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Dilla Donuts Month: "Workinonit

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Donuts‘ signature Mantronix siren starts the track off and then’s immediately overpowered by Beastie Boys Ad-Rock at his most delightfully adolescent—both are sounds that will come back throughout the album. They seem to reference or parody the “producer” stamp that any smart beatmaker puts over his beats so they aren’t swiped but here, they are the sounds that’ll gel the tracks together. Dilla’s using the format or I guess “the medium” of the “beat-tape” to do something intensely personal—the opposite of a normal beat-tape which is usually a CD-R commercial for how dope you are.

On the topic of like show-offy producer dope-ness, while there’s plenty of that here, it’s important to note that in a lot of ways, Dilla’s doing less with the sample sources than we’re used to him doing. Sure, he’s as obsessive as ever with picking some insanely miniscule part of the song and exploding it into something else, but he’s quite direct with his sampling, as a quick listen to the 10cc song that’s the base for “Workinonit” shows. That both the country guitar and the pedal-to-the-medal engine-revving sound come from the same song is a surprise. And that weird smacking, Dub-like noise, I assumed was some weird scratching but it’s all right there on “The Worst Band in the World”. Dilla just speeds it up a bit and rearranges it: More Kanye (maybe even Puffy) than Pete Rock…

But there’s so much mystery to the track too. Racing through the background are a dozen or so flashes of other songs and sounds. Some of which, like the siren or Ad-Rock, return later…A reggae-ish “Workitoutworkitout…” chant. Sex sounds (also in “Time: The Donuts of the Heart”). Maybe the Pharcyde but don’t quote me on that saying “Now, Whut?” (the same as in “Twister (Huh, What)”. Hermaphroditic robot mumbles that also maybe said “I don’t care…” on “Outro”. And a bunch more rap samples that sound super-familiar but not familiar enough that I can identify them.

More polished and structured than the rest of the album but somehow way less interesting, “Workinonit” seems like it’s there to hint towards and develop into better tracks. It lulls you into thinking you’re listening to a typical “instrumental hip-hop” album and it sounds really great and all, but after you’ve moved through the rest of Donuts, you don’t want something as complete and ordered as “Workinonit”. When those twangy country-esque guitars kick-in, it makes sense for there to be some twangy country guitars there, which just doesn’t seem to be what the album’s is all about.

If Donuts though, started off with the messy tangle of samples and snippets of the other tracks, the rest of the album wouldn’t work as well. “Workinonit” is Dilla easing you into the not really “beats” not really “songs” certainly not “instrumentals” sound collage, sampling exercises turned heavy, emotional shit that is Donuts. It’s an “intro” track in the proper sense of easing you into the music and the world your ears are going to inhabit for the next 40 minutes. An easy contrast’s between this song and the similarly titled “Walkinonit”, a stumbling thump of looped and chopped sad-sack soul, repeating “broken and blue…” that’s all the more affecting and effective because it never hones in on any kind of structure.

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The first time I ever heard J Dilla’s name was at my friend’s birthday party. He had just bought Donuts, two days before Jay passed away.

The energetic revving, the nasal tone of the Beastie Boys cutting through the sirens and the intermittent exclamations of “Working on it!” and “You know!” “Workinonit” reminds me of when I began to immerse myself deeply into hip-hop. The aforementioned friend was a DJ and we talked for hours on the phone about all kinds of hip-hop minutiae; the recognized drum loop, the crazy remix you just discovered the other day, the “did you know ______ produced this?”
He would approach me in the hallways at school and initiate a conversation by reciting the vocal samples from “Workinonit”.

-Me: Oh, hey man.
-Him: *singing* You know!
-Me: What’s up? How was your weekend?
-Him: *singing* Working on it!

And so forth.

What’s odd is I hadn’t actually heard the song in full until about a year later. I recognized it immediately from my friend’s singing. He even gifted me with a mix CD of his favourite J Dilla joints. It was revelatory. Even my mom liked “The Red”, though she couldn’t articulate why. Music just inhabits you sometimes. It lodges itself in some remote part of your brain, somewhere in your body and just stays there.. The piano keys on “The Red” stay with you. The revving, churning instrumental and vocal samples of “Workinonit” stayed with me, even after I stopped seeing this friend regularly.

We started to drift apart towards the end of grade 12. I was so possessed with my zeal for hip-hop at the time that I started to bug him with it; I showered him with rare Dilla remixes and Gang Starr b-sides and I think it was a bit off-putting.
I saw him again recently, but we didn’t have too much to say to each other. Maybe I should have just shouted “Working on it” and left it at that.

-Aaron M.

Aaron writes about hip hop, movies, videogames and tons of other bullshit at Canned Thinking. He also contributes to Metal Lungies,Hip Hop Is Read, and Passion of the Weiss.

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There’s a sense of rap-like wordplay going on in “Workinonit”. “Work” as a job, something it’s always seemed to be beatmakers like Dilla are a little more attuned to because they’re generally messing around, artisan-like with some sample or keyboard sound or whatever and, more often than not, they’re a hired gun. “Work it out” is shouted by one of the more fleeting samples, maybe in a Wille Hutch or Public Enemy sense of hopeful peace (“Brothers Gonna Work It Out”)–something Dilla touches on later with “Glazed” when a sincere cry bubbles out of those killer horns and says “Wake up world and give peace a chance!”. “Work” in the sense of “work it” a la’ booty rap or the Missy Elliot song, something Dilla had no problem celebrating, disinterested in the “thoughtful”–or always thoughtful–facade other “smart”, head-nodding beatmakers of the conscious set maintain. I’m reminded of a description in Phoebe Hoban’s biography Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art where she describes a 1982 video of the painter in terms of his rolling, unstable wordplay:
“First he paints the word “VERSUS” lingering over the first S, almost as if he were going to complete the word with an E. Then he slowly paints the word “POP,” before turning the final P into an R to spell “PORK”. He stops after each transition, savoring the word before it becomes the next word. When the painting is finished, only he will know that “POP” is embedded in “PORK.” Typically, Basquiat has created several double-entendres. At the time, his friend Toxic was encouraging him, Muslim style, to eliminate pork from his diet; pork bellies are also a commodity. The word “VERSUS” sums up Basquiat’s antagonistic attitude towards the world.” (333)

Donuts is like a Basquiat painting, a jagged but ultimately harmonic mess of ideas from here, there, and everywhere, that’s easy to dismiss as minor or nothing special, but holds inside of it years of context, emotion, and everthing else there is. This guy that used to co-run a great record store in Baltimore–the record store’s worse off since his leaving–called Donuts “J Dilla love letter to the world”.

***

Dilla isolates the first guitars heard on “The Worst Band in the World” (10cc, 1974) for “Workinonit,” but as is typical of James Yancey, instead of zigging he zags and chooses another (and less obvious) guitar lick for the foundation of the track. Not because this lick is sweeter or more memorable, but precisely because it is less so than the chords that open the 10cc song. Here Dilla gets right what 10cc got wrong—you don’t show your hand before the last card is dealt. He holds off introducing the guitars until the last possible moment, and even when Dilla finally introduces them, he introduces the first of the two chords by itself, and we’re forced to wait another ten seconds until he rewards us with the second chord and thus the complete sample. And just like that girl who doesn’t put out on the first night, because Dilla makes us wait the payoff is all the more worth it—and in the process he transforms mere guitars into instruments able to part the fabric of the universe and let infinity rush in. Woosh.

-Renato

Renato’s blog is Until the Train Stops

***
Also: There’s no “deadline” to contribute to ‘DONUTS’ month, so anything you’ve got to add, send it my way or post it in the comments section.-brandon

Written by Brandon

February 3rd, 2009 at 3:35 am

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Most Young Kings Get Thier Head Cut Off

Last night, I picked up ‘Basquiat’ by Leonhard Emmerling. I’ve always responded to Basquiat’s painting and it was nice to find this affordable ($9.99!) introduction to the artist. I won’t recount Basquiat’s life because everything I know is from this book, Vincent Gallo interviews, and the the 1996 movie, which isn’t great but is worth watching. Basquiat began as a graffiti artist and always had connections to early hip-hop and his art is sort-of rap-like: The paintings are chaotic, his liberal use of images from the past and his interest in repeating images seems like a visual equivalent of sampling…I’m just saying some clichéd bullshit, so, if you don’t know about Basquiat, his Wikipedia entry is a decent introduction or if you have 10 bucks to spare, buy this book. Better than me rehashing stuff I only half-understand. More recently, Basquiat made news because Jay-Z supposedly bought Beyonce an original Basquiat (apologies for the awful article that makes sad use of the word ‘bling’…). There was also, a track recorded for ‘Kingdom Come’ that did not make the album, called ‘Most Kings’ inspired by Basquiat’s ‘Charles the First’ (see image above, notice the Basquiat version of the Superman ‘S’). This created a lot of condescending hub-bub: “Wow, a rapper likes art?!”

Conspicuous consumption is conspicuous consumption whether it is the gold faucets of Master P. or modern art, so I don’t give Jay-Z points for being “cultured” as this horribly condescending article does. However, I do find it refreshing because it makes sense that Jay-Z would like Basquiat’s art. That is to say, Jay-Z now has so much money he can buy pieces of art and he bought something he actually likes and something that fits his sensibility instead of something that is only a status symbol. Let’s assume, that most people buy art, even if it’s a print or a poster, to fill wall-space and to seem kind of distinguished. When a dude buys ‘Starry Night’ at his school’s annual poster-sale, it’s because he wants to have a nice print hanging in his dorm room. Most people, when they want to hang shit on the wall and are over twenty-five years old, go to ‘Deck the Walls’ or some store like that. Rich people probably have their own version that I don’t know about, but it’s safe to say most people choose art simply by “I like how that looks” or “the colors match the carpet” while I get the sense that Jay-Z is making a real statement, personal and political, about a shared sensibility between himself and Basquiat.

The most interesting connection is the way in which both of these black artists were initially ignored and dismissed by the mainstream, only to later have their asses kissed by those same people. Jay had to start his own label because no one thought his music could sell and Jay never lets us forget that in his songs. Basquiat was eventually sponsored by an Andy Warhol associate that initially laughed him off. Not that it is a rarity in the world of entertainment or art, no matter what race, to be ignored and then celebrated later, but I do think this had profoundly realistic effects on both artists’ understanding of art and commerce. Jay-Z and yes, Basquiat had no problem making money. A lot of Basquiat admirers refuse to reconcile being an artist with making money, so they somehow cite his exorbitant spending habits as examples of his ultimate disdain for money, but the reality lies somewhere between, as it should. One of the most insightful verses about commerce, rap, and “integrity” does not come from the Coup or “independent as fuck” Company Flow or Dead Prez, rather it’s contained in the second verse of ‘Moment of Clarity’ from ‘The Black Album’. In it, Jay admits to “dumbing down for [his] audience” to “double [his] dollars”. Mos Def or Common would never admit to “selling-out” even though Common dropped out of the ‘Touch the Sky’ tour to be in some movie, and appears in Pepsi and GAP ads, while Mos acts in all kinds of Hollywood crap or can’t even respect his fans enough to give ‘True Magic’ artwork (label obligation or not Mos, you have fans…). I’m not calling these rappers out for being dishonest, I’m calling them about for being dishonest about being dishonest. Jay defiantly says that “truthfully” he could “probably be Talib Kweli” or “rhyme like Common” and then defies integrity rap with the Pragmatist’s argument for capitalism with “Fuck perception/Go with what makes sense”. He then addresses rappers as a group, stating “we as rappers must decide what’s most important” and makes the inarguable point that he “can’t help the poor if [he’s] one of them”. Even Stanley Crouch might be proud of that. Jay-Z is basically presenting a more thought-out version of the “Get money!” argument every rapper makes these days.

Jay-Z and I believe Basquiat too, were pragmatically aware of the importance and the power of money while also highly keen to the way the artist, but specifically black artists can be easily chewed-up and spit-out. Money, fame, and success are possible ways of fighting back; you gain power and status through money, sorry, but you do. Of course, it’s also potentially harmful especially when mishandled. There’s nothing but rage in a Basquiat painting like ‘Five Thousand Dollars’, a canvas of two shades of brown with the price written on the painting in white or my personal favorite, the self-explanatory ‘St. Joe Louis Surrounded by Snakes’. I refuse to suggest that the white-run art world “killed” Basquiat (it was heroin), but it couldn’t have helped. The Basquiat myth where the “outsider” goes mainstream and turns a lot of shit around, has been improved by Jay-Z, giving it a happy ending, one in which the money does not lead to self-destruction but to self-realization and the ability to help those less fortunate because of course, you can’t help the poor if you’re one of them.

Notice, in the past few years Jay-Z has “earned” his status by maintaining popularity by seeking out respect. For many years, Jay-Z found a balance between integrity and mainstream acceptance but with ‘Kingdom Come’ it feels as though he has tried too hard. ‘Lost One’ is not an introspective song, it just soundslike an introspective song. It plays by the rock-music rules for a serious song, with its piano-based beat, obnoxious British singer, and Jay’s faux-intense slow-down-my-flow-so-you-know-it’s-poignant voice. Why he couldn’t rap the same words over a less obvious rap is beyond me, but if you like Jay-Z for the right reasons, if you understand Jay-Z’s over-arching message, then you cannot be mad at ‘Kingdom Come’. You can be disappointed in it but you can’t be mad. Jay-Z has always been incredibly mindful of his audience and has ever only done what was necessary to do. It’s why ‘The Black Album’ is really consistent, it was his retirement album, it had to be. Those that defend ‘Kingdom Come’ generally defend it based on the concept, the evidence that Jay has “matured” and indeed, I can respect it for attempting to be grown-folks rap music but it just doesn’t really work as an album. Jay-Z made a critic-proof album (the way ‘Five Thousand Dollars’ by Basquiat is critic-proof) because that is what he needs right now to sell a lot of copies. It brings the hits, so a certain group of radio listeners will enjoy it and it has a commendable concept behind it, so heads and critics can applaud it for its pretenses.

Written by Brandon

January 7th, 2007 at 9:15 am

Posted in Basquiat, Jay-Z