Happy 15th Anniversary to J Dilla’s Ruff Draft EP, originally released February 25, 2003.
February holds great significance for fans of James ‘J Dilla’ Yancey. It was the month in which he was born (on February 7, 1974), the month he released his masterpiece Donuts (2006), and the month he died (on February 10, 2006, just three days after Donuts’ release). Most of the focus is understandably on Donuts, but February was also the month in 2003 when Dilla, then going by the name Jay Dee, released the original version of Ruff Draft.
There are two striking things about the EP that become clear from the start. The first is just how experimental Dilla could get when the mood and vibe took him. There are abstract moments throughout the ten tracks, and at times it’s not even hip-hop at all. That’s not a prerequisite for a J Dilla album of course, and both Donuts and 2003’s Champion Sound (with Madlib, under the name Jaylib) were each experimental in their own ways. But anyone familiar with a lot of his other music would have maybe been a little surprised by a song like “Nothing Like This.” The track is essentially nothing more than repeated, distorted phrases, and borders very close to self-indulgence.
The other thing that stands out on Ruff Draft is that it reminds us how, ultimately, regardless of his reputation as a reclusive, isolated genius constantly working away at the buttons of his MPC, Dilla was all about having fun. As disciples of his music, we sometimes tend to think of him as above and beyond, and superior to rap music made for the club. Granted, many of the best beats he made were for artists (A Tribe Called Quest, Common, De La Soul) who fit the mold of what used to get tagged with that now-very-much-out-of-favor label “conscious rap”. But J Dilla often seemed to be having the most fun when making raucous, rowdy tracks for artists like Frank-N-Dank, and for himself on Ruff Draft. This was, after all, a man who loved driving big trucks and going to the strip club anytime he wasn’t making music.
Tracks like “Reckless Driving” sway heavily towards this style of beat, both a world away from the head-nodding, classic hip-hop sound he crafted for songs like Common’s “The Light,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Find A Way” or The Pharcyde’s “Runnin.’” There are parallels to these two different sides of Dilla’s production with that of The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) during the same period. They were all making both soulful records and club tracks at the same time, even crossing paths on albums like Busta Rhymes’ Genesis (2001) and Common’s Electric Circus (2003). Had Dilla lived beyond 2006 he could perhaps have seen his music reach Pharrell levels of commercial success.
The production on Ruff Draft also nicely sums up J Dilla’s work ethic and efficiency. It was recorded in a matter of days, a short time even for someone as focused as he was known to be. He also uses samples of his own previous song “Pause” on at least two tracks. Minimizing the financial risk of having to gain legal clearance for samples by opting to use your own music is a well-known technique of producers like DJ Premier, and one that J Dilla clearly understood if it meant his music could be heard quicker.
Production aside, Ruff Draft is actually more about J Dilla the rapper rather than J Dilla the beatmaker. Dilla wasn’t the greatest emcee in the world, or even one of the best producer-rappers (despite what Black Thought says in the intro to the Roots’ J Dilla tribute “Can’t Stop This”). And the subject matter on Ruff Draft doesn’t get much deeper than that same love of trucks and wanting to fuck hot females, especially on “Crushin' (Yeeeeaah!).” But he was still proficient and confident enough on the mic to be a contender, and Ruff Draft is one of only a small selection of works where you’ll find so many tracks featuring his rhymes. Those wanting more Dilla vocals should also check The Diary, an album that should have been released in the early aughts but remained lost until 2016, a frustrating circumstance that influenced the direction he took on Ruff Draft.
Stones Throw Records released a remastered and expanded version of the EP in 2007, adding a few extra tracks including one with fellow Detroit spitter and Stones Throw artist Guilty Simpson, plus instrumentals. It was thanks to this that the EP was finally heard on a wider scale. It may not be as revered as the deathbed wizardry of Donuts, but Ruff Draft is still one of the most interesting works in J Dilla’s discography, and certainly adds to the sense of celebration each time February rolls around.