Still battling serious health issues, Yancey relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles in 2004, where he shared an apartment with Common and built beats in the dining room when he wasn’t undergoing aggressive treatment for his TTP. That illness was later complicated by a diagnosis of Lupus. His body’s immune system was malfunctioning, leading to kidney failure and the need for frequent dialysis treatments. Nevertheless he continued making music, albeit at a somewhat slower pace.
Dilla’s reputation had grown to the point where his beat tapes now flooded file-sharing sites. Major label politics and the compromises inherent in collaborative projects were the farthest thing from his mind. He had reached a point in his career where the only thing that mattered was creativity for its own sake—music as a form of self-medication, along with blunts and chocolate cake. He worked only with trusted fellow travelers: Common, Detroit spitter Guilty Simpson, his old mentor Amp Fiddler. The nickname Dill Withers has never been fully explained, but the unassuming singer/songwriter, responsible for melancholy jams like “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine,” seemed to fit the vibe of the time.
During the summer of 2005, some friends from the indie label Stones Throw Records visited him in the hospital bearing gifts: a Boss SP-303 sampler along with a little 45 rpm record player so he could build beats in his bed. Dilla completed 29 of the 31 songs that would comprise the album Donuts while still in the hospital, a box of 45s by his bedside. Most of the tracks are brief, some deceptively simple, others densely layered—characterized by what one Pitchfork reviewer called ”careful precision cleverly disguised as random spontaneity.” Given the circumstances of their creation all were, of course, unbearably poignant.
A lifelong fan of baked goods with a serious sweet tooth, Dilla always served his beats in “batches” of a dozen—just like cookies from the oven—with two batches filling a CD. In younger years he’d dated a girl who worked at Detroit’s Dutch Girl Doughnuts. “He would bring home at least two dozen doughnuts every night after he had already eaten one dozen,” his mother later recalled. Whether those memories inspired the album title is hard to say, but the entire project has a somber, reflective tone, like an autobiographical elegy.
In late 2005 he defied doctors’ orders and embarked on a tour of Europe with Frank-N-Dank, knowing it would probably be his last. Between shows he would take dialysis treatments or build beats in the hotel room, then his friends would wheel him to the stage and let him rock his rhymes while seated in a wheelchair.