Ruff Draft Reissue
(Mummy/Stones Throw; 2003/2007)
By Kevin Yuen | 27 April 2007
The night before the kickoff of the 2003 CMJ Music Marathon, Egon peered into the scattered, inattentive crowd at SOB’s in New York City. He had been spinning his breaks and funk tracks for about 20 minutes, and the general manager for Stones Throw records felt like scolding the audience for its general disinterest. “You don’t know this shit?” he chided into the mic. “This is ‘Funky Drummer’! You guys don’t know ‘Funky Drummer’? Why aren’t y’all dancing? I’m gonna play this whole thing, this whole seven minutes. I better see some fuckin’ dancing.” He pretended to cue up the next 45 onto the right turntable and took a couple sips of his beer, letting James Brown fill the venue for an awkwardly prolonged amount of time as a handful of enthusiastic Stones Throw fanboys nodded their heads a few feet from the stage and everyone else carried on with their private conversations.
Later that year, Peanut Butter Wolf went to San Jose, Calif., to DJ a night for his hometown. Peanut Butter Wolf is musically a big deal for San Jose, a suburb-slash-city dwarfed by the importance of San Francisco and Oakland, both a mere fifty miles away. His return to his stomping grounds after moving his indie hip hop label to LA a few years before was a big deal, at least to the college radio crowd. Unfortunately, by all accounts, his set killed the dance floor, as he opted to side with his nerdy collection of obscure headphone music rather than a hits-based set a la Hollertronix, which was probably killing it (in the good way) every weekend around this same time 3000 miles away.
The weekend after J Dilla died, I went to a show put on by Stones Throw, which was to feature the Sound Providers and opening sets by J-Rocc and other DJs. While I had a sour taste from the Stones Throw camp in the past, I was willing to chance Madlib’s Sound Providers, as the night had promised an eight-piece band. The other “Stones Throw DJs” had also contributed to a history of disappointment, but the seasoned J-Rocc always had an awesome set. So I trekked the fifty miles, plopped down the twelve bucks and crossed my fingers. It was a classic bait and switch. I ran back to reference the show poster as it was announced that the night would “now be devoted to ALL Jay Dee tracks.” And played not by an eight-piece band, either, but all on turntables. Tracks that weren’t necessarily geared towards being played in a large venue. Slow, rumbling, tracks, often accompanied by average to horrible rapping. The guilt panged my stomach when I exited and passed the ticket booth a little past midnight, as I restrained myself from taking back my twelve bucks from the “J Dilla Foundation” that had become the cause for the night. The turkey sandwich at the gay café made things a little better.
But I admire Stones Throw. They’re unwaveringly independent, and some of their staunch alternative slants have braved into the mainstream, as releases by Madlib, MF Doom and Jay Dee are often critically praised, if not purchased by the millions. They’ve made a business out of catering to the small cult of funk-soul fans, with reissues of small pressed high school bands and 7-inch releases for vinyl purists. The dichotomy here is that while they are releasing things that they think people should be listening to, most of it goes ignored. People should want to pay tribute to J Dilla the weekend after he dies, sure. Enjoy your beer as we hear that Slum Village track that sampled Daft Punk for the umpteenth time. People should dance to obscure (and not so obscure) funk music, with the hard drums and the horns, which have been sampled countless times for tracks they would rather dance to. A well-executed DJ set could (or should) spark someone to rummage through a dump truck full of vinyl to uncover that Brazilian gem of a drum break. It’s just that sometimes Stones Throw’s apparent lack of compromise just makes their music boring, frankly, so none of these things happen.
Enter the re-release of J Dilla’s Ruff Draft EP in 2007, nearly a year after Dilla’s death. Originally, the album came out in 2003, two years after Dilla’s first solo album as Jay Dee, Welcome 2 Detroit, but thanks to zero promotion and a no-name label, it went unnoticed. So here comes Stones Throw to the rescue, giving the obscure release a (slightly) wider audience. Of course in context of his death and the realization of the breadth of Dilla’s work (remember that time he almost produced for N*Sync?), there’s the urge to delve into the little known work and really try to appreciate the fleeting amount of uncovered beats on Dilla’s resume. Is Ruff Draft great? No. But the good news is that it’s short. You could throw this on at 8 p.m. on Thursday and by the time it was done, Michael Scott would surely be barking up a storm on the opening scene of The Office. (Wait, isn’t this a Canadian site? What’s on a half hour before Degrassi? Sorry. Tim Horton’s. Hockey. Ice fishing. Politeness. Let’s get it all out.) Ruff Draft is subtle, full of muddy melodies, magical synths and crispy snares, all typical of Dilla beats that aren’t on major label releases. On arguably the best track of the album, “Take Notice,” Dilla and rapper Guilty Simpson drone over a rumbling production with filtered drums structuring a haunting keyboard sample that almost requires you to sing along. With the sample.
There are also a couple in-joke Stones Throw moments, such as on “Wild,” which I’m pretty sure samples a Peanut Butter Wolf (the childhood band of the DJ with the same name) cover of Slade’s/Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize,” and a distorted sing-song “Nothing Like This” which features samples of records being played backwards, I think. And the lyrics are typically J Dilla. They seem like freestyles or stream of conscious thoughts, such as on “Let’s Take It Back,” he raps, “My niggas keep it ghet-to with the plastic cups / So turn it up / It’s getting hot in herre, it’s burning up / Let’s go / Yep, another ep-i-sode.” He tackles money on “The $,” sex on “Crushin’ (Yeeeeeaah!).” But you’re really here for the beats. The head nodding xylophone contrasted by MOP samples on “Make’em NV,” the streamlined, vast sound of “Reckless Driving” and.uh.well, it’s an EP, and sans intros and interludes, I’ve mentioned every single track. Oh, look, The Office is starting. A stapler. In Jell-o!
Thank you, Stones Throw, for being the Criterion Collection of hip hop. It’s just that I don’t know anyone who would go to a party where they only showed DVD extras. But for the sake of the “J Dilla Foundation” and hip hop historians across the globe, Ruff Draft offers a taste of part of the growth of a legend who went on to almost produce for N*Sync.