American hip hop producer James Yancey (aka J Dilla) passed away last year barely days after the release of his masterpiece album Donuts. It’s a massive shame to have lost this influential voice so soon after producing one of the best albums of 2006. In the obvious absence of any new material, Stones Throw have re-released the ultra rare Ruff Draft, a title only previously available on an obscure German imprint.
It’s a recording from 2003 and highlights a pivotal moment in his career that would eventually culminate in the nu-soul brilliance of his swansong material. Ruff Draft is uncompromising and the sound of a man breaking free from the shackles of major labels and musical establishments. It’s a DIY approach to hip hop resulting in raw, powerful beats. There are no toe tappers here and J Dilla’s abstract samples typically provide a dark skewed soundscape.
Although I expect this will be released with a Parental Advisory sticker I frustratingly had a cleaned up, family friendly copy so J Dilla’s brief intro at the beginning of the CD was rendered a bit bemusing – a shame since it forms the mission statement for the disc. It’s ironic that the self-expressive nature of this release seems to have been censored in such a way.
Back to the disc: Nothing Like This is a spectacularly moody track with its backwards sample and as a result it’s a cut above most hip-hop you’ll hear. The Dollar is the most commercial track with its grimy beats and minimal synths. But unfortunately things are over as soon as they’ve begun as most tracks characteristically don’t outstay their welcome.
To help out the Stones Throw label have added some bonus tracks and a separate DJ friendly instrumental disc so you can appreciate Yancey’s warped sampling in all its glory. The bonus track Wild features the surreal sounds of a child singing Slade’s Cum Feel The Noise over some dark and meaty beats. It shouldn’t work but it does and it’s the standout track.
Known to the likes of Kanye West and Pharell Williams as the “producer’s producer” he might not be a household name, but his influence was massive. As such Ruff Draft is an important release. But this a little too short to make a big splash. However I’m sure we would rather have it this way than a distasteful posthumous juggernaut of Tupac proportions.
Comparisons with his subsequent work are inevitable and this feels like a disappointment when put alongside the more accessible likes of Donuts. I came away from this feeling that it was more for those who are already fans – but if you’re curious to jump straight in then you�’l find Ruff Draft provides more glimpses of genius than you’d expect from his contemporaries.