Pin It
Screenshot 2023-02-10 at 17.11.33
via Instagram (@officialjdilla)

A guide to hip hop pioneer J Dilla – in four essential albums

This month marks the anniversary of the legendary artist’s death, as well as what would have been his 49th birthday. To celebrate, we look back at some of his finest work

There isn’t a lot to say about Dilla, hip-hop’s most prodigious artist, that hasn’t already been said. In his brief but brilliant 32 years, Dilla ripped up the rule book: anecdotes from artists that saw him at work describe him as an alien who came down from space with an MPC and a box of 45s in hand.

Though his career lasted little over a decade, Dilla has become arguably the most studied hip-hop producer of all time. He approached his music like a true visionary, with a boundless sense of creativity and the fierce spirit of his jazz lineage – a natural progressor to greats of the past like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Be it soul, jazz, hip-hop, house, or electronic music, so much of the music we hear now is indebted to his style and approach.

The list of Dilla’s musical contributions is wide and far-ranging. He was a part of influential collectives the Ummah and the Soulquarians, and produced for the likes of D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and A Tribe Called Quest. Both his solo material and his work with legendary Detroit trio Slum Village show his range – he was an artist who lived as both a hip-hop traditionalist and a sonic trailblazer, pushing the boundaries of what the genre could be. But with so much output, where do you even start? Down below, we pick out a selection from the late, great artist’s discography.

DONUTS (2006)

Donuts was Dilla’s parting gift to the world, released three days before his death in 2006. Having been diagnosed with thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (a rare blood disorder) back in 2005, it became increasingly obvious that his health was rapidly declining. In the closing chapter of his life, Dilla spent the majority of his time bound to a hospital bed being cared for by his mother, Maureen Yancey.

Music flowed so deeply through Dilla, that even in his declining health he never stopped working. Gifted a Boss SP-404 sampler from a member of Stones Throw and a crate of 45s selected by his mother, he started working on a new album well aware that it would likely be his coda and closing statement on his life. Dilla sat on his hospital bed, working when he felt well enough to, listening to records and chopping samples. When his illness took its toll on his body, his mother would massage his fingertips in order for him to continue recording.

The resulting album, on first listen, may seem disjointed and unfinished, with most of the 31 (also the Dilla’s age when Donut was released) tracks coming in at less than 90 seconds. What Donuts is, however, is a collection of micro-suites, intended to be played as such, with the intro track “Donuts (Outro)” and the closing track “Welcome To The Show” creating a loop for the album to be played infinitely – circular like a… doughnut. 

Ranging from the weird to the heart-wrenching, the record feels like a summary of his work up to that point, but is also completely different from anything he had released prior. Even without the significance of his death, what Donuts shows is Dilla’s unmatched ability to literally flip the shit out of any sample he got his hands on. (See: “Don’t Cry”).


There isn’t another record in J Dilla’s discography that shows the man behind the sampler like his debut album Welcome 2 Detroit. In recent years, there has been an air of mysticism around the artist. Many are under the impression he was this quiet, austere genius – an almost spiritual figure – who spent his life in the studio. This was true, to an extent, but Dilla also liked chains, big trucks, nice coats, and hitting the club in his free time. And make no mistake, Welcome 2 Detroit is grimy – songs like “Pause” and “It’s Like That” are no-nonsense neck-breakers. There isn’t another record that better shows J Dilla’s skill as an MC, which is one of his more overlooked talents. While there’s no real social commentary or anything groundbreaking about his raps, he knew how to write for his own beats.

Dilla liked spitting about his hustler lifestyle – the money he was getting, cars he had bought himself, and his frequent trips to the strip club. “We get the cheddar stackin' up, better rack 'em up /Game over, five TVs in the Rover now” on “Give It Up”. The album shows J Dilla as the man he was, for better or for worse, removing the air of mythos that has been built around him since his death.


The Shining was the first album released after J Dilla’s death. At the time of his death, the album was reportedly 75 per cent finished, so close friend, fellow Detroiter and jazz virtuoso Karriem Riggins, was enlisted by Dilla to finish it off (something Riggins would come to realise was a dying wish). The album is perhaps the most kaleidoscopic in scope of any of his work, careening between psychedelic whirlwinds of synths and drum breaks, bass-heavy party tracks, and soft, intimate soul joints. 

The features on the tracklist read like a who’s who of the 2000s rap and soul scene, boasting contributions from the likes of D’Angelo, Busta Rhymes, Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch, showing Dilla’s industry-wide respect and admiration. Aside from the features, The Shining marked the first time that Dilla had contributed his own voice to an album since 2001’s Welcome To Detroit, as well as highlighting his undeniable talent as a musician in his own right, having developed an ability to play a variety of instruments. 

The album shares its similarities with Donuts, primarily because there was a crossover with production times. However, it is a more polished and conventional approach to a hip-hop album. As expected with such a premature death, multiple posthumous projects have been released under Dilla’s name in the past 17 years. None of them come close to The Shining, though.

FANTASTIC, VOL. 2 (2000)

Slum Village remain one of the most underappreciated hip-hop groups ever. The original lineup with T3, Baatin and Dilla was one of tight chemistry, raw bars, and deep, jazzy soundscapes. After Q-Tip was passed one of the group’s demos, De La Soul’s Trugoy the Dove reportedly said: “it sounds like your shit… but just better!” While there are some clear similarities in the jazz-heavy beats, Slum Village were more like A Tribe Called Quest’s sordid little brother. 

Having been completed back in 1998 for A&M Records, the record did not end up being released until two years later by Goodvibe Recordings due to A&M’s closure. Up until the point of release, Dilla had been revered for his production for other artists such as the Pharcyde and De La Soul. Fantastic, Vol. 2 thrust him (as well as the rest of the group) into the spotlight, making him an acclaimed cult figure in the underground hip-hop scene.

The record stands as a great showcase of Dilla’s early style – the type of production that put him on the map in the first place, and exposed his genius to the likes of Q-Tip and Questlove, with who he would go on to form tight creative relationships. Tracks such as “Tel Me”, featuring D’Angelo, with its loose rhythms, stuttering bass and floating Rhodes keys would have a huge impact on the technique and sound of countless neo-soul and jazz records to come after it. Other songs on the album like “Raise It Up”, “Fall In Love” and “Get This Money” have become some of Dilla’s most revered work. 

Join Dazed Club and be part of our world! You get exclusive access to events, parties, festivals and our editors, as well as a free subscription to Dazed for a year. Join for £5/month today.