James Dewitt Yancey passed away just three days after the release of Donuts, which many critics consider the crown jewel of his catalog, although others have dismissed it as a “glorified beat tape.” Appropriately enough, the album opens with an outro and ends with an intro. Without getting too deep, a donut is a circle that never ends—unless of course someone takes a bite.
In one of his last interviews, Dilla described the project as a “compilation of the stuff I thought was a little too much for the MCs. That’s basically what it is, ya know, me flipping records that people really don’t know how to rap on.” Not that that stopped some from trying. Following the Wu-Tang joints that Dilla created expressly for Rae and Ghost, dozens of MCs have recorded Donuts-based “tributes.” The best of these were laid down by artists who had some sort of genuine relationship with Dilla in life. The continuous flow of new material attests to Dilla’s enduring reputation as an artist for the ages. And the seemingly endless supply of compilations and unreleased material suggests that we’ll be discovering new dimensions of his creativity for some time to come.
“This guy took it at least two or three levels higher than me,” said one of his heroes, Pete Rock, in Brian “B.Kyle” Atkins’ documentary Still Shining. “It’s like a chain reaction. Basically it was like Larry Smith to Marley Marl, from Marley Marl to Pete Rock, from Pete Rock to Jay Dee…. I’m proud to say that he’s the brand new king. He’s been the king for a long time. I’m an old king, but I passed the torch to Jay Dee. The brand new king of the beats. He’s ridiculous.”
Dilla’s body of work transcends genre. The world view expressed through his music was expansive enough to embrace viewpoints as divergent as those of Common and Slum Village without any apparent conflict or contradiction. Although the music industry didn’t know quite what to make of him during his lifetime, Yancey did share some of his plans and ambitions with Chairman Mao in a brief 1996 VIBE profile: “I’m steppin’ back and lookin’ at everything,” he said. “I’m tryin’ to stay on some new shit. ’Cause people fall off every day. And I ain’t the one.” Not at all.