March's Vinyl Me, Please release, Donuts, is a certified classic, an album that proved that, once and for all, hip-hop beats could be stand alone musical art.
With it’s classic status assured, it’s easy to overlook the sheer unlikelihood that the album ever came to be. Dilla was holed up in a hospital trying to beat Lupus when he passed the guys at Stones Throw a beat tape that eventually became Donuts. Then it took the guys at Stone Throw to realize what they had could stand on its own, and convince Dilla to let them release it.
Jeff Jank, Stones Throw’s semi-reclusive art and web director—only one pic of him exists on the Internet, apparently—was there when Dilla gave Stones Throw his beat tapes and was instrumental in releasing, and designing the look of, Donuts. To celebrate the Vinyl Me, Please edition of Donuts, we talked to Jeff about the album, about Dilla’s legacy, and about whether or not there’s anything no one knows about Donuts.
Vinyl Me, Please: When Dilla turned in the tapes that became Donuts, did you immediately think it was a classic?
Jeff Jank: He didn’t turn anything into us as an album, or even a proposed project of any kind, but beat CD – a collections of rough tracks that hip-hop producers put together to send around to MCs and potential collaborators. He wasn’t suggesting we do anything with the beats, it was just his latest work that he was passing around. It did have this name Donuts, but that was in line with the other names of these things, scribbled with a sharpie on a CD-R.
His beat tapes were already legendary in the circle of people who’d get their hands on one, but this one struck me as sounding usually well structured as a start-to-finish listen. It was perfectly mixed. It was exciting. Stones Throw was just three guys in a house - Chris (“Peanut Butter Wolf”), Eothen (the label manager), myself, and Madlib working away full time in a little studio – and we all talked about this beat CD. It was great. The feeling was that these weren’t beats for some future album, it was the album. But I can’t say I thought it was a classic per se, because I didn’t even know if it could be an album. It was really unusual for a label to put out something like that – one of the tracks had already been earmarked for Ghostface Killah – but an album is what we went for.
This was early 2005. Jay relocated to Los Angeles a year earlier, and we’d been talking about doing another project with him the whole time. But he was dealing with his health problems, and he’d actually be staying long term at Cedars Sinai medical center since around Christmas, and he was also trying to finish his second solo rap album The Shining. So the situation was like, you guys want an album? Here you go. It’s only 25 minutes and you want 45? Well, you guys figure it out.
So my role became something like an editor for a writer who had a great novel that wasn’t quite ready to publish. I’d go out to see him at Cedars once a week – Eothen was there all the time bringing him whatever he wanted, mostly pizza. I’d go and talk about this album. He’d give me a few new beats, we’d say maybe a word or two about where the new beats go. I’d come back, bring him a revision, and edit here or there.
VMP: Did you guys think when you released it that it would have the kind of legacy it’s had?
JJ: We didn’t have the luxury to think ahead, we were just trying to get this done. Outside of our little bubble and the people who respected Jay’s music, no one really took this project seriously as an album – even our own supporters in the business viewed this as a little side project. What the hell is a rap album without any raps anyway? What do you call it? Do you call these songs? I felt that what we were doing was important – I absolutely felt that way, I was totally conscious of it. But I can’t claim to know, or even have thought about, anything that lay ahead.
I’ve now seen many people, including a whole new generation, discover this album and find some inspiration of their own. Seeing that never gets old.
VMP: How did you guys view your role at Stones Throw in relation to Dilla being near death? Did it become clear that you guys in some way would be managing his legacy?
JJ: I can’t speak for the other guys, but I never thought he would not live a long life. Never considered it until pretty late. In November 2005, Donuts was in production, and he boarded a plane for Europe to do some live dates, which we’d all assumed he would cancel. The moment his mortality dawned on me was when word came that he was on stage in London, wrapped up in wheelchair. I realized this was not a sick man in some kind of reckless denial, it was a statement.
I was away in NYC when he passed away. It was it was terribly surreal seeing a little joke I’d written for the Donuts press release quoted as fact in his obituary in The New York Times. To see someone you know go from a private person into history’s person, where little facts and anecdotes morphed into myth and legend, it’s a strange and sobering thing.
Eothen and I, in particular, had many talks about the idea of legacy after Dilla passed away. We didn’t know exactly what our roles would be, but we knew the stories – some artists’ work fades into obscurity where it’s appreciated by the underground, and other artists’ work finds more new fans with each generation. It’s not accidental, it doesn’t happen on its own. It’s not just about who is good and who isn’t, it’s about those with a well managed legacy versus those who have no one to “tend the garden,” or those whose work gets paralyzed in some murky legal quagmire.
I feel we sort of have it easy, as our role in his legacy is basically the management of Donuts. People love this record, and we just do what we can to introduce it to new people, and not fuck it up in the process.
Eothen left Stones Throw in 2011 and is now creative director for Dilla’s estate.
VMP: How hard was it to create the cover? Did you have an idea right away, or did you struggle with it? Why did you choose/Dilla choose the cover it got?
JJ: We planned on having Brian Cross “B+” shoot photos of Jay for the cover after he’d come out of Cedars. They and a few other people were going to Sao Paulo, so they’d do it there. Well, that didn’t work out – Jay had relapse, flew back to L.A. and straight back to Cesars. I didn’t want some elaborate artistry on the cover, I just wanted a simple photo of J Dilla.
Andrew Gura, who shot a video with Jay a year earlier, sent me some screen shots. This was a desperate attempt at getting a photo cover, using tiny little video screen shots. I thought the cover looked like hell, but it’s been cleaned up and revised over the years. I love it now, especially this gatefold with VMP.
VMP: What’s a fact about Donuts—the cover, the album, the production, anything—that no one has ever asked about?
Actually, no one asks anything because they feel they already know everything about it. I’ve read people talk about what state of mind Dilla was in when he made certain tracks, as if they were sitting beside him that moment in deep conversation. I’d laugh the first few instances I’d see this, but I’ve come to love it – to me, it shows the level of connection people can have to this record.