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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.


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.


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’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

One Response to 'Dilla Donuts Month: "Workinonit'

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  1. Granny, “You dare to tell me who to criticize, when Mr R and Frank and you have made some prttey racist remarks yourselves? Now, that’s hilarious seeing how I didn’t see you criticize them and they’ve been picking and agitating since day one.”No, I wouldn’t dare try to tell you what to do with your God given life. I was merely pointing out that you didn’t criticize TSC about his racist remarks. Of course, living in SC where Blacks are living under the Confederate flag, I suppose I would be carrying resentment and hate also. For over a year I have criticized and mocked Frank for his racist remarks about Blacks. But you are wrong about me saying racist remarks. I am not perfect but I do my best to avoid any racist remarks against any race. Racist rhetoric goes no where and it always leads to a dead end. How many centuries must Blacks follow the lead of their oppressors? Why would anyone want to be like them? It sure looks to me that Blacks want so badly to be like Whites and to be accepted by Whites because they don’t like themselves.Well, I’ve got news for you. Whites don’t like themselves either. Most feel better about themselves when looking down on Blacks as less than Whites. So, you’ll just have to blame me for something else. Maybe for existing? Well, you will have to have a talk with God and tell HIM that you don’t like some of HIS handiwork. BTW, I would have preferred not to be on earth with black and white Americans because I think all of you are insane, including me, and very sick when it comes to the human heart. My tenure on earth must be a punishment from a past life and I hope before I die that I have worked off this ungodly karma. I’d hate to have to come back for more of this tired shit. Anyway, you once displayed an image as a lover of truth but you seem to have turned away from that, imo. But when you spend so much time arguing with MrR it is understandable. That’s like arguing with the devil and I swear sometimes I can’t tell you from the atheists. I thought you were beyond MrR and would not waste your time with him. But looks like he has you in his grip. Re Frank, he is in prison. What do you expect to come out of prison, beautiful words of Love? Imo, Frank is harmless and has nothing else to do. Sometimes I find him quite funny, and sometimes I find him pathetic. Either way, he is nobody to take seriously.In any case, however you wish to spend your days on earth, may you see the light in the morning become free, so when death comes you may die peacefully in the evening…Peace.Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go and straighten Trapped in SC out. It is a difficult task because when you are “trapped” in SC, you tend to be contentious and not to give a shit. (just kidding) Peace and Love.”Escaped” from SC


    4 May 14 at 2:13 pm

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