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Dilla Donuts Month: "One for Ghost"

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When I lived in High Point, North Carolina with the woman who gave birth to me, she used to beat me. And I’m not talking about the “get a switch from that tree in the middle of the yard” beatings, or even the “sit you over my knee and tag that fanny” beatings. I’m about about real beatings. Belts, clenched fists, bottles, I’ve even gotten beaten with a crutch before. These were no regular whoopings, either; my mother would use the same force she would if she were to get into fisticuffs with linebacker. I always feared most when she brought out the belt, because she would get a really tight grip for maximum damage. Scouting her moves like a boxer reviewing tapes of his opponent’s matches, I committed her fighting style to memory: Usually, she’d take one or two shots to the legs, and start going for the face. To prevent unwanted questions at school about what happened to my face, I’d cover it with my arms and take the lashings across my chest and stomach with all of my might. She’d get tired of handing out pain before I’d get tired of taking it, so afterwards, she sent me to my room. I’d close the door, take off my shirt, open the window, and sit in silence and darkness.

“One for Ghost,” with its unsteady vocal sample and downtrodden soul loop, reminds me of those moments of quiet time I had after getting beaten for forgetting to wash my dishes or when I got cut from the football team, the wailing siren that opens the song being the audio equivalent of the cool air cascading over the throbbing welts on my scrawny, pre-teenaged body. “When I was bad” are the words that repeatedly hover over my head, making me convinced that whatever I had done, however miniscule it was, was bad.

-Douglas Martin

Douglas Martin is Fresh Cherries from Yakima, a one-man fucked-up Folk project. It’s also his blog. Douglas is also one half of 5 O’Clock Shadowboxers.


When “Whip You With a Strap” showed up on Fischscale, a couple months after Donuts (and Dilla’s death), it was crazy. Maybe I’m dense, but before “Whip You With a Strap” came out, I thought of “One for Ghost” as some weird, mysterious title I didn’t and maybe wasn’t supposed to understand. Oh! That Ghost.

Of course, once you get the title, it’s sadly beautiful. “One for Ghost” sounds like a bullet-point on an informal will. The way you imagine who’ll get all your comics or your record player if you, G-d forbid, pass tomorrow. Doling out a beat with such an overt and public dedication seems like one more way that Dilla knew how close he was to the end.

And as the Dilla tributes and stuff kept coming and keep coming (the new MF Doom album will have “Lightworks” on it), the quality and even questionable co-option of Dilla’s music didn’t even matter. That might sound a little wrong in light of all the estate problems going on with Dilla’s music, but the way shit from Donuts continues to pervade rap albums and mixtapes seems perfect. Like it’s pre-copyright music, or ancient unlicensed melodies, fit to use and abuse in any way you see fit. The ultimate gift from Dilla. Music that can’t run out. It’s weird–it doesn’t seem bullshit or anything, you don’t even think twice, when you hear that Doom’s gonna be rapping on “Lightworks” even though Kweli and Q-Tip did it last year.

It’s a less mannered, more casual version of Brian Eno’s Music for Films (1978), which Eno sent-out to filmmakers for possible use however directors pleased–because it was cheap to use, some of the music shows up in the Corman-produced Rock n’Roll High School–or even just Eno’s whole idea of “ambient music”. Donuts, because it the one weird time you heard the unvarnished “instrumental” first, survives and stands above any rapper rhyming atop it–you can ignore the opportunists and treat the really good versions ( “Abaracadabra” which is Jay Electronica over “Gobstopper”, “Whip You With a Strap”) as great bonus material.

Must be the relative proximity to Donuts‘ release that makes “Whip You With a Strap” inextricably tied to “One for Ghost”, but it’s hard not to talk about them together. Part of it’s that we know Dilla made it or at least gave it to Ghostface and it’s also because Ghost’s one of the only bat-shit crazy spitters that can wrap rhymes around a track from Donuts and make it work, but there’s a cool series of interactions between sample-source Luther Ingram, Dilla, and Ghostface.

Dilla grabs what’s really an odd and weirder emotion from Ingram’s “To the Other Man” than is conventionally expected in soul music, loops it, and changes the pitch, making it almost some weird androgynous croon. It’s a hazy memory that’s not exactly negative, but something closer to objective. While the original and Ghost’s raps contextualize the whipping as instructive and even formative, Dilla’s loop is matter-of-fact. Dilla’s of the generation wherein beatings were especially common and just kind of accepted, but no less damaging in some way or another. Most kids get beat or slapped or punched at some point in a way that’s not, all-out abuse–but’s not not-abuse either–and it doesn’t mean their parent’s awful, but it also doesn’t mean that shit doesn’t lodge in your brain for life (and a quick prayer or whatever works for you to any and all the victims of all-out abuse).

“One For Ghost” sounds like that foggy sad unfortunate memory you recall but try not to over-analyze. Not angry or aggressive, it’s one of the most relaxed joints on Donuts, just wounded and vulnerable. That it’s quickly shuffled to the side for the propulsive joy of “Dilla Says Go!” complete with Dilla cheers and an underlying soul mumble that says, first-thing, “it’s alright, I’ll get over it baby”, seems an accurate musical portrayal of moving past minor trauma.

Written by Brandon

February 24th, 2009 at 4:58 am

Posted in Dilla, Donuts Month

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