j dilla: ruff draft
“Before we get this started, let me explain it. It’s Ruff Draft. For my real niggaz only. DJs that play that real live shit. You wanna bounce in your whip with that real live shit. Sound like it’s straight from the ma’fuckin’ cassette! Ruff Draft... Let’s do it.”
... Thus begins Ruff Draft. These self-produced tracks make up one of the late J Dilla’s least known works. Released on vinyl only in February 2003 by Dilla’s own newly-formed Mummy Records and distributed by the German label Groove Attack, this sought-after release remains elusive and virtually unknown to the casual Dilla fan.
In retrospect, Ruff Draft proved to mark a turning point in Dilla’s career. He spent the ’90s making a name for himself as an all-around, top-notch hip-hop producer. First arriving on the scene with his own group Slum Village in his native Detroit, Dilla would establish himself throughout the decade on classic tracks for A Tribe Called Quest, Common, The Pharcyde and De La Soul, eventually branching out to work with a variety of heavy-hitters in hip-hop and R&B, from Busta Rhymes and The Roots to D’Angelo and Erykah Badu.
In contrast to the often understated, mellow vibes and minimal, crisp drumbeats he brought to the boards for those groups, Ruff Draft revealed – to those who heard it the first time around – a whole new side to Dilla’s musical genius. Freewheeling, in-your-face synthesizers, blend perfectly with an uncharacteristically sample-heavy approach that was as bangin’ as it was experimental. And, as he indicated in the intro to the album (quoted above), it’s supposed to bump in your car like an old cassette – one of those well-loved ones that get played over and over and over.
This album marked a geographical change for Dilla, as well as a musical one. 2003 would be the year he transplanted to sunny Southern California. At the same time as he was completing Ruff Draft, Dilla was crafting the beats that would become his contribution to the Jaylib album, Champion Sound (Stones Throw, 2003) – his collaboration with the L.A.-based Madlib. The two iconic visionaries had been influencing each other from halfway across the country; now, they were collaborating on wax – each rhyming over the other’s beats. Dilla’s stylistic unpredictability and technical rawness announced first by Ruff Draft became undeniable with his work on Champion Sound, as he and Madlib joined forces to champion all things “ruff.”
Dilla would spend his last few years in Los Angeles. As his health gradually declined, his pace of music making never did. His beats became, if anything, more urgent – the product of a visceral need to create, as if he knew he had only so much time left. His first and only solo LP on Stones Throw, the 31-track instrumental suite Donuts (2006) plays out like a vinyl fanatic skipping through radio stations on the dial in his perfect universe. With a fresh style from one beat to the next, Dilla conceived this cut-and-paste masterpiece mostly from his hospital bed with nothing more than his sampler, a portable record player and whatever vinyl his friends brought through. Coming full circle from his slick productions of the ’90s, Dilla was now practicing hip-hop at its most essential: bringing out the soul in any style, from any source, with the most fundamental tools.
Dilla’s final album, The Shining (BBE, 2006), hints at the future music that might have come had his health not declined so severely. The sound is thick, with robust soul samples at the forefront, the culmination of the bombastic latter phase of his career. Stones Throw Records now presents the reissue of Ruff Draft as a crucial milestone in the evolution of one of hip-hop’s greatest producers.