J Dilla: Ruff Draft
Stones Throw

Though Ruff Draft's a CD reissue of a 12-inch vinyl EP (released by German label Groove Attack in February of 2003 under his then-moniker Jay Dee), it hardly sullies the memory of hip-hop producer J Dilla's final releases Donuts and The Shining. Though produced years before, Ruff Draft's a valuable complement to those albums, and is made even more so with the inclusion of unreleased tracks and a second disc which presents the EP material in instrumental form; consistent with Dilla's proclamation in the “Intro,” “You wanna bounce in your whip with that real live shit,” Ruff Draft is intentionally lo-fi. It shares with those final albums a bold, creatively liberated sensibility exemplified in innovative arrangements built from dusty samples, experimental voice treatments, spacey synthesizer melodies, and banging beats that lurch, lope, slip, and slide.

In the release's liner notes, Ronnie Reese reports that, circa 2002, Dilla was admired for his beats yet reviled as an MC; however, his rapping on cuts like “Let's Take It Back” and “Crushin' (Yeeeeaah!)” sounds fine to these ears. Understandably, some listeners will find the lyrical content distasteful (“bitch-ass niggas,” etc.), which makes the wholly instrumental second disc all the more valuable. Sans vocals, the resourceful imagination and originality Dilla brings to the material can be even better appreciated (keyboardist James Poyser's offers a telling anecdote about how Dilla once used his body to produce beats in the studio when a drum machine wasn't available). Hear, for example, how he uses breathy exhalations as rhythmic punctuation during the sexy skank of “Crushin' (Yeeeeaah!),” and juxtaposes a heavy beat shuffle with the roller-coaster flow of a vibes melody in “Make'em NV.” In “Wild,” a buzzing synth flies over beats in a mutant hip-hop version of Quiet Riot's “Cum On Feel the Noize,” while “Interlude” (and its vocal counterpart “Take Notice” featuring Guilty Simpson) brings hip-hop to the Opium den. Dilla's inventive synth work is front and center on disc two tracks like “Let's Take It Back” which pairs a slow, rumbling bottom end with bright synth eruptions. With fourteen tracks totaling twenty-eight minutes on disc one (twenty-five on the second), Dilla also admirably shows himself to be a model miniaturist.

July 2007