual syllables in the vocal samples after chopping them so small in order to manipulate the melody and wording of the vocal lines. “Time” also serves as a testament to the power of reproduction within music. It is a piece created out of samples, which then went on to be sampled by other artists for their pieces.

“Time: The Donut of the Heart” serves multiple purposes extremely well, and its beauty and meaning should be shared with everyone in all of its forms. It is an incredibly powerful piece on its own, and has proved itself to be effective as the backdrop to a video, or as the foundation of new pieces. J Dilla’s work is the greatest of all time, a piece that expresses its content beautifully and in so many different ways through technology and artistic vision, and it should be recognized for its merits by the world.


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