Hip-Hop album review: J Dilla – ‘Ruff Draft’

Album review

by Daniel B. Honigman (from

Sadly, it’s always the dead musicians who develop the biggest following. Underappreciated when alive, J Dilla – arguably one of the best hip-hop minds ever – and his records have amassed scores of new listeners since his death. But many of these new fans maybe haven’t heard of Slum Village, and because of that, weren’t exposed to his full range of talents. Ruff Draft will help change that.

Originally released in February 2003 as a vinyl-only album distributed by German label Groove Attack, Ruff Draft is some of Dilla’s last solo work before his lupus diagnosis in 2005. Now it is indie powerhouse Stones Throw (who also released Dilla’s Champion Sound collab and Donuts), to re-issue the obscure LP.

Ruff Draft begins with a short intro: the artist himself. “It’s Ruff Draft. For my real niggaz only. DJs that play that real live shit…like it’s straight from the motherfucking cassette.” The album then dives into one lush soundscape after another. Let’s Take It Back, the first full track, is highlighted by the strumming of tonal synth-samples, and it relaxes your ears as he rides the beat with some adroit emceeing. Reckless Driving, ups the ante as the synth-heavy light beats have an epic, energizing feel because of the well-placed bass. As always, Dilla pulls this off without a hitch. But he still teases you, as he knows what’s to come.

Nothing Like This and The $ are the album’s two biggest heavy-hitters. The first, a love poem comprised of several simple quatrains, solidifies Dilla’s status as one of hip-hop’s most unique talents. It’s a love song, but it’s far from Thug Love. Simple strings and percussion are distorted to create an emotive accompaniment for his expressive lyrics; “Incomplete when you’re away/You turn my nights into day/You show me the light, uh-huh/Gotta have you right away.” On The $, he uses ascending horn synth samples to give the song an old-school, b-boy feel.

Xylophone and M.O.P. samples form the background for Make ‘em NV, a song about changes in hip-hop culture; “These backpackers want to confuse it/Niggaz is icy ain’t got nothing to do with the music/So, hater, mind ya biz and getcha own/You know what time it is, we get that glow.” The only lackluster track on this album, Crushin’ (Yeeeeaah!), uses a grindable beat to describe his seemingly endless desire for ass. It’s terribly average and notches below what we’re accustomed from Dilla’s dazzling soundscapes.

The original album ends with a track of shout-outs, but is reborn with several unreleased tracks. After an alternate introduction, Wild takes the stage. A sample from British glam-rock band Slade’s Cum on, Feel the Noize is processed to make the song sound child-like. Take Notice, featuring fellow Detroit rapper Guilty Simpson and an alternate outro end the album on a high note.

Overall, the album’s wonderful. He doesn’t overload you with complicated beats and rhymes. Because of this, and because of the album’s length – it runs less than half an hour from start to finish – you’ll be left wanting more. Dilla’s legacy is still growing. His popularity hasn’t yet crested nor has his name been cheapened – a la Tupac – by scores of lechers looking to make a quick buck off of yet another subpar remix album. Along with the all-time great emcees, Dilla is an artist people will listen to many years from now.

Let’s just hope hip-hop’s not dead by then.

(Check out the original review on