In the nine years since J Dilla (February 7, 1974 – February 10, 2006) passed, a number of tribute events have taken place across the globe. Most of them occur during Dilla Month (aka February), but there are also a few sprinkled across the months that follow. In 2007, the fine folks at Rare Form, an NYC-based event group, were moved to put on a show of their own and called it Donuts Are Forever™.
Over the years, they have raised over $30,000 for a number of non-profit groups, including Alliance for Lupus Research.They officially partnered with Okayplayer in 2012 and continue their work with Good Shepherd Services, among others.
What started out as a small fundraising event to celebrate the life and work of a talented artist taken from us too soon, DAF has morphed into an annual event on every die-hard Dilla fan’s calendar. Who else can say they’ve been able to line up Just Blaze, DJ Neil Armstrong, DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Spinna, DJ Parler, Questlove, Prince Paul, DJ Tara, and DJ Scratch for their annual party?
Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble was able to speak to a number of DJs on site for DAF9 at Brooklyn Bowl on February 15, including DJ Tara from Rare Form, Rich Medina, and MICK. She also was able to snag a quick interview with Dilla’s Uncle Herm! Check out what they all had to say about the legendary producer and this year’s event below.
How did the idea for Donuts Are Forever come about?
The idea came about after Dilla died. In the days afterwards, a lot of people came together, and they did a lot of tributes in a lot of different places, and we went and thought it was great. And as the following year was looming, we thought we should do one, and we should do it as a fundraiser. It didn’t feel right trying to make money off the party.
So, we were like, “Let’s try to do it.” And every year, it’s kind of evolved into giving to different charities. But now we have something solid as far as wanting to support more music programs in New York City. But basically, it was just the fact that we’re huge, huge fans, and we wanted to do something in tribute and for it to be a long-running thing. I mean, we had no idea it was going to be to this point where we have over a thousand people coming out on a sub-zero night to do this, but we’re so happy that it’s growing into this and every year it’s getting better.
With this being DAF9, what factors would you say aid in bringing the crowds out to celebrate Dilla’s legacy every year?
I think Donuts particularly brought the idea of a beat tape being a successful marketable product to reality, and a lot of beatmakers today that are getting paid well and travelling and DJing, a lot of them credit Dilla as being an idol of theirs. It just seems that he kind of paved the way. He opened the door for beatmakers. We all have respect for Premier and BombSquad. For some reason, Dilla’s a little bit different….I don’t know what it is that makes Dilla so different, apart from the fact that he did crazy stuff.
But I don’t know why it only really took with Dilla. Maybe because of the fact that he worked with so many different groups. He was very much his own entity but yet had a very distinct sound that has yet to be replicated. Maybe that’s what it is. I think he’s kind of up there. Even if he was still alive, there would be a very large deification movement just because of what he’s done for the culture. I think that’s why. It’s kind of a long, rambling answer, but yeah.
How do you guys go about building the talent lineup? Do you have a plan for who you’d like to include?
We always try to keep a core of DJs like Parler, and DJ Brainchild was definitely a longtime resident of ours, and we do hope he comes back. We try to do that, and also, it’s just a matter of because we are such a music loving group, we are always, in general for our own satisfaction, checking out new DJs. I DJ myself. I meet amazing DJs doing other parties. And it’s just a matter of when you start to talk and build with people and get to realize that they’re a huge fan, and they might spin this party. We definitely want people who are fans.
When it comes to headliners, we definitely want someone who is very, very well-versed in his catalog and probably knew him personally. We are very lucky to have had a lot people who knew him personally like House Shoes, like Ge-ology, like Questlove at this event. We definitely feel that that’s an important thing to have that because they were kind of there when all of these songs were created, and we can’t even imagine to know what was going on, and they can bring that personal touch with their sets. We really love it.
What does it mean to have MICK and Rich Medina as this year’s headliners?
Oh my God. It means everything. First of all, MICK is someone that we’ve wanted for years. He’s a very popular guy, and we, unfortunately, do it at a time of year where there is a lot of competition. If it’s not the Super Bowl, it’s the Grammy’s or it’s All-Star Weekend in New York City. So, that’s a difficulty factor, but thankfully, I think that the fact that All-Star Weekend was in New York City helped us out. It kept Mick in town to do this event. And Rich Medina is someone that we’ve had before, and he likes doing this event. We’re so happy that he’s still willing to do it every time we ask. We really appreciate it. But yeah, it means everything.
Are there any new components this year?
I mean, I think we’re kind of branching out a little bit more DJ pool-wise to other cities. This year, we had DJ Applejac from Atlanta come up and spin a set. We actually have DJ Raichous and DJ Tap.10. They’re both from California. They just moved here, but we were able to snatch them up. It’s awesome.
Also, we’ve had collaborations in the past with different clothing companies. Last year, we worked with Freebase, but this year we had an actual collaboration with a store in Philadelphia called Ubiq. They did a tremendous amount. Actually, they supported us more than any other sponsor we’ve had without even asking. They were so willing. Ubiq is a dope ass store in Philly, so we’re grateful to be involved with them.
How is it working with Okayplayer with these events?
It’s good. We have a good relationship. They definitely just let us do what we want. I mean, of course, we started the event, so we definitely want as much creative control as possible, but Okayplayer just helps us take it further. It works well because it helps us throw this party. It definitely also spreads the word about Dilla.
A lot of people go to Okayplayer for a lot of the different musicians that do work with Dilla or have worked with Dilla in the past, but maybe they’re new fans and they don’t necessarily know because the music’s ten years old or something like that. And also it connects us to people who are Dilla fans and who don’t know that this event goes on. So, it’s great. People do travel to come to this event, which we’re also super grateful and honored for. So, it’s a great mix.
What can you tell readers about the Donuts Are Forever Scholarship Fund?
The Donuts Are Forever Scholarship Fund is basically our way of trying to lessen the lack of music education programs in New York. Like, there’s no music education programs in New York – very little. A lot of arts funding were cut, now going on ten years, and a lot don’t have physical programs and things were cut in the earlier administration, and they haven’t yet been resourced. So, we basically wanted to work with an organization that was dealing with high school kids and figure out how can we offer them music education classes.
So, we reached out to an organization called Groundwork, which is together with Good Shepherd Services, but the program Groundwork for Success still exists. It’s a college prep program for high school kids. We originally were sending kids over to Scratch Academy with the funds that we raised with this party, but we realized that we wanted to change the model a little bit. At the time, we didn’t know of any non-profits that were doing hip-hop music education in school.
Since then, we were made aware of two. One being World Up, which we partnered with originally last year, and the second being Building Beats, which actually merged with World Up this year, so that’s actually a really good thing. And then there’s also Urban Arts Partnership that does a lot of hip-hop education as well. But we work a lot with Building Beats and Groundwork for Success. We definitely hope that more money will be raised and we can actually extend our reach as far as helping other organizations because we do know that a lot of organizations do amazing things but are incredibly underfunded, and we would love to be able to contribute in any way.
Right now, we’re just working on getting these Groundwork kids into some Building Beats classes and then also try to figure out ways that we can use some supplemental money that we get through t-shirt collaborations and options to help with Building Beats directly and other music organizations hopefully in the future. But for now, we’re really focused on Groundwork and Building Beats.
Can you tell us about any projects Rare Form has coming up that you want to promote?
You know what? Rare Form is a little defunct – maybe not defunct, but we lay low for most of the year. We only really do a couple of events a year. We used to do events weekly many, many moons ago. Apart from Donuts, we do a series in the summer called Makossa BK with Latin Soul Brothers and Fresthetic. It’s a store in Williamsburg.
Basically, it’s how we found a New York connection. We have a lot of Cali transfers that live in New York. We love them. They’re cool as hell. We all like the same kind of music. We all go to the same events. We have a DJ out there, Wonway Posibul from the Bay who comes to New York once a month. We get DJs from New York and also from the Bay and also from Sweden and other places in the world to come and do like a daytime barbeque, very much like a very large backyard barbeque but with hundreds of people and it’s a great time.
Is there anything else you want to add?
If you haven’t ever been to our party, you should definitely come to our party. If you really care anything about supporting youth programs and supporting music education, please go to buildingbeats.org or goodsheperdservices.org, and definitely, if you can, please contribute or find another one that fulfills a mission that you’re interested in. You should definitely support. Non-profits are doing really great work, and every dollar helps.
You were on the bill in 2011 at Santos. What led to your return to the DAF lineup?
First of all, all praise due to the god J Dilla. My return to Donuts Are Forever this year was because last year, I was booked, and by the time Rare Form called me, I couldn’t be here. I was supposed to be here last year as well, but the timing didn’t work out, so we made sure that for number nine that I was able to be around.
Why do you think Donuts has made it to its ninth year?
Donuts has made it to its ninth year because we’re speaking to the legacy of a pioneer within our chamber, a guy who kind of flipped the script with regard to the paradigm of what musicality means with regard to hip-hop production. I think that Dilla brought hand claps and a lot of sensibility to production in a way that most of us pay a high level of reverence to without even speaking about it.
We’re just paying homage to the god, you know. Every discipline has a Zen master, and I believe that when it comes to production in our world, Dilla represents that chamber, and it’s an extreme honor to be selected as one of the people to represent what the god brought to all of us. So, I’m very happy and very honored to be part of that.
How does Dilla’s sound influence you as an artist?
I think that Dilla’s sound influences me as an artist the same way that it influences all of his fans and all of his fellow producers and all of the DJs and people that embrace the culture the way that they do. Within every discipline, there’s a master that comes through at some point and changes the paradigm and completely flips all the normal protocols on its ear.
You know, I think that Dilla brought a musicality and a sensitivity and a maturity to the sophisticated side of hip-hop production that is unprecedented. And with that being a fact, to be asked to come and represent what the god brings to the table is one of the biggest honors that I could ever experience as an artist.
What does his legacy mean to you?
It means everything to me because I was a fan buying it, and I was one of the guys in the business that was catching the Fantastic demos before they hit the street and all of that. So, for me, to watch those demos turn into a guy that was one of the most prolific, quiet, behind-the-scenes, power players, and what we all know as good drum programming and good melodic sensibility and putting the right emcees over the right drums, Dilla just represents a vanguard that’s impossible to duplicate.
How do the crowds in NYC compare to those in cities you’ve played in around the world?
Well, I think that because New York City is the birthplace of proper American club culture as we know it, you look at the Loft and the Garage, Basil, Red Zone, The Building…we could do this for hours. That’s a completely different interview.
But, being that this is home of the boom bap, and then you’re dealing with a brother from the Midwest of the United States that not only brought his sensibilities to the table, but really raised the bar with regard to the notion of Swing and Jazz and melody and harmony. With regard to hard, rugged hip-hop production, there’s absolutely no debate about what the god brings to the table. So, it doesn’t matter where you are worldwide, the god’s influence is what it is.
Do you have any projects you want to promote?
I’m always in the woodshed. People should stay tuned to preservinghiphop.org. Check richmedina.com to see everything that I’m doing. I’ll be in the woodshed making new records and trying to make an impact on the world as well, you know.
Do you have any plans for the rest of 2015?
Yeah. 2015, the plan is to stay healthy and keep working and be as nice to as many people as possible and stay focused on the task at hand, which is to continue to provide people with a church outside of going to the church. I’m lucky to be one of those preachers.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Yes. Practice, practice, practice, practice. Be humble. Be polite. It costs no money to be polite, and remember that there’s always somebody out there tougher, stronger and better than you. So, maintain your humility and work your ass off, and God will give you what you deserve.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I’ve been wanting to come to Donuts Are Forever. I’m a donut maker. I made Dilla donuts as a little kid. I was totally blown away and fascinated that he made Donuts on his deathbed. I feel honored, in a way. So, I was like, “I gotta go to Donuts Are Forever.” This is my first year here. So, Dilla brought me here.
Are you enjoying yourself?
I am having a wonderful time.
How is the shop doing?
The shop is coming along. We are just starting to white box out. We’re in a historic building, so we had to be patient with the tax credits, so it’s been a slow process. But, it’s finally about to happen.
Where did the name “Uncle Herm” come from?
I’m Herman, but the Atlanta underground hip-hop crowd kind of named me “Uncle Herm,” as I was representing him through the Lupus walks and just raising awareness for him dying of Lupus. And they just took me under their wings, taught me who J Dilla was, and in return, I taught them who James Yancey was, and they just ordained me “Uncle Herm.”
What’s one of your favorite memories of Dilla?
Just the maturity of an eight or nine year old, the humbleness of an adult, and the respect of a nephew. It was always, “Yes, Uncle Herm. No, Uncle Herm.” And in his passing, I pay him the same respect.
What can tell you us about what Ma Dukes is doing with the Foundation?
I support everything my sister does. I love that she’s hanging in there and trying to pull the Foundation in the right direction, and that’s one of the purposes of the donut shop is to support the J Dilla Foundation, to support the Lupus walks and to support hip-hop.
Do you do a lot of promotion events in the shop?
We’re going to be doing a grand opening….
Oh, so you haven’t even officially opened.
No, I was actually satellite-ing out of different restaurants and shops. Our shop is being built out, and it won’t be ready until probably May.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
I’m just here representin’. I enjoy his peers and learning every day something new about Dilla. You know, I thought I was cool. I really thought my mental belly was full of Dilla, but it seems that I’m being surprised, and I’m being fed information and knowledge of him, daily. So, it’s probably never gonna end.
Do you find yourself swapping stories?
With the people that actually knew him, we kind of share things. Jarobi and I have been sharing Dilla stories since I met him in Atlanta, but I just try to give what he gave me back to people.
Photo Credit: Bo Lee
I’ve heard DAF has been trying to get you on the lineup for some time. How did everything work out to get you here this year?
Well, I live here. I live in Brooklyn. So, it was never really an issue of not being able to get here to do it. It’s more so that they always do it during All-Star Weekend, and I’m always gone because All-Star Weekend is always in a different city. And, this year, it happened to be here, so Derek hit me really early and was like, “Hey, this is the year we’re going to be able to do it,” and I agreed.
When were you introduced to Dilla’s music?
Really from the beginning, but, you know, I didn’t realize it was him at the time, and I didn’t realize the magnitude of, obviously, what was going to happen. The first Dilla stuff I think I ever heard was on The Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia, which is one of my favorite albums of all time, and he did a lot of production on that. It was just amazing, and I remember seeing “Jay Dee Remix” or whatever, and I was already wondering who this guy is. I started to see him more with some of the Tribe stuff, and then they formed The Ummah, and then, of course, a few years later, everybody discovered Slum Village. Then, it just became Dilla after that.
How does his style influence you as an artist?
That’s a good question. The thing, which I think was cool about what he did as far as what could influence a person, a lot of producers had one sound, and he had a lot of different sounds. He had some really hardcore, aggressive stuff, but he also could make the most mellow, smoothest, R&B sounding stuff, whether it was some Slum hip-hop stuff or some of the stuff he did for Common or some of the stuff he did for Janet or Erykah or whatever.
He was able to transcend both sides of that equally and still sound uniquely Dilla, and I think that really allowed other artists to branch out and be like, “I don’t have to be this DJ that’s just ‘I play this’ or ‘I just do that,’” and it enabled people really to just kind of branch out.
What does his legacy mean to you?
It means a lot to me. It’s interesting because I’m originally from the Midwest. I’m from Ohio, which is, obviously, right near Detroit. And my wife’s from Detroit, so there’s always just been an inherent connection with that scene, in general. And coming from a really underground hip-hop world, which is where I started my career, it’s kind of like evolved, and I’ve sold out multiple times since then with a smile on my face, but it’s always nice to be able to come back to your roots and be a part of these types of projects.
His legacy is something that, oddly, I’ve been able to be a part of for a multitude of different occurrences from doing the Dillagence tape with Busta to doing Dilla tributes like [DAF9], or I did one in DC two years ago. It’s pretty amazing playing a small part in all the honoring that’s going on for him.
How did the idea for the Dillagence mixtape come about?
It’s funny. It’s not that amazing of a story. I’ve been friends with Busta for quite a while now, which is also very surreal to me in a weird way. We had done some mixtape stuff in the past, and he really respected my creativity and my vision for how to do those. So one day, we were talking, and he was just telling me some stories about Dilla kind of like he did at the event, and I was like, “Dude, you know, we should really just put our brains together and come up with something really cool and attribute it to him and try to figure out a way to involve the family” and whatever. And he was with it.
So, we came up with the name and the concept and the art and the marketing behind it. He sent me the songs, and I kind of edited it down how I thought it should go. We cut the intro together. The intro was actually produced by DJ Spinna, which is amazing. Then we put it out, and then it kind of became one of those projects that, everywhere I go in the world, people will bring up to me.
It’s funny because it always kind of makes me a little bashful or embarrassed because all I kind of did was come up with an idea, and I kind of helped shepherd the project, but I didn’t make the beats or I didn’t rap on it. I just kind of helped conceptualize it, so when people say that to me…like if it was a mixtape where I was doing the production on it or a lot of the creative brands I’ve done a lot of stuff with ike that, and I’d be all “Oh, cool. Thanks.” But this is something I kind of feel like, you don’t really need to be thanking me. It’s like it’s those guys. It’s their iconic-ness that made that project what it was. But I’m grateful just to have a satellite, peripheral connection to that whole thing. It’s still very surreal.
You play gigs all over the world. What are some of your favorite locales to play live?
Wow. I love Tokyo. I love London. I love Miami and Brazil. I’m pretty grateful for wherever because it’s just pretty amazing that I get to travel and play music. I’m appreciative of that.
How would you say those crowds compare to those in NYC?
Well, that depends on what you mean by that because the average NYC crowd is kind of like too cool. They’re very like stand around “we’re too busy being pretty and networking.” But the crowds at the Donuts party was not your typical NYC crowd. That was a music-loving crowd. That was pretty, pretty amazing.
Yeah, I agree with you on all fronts. We don’t appreciate what we get here.
I think, overall, the place that appreciates hip-hop more than anywhere is probably Tokyo. It was kind of actually awesome to end with the Dilla party because it was like a really nice cherry on top of everything. It didn’t involve the normal stress of my life. It was kind of just like a go in, and I felt like everyone on stage were my friends, and it was just like relaxing, and I played good music. It was a really nice way to end what was a brutal four or five days for me.
Do you have any current projects you want to promote?
I’m going to London. I’m going to Barcelona at the beginning of March. I’m doing a bunch of events at SXSW.
Do you have anything planned for the rest of 2015?
Yeah, yeah. Lots of stuff. I’ve been doing a lot of work with EA Sports doing the curating for NBA Live, and I think we’ll probably do that again this year. I have a really cool startup that I invested in that’s doing really well. It’s called Localeur, and it’s basically kind of like a really awesomely curated travel app, and it’s doing really well. We’ve gotten a ton of press from New York Times and all that stuff. That’s kind of something I’m involved in as well that’s pretty cool.
DJing has led to a lot of really awesome relationships. Everybody wants to know DJs now and talk to DJs and be friends with DJs, so I try to take advantage of that and do a lot of things outside of DJing while I have access to these amazing people. We’re all creative people and finding other ways to express your creativity is smart.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
I got to do a Dilla tribute party once with T3 from Slum Village. I DJed during that event, and it was pretty surreal. I was dropping all the songs while he did all the verses. That was one of those “Oh shit!” moments. It was somewhere in New York. It was really cool.
I just love music. I feel very blessed for this to be my job. Me, I play those songs all the time, but when you play them and then the dude rocks out from behind the curtain and starts rapping it, you know.
I can’t even imagine.
I did a show with Busta for Halloween, actually. We did a big event together, and I brought him out during my set, and he did a full concert. And that shit was like, “What the hell?”
I had no idea he had never been to a Dilla event.
No, he never has. It’s funny, when I talked to him…we talk fairly regularly. One of the things we always talk about is Dilla. Busta is the most interesting success story in hip-hop history in that he is not old school yet, but he is. He’s been around since like ’89, and we don’t really think of him as an old-school rapper because he’s still so current and relevant.
There’s people that came out way after him that we consider a washed-up, old rapper. There are so many iconic people, not washed-up even, that are done now that we consider old school. Anybody who came out from 1990 to ‘94 that’s done came out after him, you know, and he’s still current. That’s a phenomenal thing in any music industry but especially hip-hop. He gets pulled in so many different directions because he stays so relevant, he doesn’t really have time.
People never even think to approach him for that type of shit. And truthfully, he’s busy getting money. He’s got to support his family and do what he needs to do. So, I told him about the party, and he got all excited and asked, “When is it?”
Wait, are you the reason he was there?
Yeah, yeah. I brought him out. That’s another one of those surreal kind of moments for me. It was more so a matter of it being a weekend, just like with my schedule. Honestly, when Derek hit me first, I was like, “I’ll do it, but I can’t commit to you what time I’ll be able to do it.” But it was a long enough party that when I found out I was going to be on in the prime time, it was cool.
Busta happened to call me and ask what was going on, and I was like, “Dude, it’s funny that you’re calling me right now because I’m putting together this Dilla tribute set, and I’m going through some of your songs and trying to figure out what I want to play.” And then he remembered I told him about the party, and he instantly starts nerding out and telling me about the songs of his that he wants me to play, and he’s naming all these songs that I forgot about and rapping them. And he’s just getting really, really deep. And I’m laughing, you know, because it’s funny.
Then I’m like, “You should come.” And he asked where it was at, and I was like, “It’s at Brooklyn Bowl.” He had a performance later on that night, but he said, “I’m gonna try to make it.” He loves Dilla. He loves that dude man. They were like family. So, he said, “Yo, I’m gonna make it.” And I was like, “Awesome.”
So, I hit Derek and told him to call me because I had a logistical situation for him. I was like, “Fingers crossed, but I think I have a surprise for you tonight.” And we made it happen. It was great. It was awesome. That’s also a pinch me kind of moment. The teenager in me would never have believed that would happen.