J Dilla / ‘Aura’

An Orchid Grows in Motown: Capturing Aura in J Dilla’s Donuts, a Response to Walter Benjamin

(Presented at Interface 2014 – Transmediating Culture, May 2-3, 2014, Carleton University, Ottawa, ON and the Joint Meeting of the NYSSL Chapter of AMS and the Niagara Chapter of SEM. April 26-27, 2014, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY.)


Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” lamented the loss of what Benjamin called “aura,” the original essence of a piece of art that has not been reproduced. Benjamin felt this was most appreciable in visual media experienced in person, rather than via photograph or film. Benjamin stated that the camera or the “equipment-free aspect of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.” But does mechanical reproduction necessarily eliminate aura or does it enhance it?

Seventy years later, James “J Dilla” Yancey, a Detroit-based hip-hop artist with over 200 recordings, used a digital sampler to produce his final album, Donuts, from his hospital bedside as he died of lupus. After he passed, many speculated he recorded Donuts as a last musical will and testament and embedded messages within the audio samples so fans could share his vision, mediated by the technology that mechanically reproduced it.

J Dilla died at 32, Benjamin at 48. They both “quoted” as a creative technique, Dilla sampling from soul, jazz, electronic, and hip-hop records, Benjamin from other authors in The Arcades Project, supplemented with his own notations. This paper examines how these re-contextualizations create new “auras” arising from newly blended words/sounds and, contrary to Benjamin’s assertion, these can be experienced by the audience even when mechanically reproduced. J Dilla used digital technology while Benjamin used print, yet the “aura” inherent in their music and writing can be reproduced, not only mechanically, but experientially.