Detroit 1997. Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 the debut record by Slum Village was released. Recorded in the late J Dilla’s basement in 1996/1997, the album immediately rose to critical acclaim, making its journey to the hands of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and on to the ears of the 90s hip hop elite. A few years later Slum Village landed their first record deal and released their first official album Fantastic, Vol. 2 in 2000.
Slum Village is almost ever evolving. The group has seen six members come and go due to illness and mismatched perspectives, but still their sound and need to continue the Slum Village and Dilla legacy drives their future and continues the creation of original hip hop. Today they are touring Europe to promote last year’s release Yes! their eighth studio album posthumously produced by Dilla, Young RJ and Black Milk, after Miss Yancey, Dilla’s mother found cutoffs and forgotten recordings from Dilla’s studio. One half of Slum Village’s current lineup, Young RJ, who was Dilla’s protégé, said that Miss Yancey, found Dilla’s storage van in 2014, eight years after her son’s death from TTP and cardiac arrest. Inside, Young RJ described, was a case labelled “Slum Village” and inside, two-inch tapes, cassette tapes, and all of what Slum Village had been working on since Volume 2, and even prior to.
“It was songs that were halfway done, that might not have been fully 100 percent completed, but the idea and concept was laid down,” says Young RJ. T3’s vocals were on there, and Baatin’s as well. Then once Miss Yancey returned the content to Young RJ and T3, the duo listened to everything with the intention of creating something new, putting a new spin and a new approach on it. They headed into the studio, formatted it, added extra music to update it slightly, laid their vocals on it and recruited De La Soul, Phife from A Tribe Called Quest (RIP), John Connor and others. But at the heart of Yes! is the work of Dilla and Baatin as well as Dilla’s brother Illa J.
“It’s a great way of merging the old Slum and new Slum,” says Young RJ. “Dilla and Baatin added a new fresh approach to the classic sound that Slum fans like … We felt like it was another way to pay tribute to the members that passed away.”
It’s a backstory that is well known. Dilla and Baatin were integral to the development of Slum Village. It was Baatin, Dilla and T3, three childhood friends who initially founded Slum Village in the early 90s. After the release of their first official album Fantastic, Vol. 2 Dilla left to pursue a solo career, releasing his debut solo album Welcome To Detroit in 2001, leaving Baatin and T3 to continue work on Trinity (2002) Upon its release however, Baatin left the group amid health concerns and the lineup of Slum Village changed again. But their music prowess and innovation only strengthened through the production of Detroit Deli (A Taste of Detroit) (2004) which included the track Selfish, which featured the young Kanye West and unknown at the time John Legend – the inclusion of which possibly allowed Legend to make his mark in the hip hop community.
In 2006, Dilla’s illness had taken control of his body, and he passed away three days after his 32nd birthday and the release of his final album Donuts. In 2009, Baatin passed of a reported overdose. Despite Slum Village’s output, it was a disheartening situation. Two of the founders had passed away, and the newly added Elzhi moved on to a solo career. T3 was left to fend for Slum Village. He was tired, and said that Villa Manifesto (2010) would be their last album.
“I think at the time T3 was a little frustrated with some of the things that were going on, and he might not have known where to take it from there,” says Young RJ. “After losing Dilla and Baatin and then Elzhi decided to do a solo thing, so when we all sat down we felt like everyone felt like the legacy was more important that who was in the group at the time,” he says. “As long as we still had the key components of the people producing the music and it wasn’t a situation where we were just doing bad music and throwing the Slum Village brand on it.”
It was a little before Dilla died, that Young RJ was more integral part of Slum Village. Young RJ came from a musical family – his parents had a group in the 80s, called RJs Latest Arrival – which saw him involved form a young age “I come from a musical family, parents had a group in the 80s called RJs Latest Arrival, and it went from that, watching them on tour as a child.” His parents opened up a studio in 1992, and it was here that the fateful meeting between Young RJ, Dilla and T3 happened. “I meet two guys that walked into the studio by the name of JD and T3. They auditioned and were assigned to the label, along with my group, and they produced some songs for us. We built relationship, and that was kind of my introduction into the music business,” recalls Young RJ. “And from there Dilla taught me how to produce music, I was his protégé, and me and T3 began to step in and continue the legacy of Slum Village once Dilla moved on to do a solo career.”
From there Young RJ said that it had just really been himself and T3 continuing their work in the studio for Slum Village despite the revolving door of members. “That’s the reason why the sound has been able to be the same, no matter who is in the group at the time because it’s the same formula,” he says.
Hip hop, says Young RJ is much the same – you have still got to search for music. The main difference, explained Young RJ is due to the Internet, you can just hear more of the crap on a consistent basis because there’s no filter. “A person can just go into a bedroom and plug up a mic and do a song and throw it up and now it’s on the Internet,” he says. “Before you had to go into the studio, you had to spend your money, thousands of dollars at a time to try to put a demo tape together, and it’s just changed.”
He says that it was about being smart with your money and ambition: “spending the money on the studio time cut out a lot of the foolishness because the person went like ‘I don’t wanna spend this money because I don’t know when I’m going to get some more. So I think that’s the main thing that’s changed,” he says. But added to that, says Young RJ, there was a lot more variety on the radio, from A Tribe Called Quest to Uncle Lou, Mild D and BMX playing, there was just more variety on the radio.
Today Slum Village continues to create meaningful hip-hop that stays true to their legacy and that of Dilla’s, because that legacy is respected – not only by T3 and Young RJ, but the also the wider hip hop community. The output of Slum Village wouldn’t have been possible without the work of J Dilla and Baatin, and this is why Slum Village today, continues to honour and celebrate their legacy. “You might have some people that are just getting familiar with Slum because we’re still doing music, so our main goal is to make sure to understand who the founding members are of the group, and the legacy and what they contributed to the group, and we do that in every show,” says Young RJ. “We have tributes in the show for Baatin and Dilla, so we continue to do that, we do things like Dilla Weekends, and things of that nature when we bring artists our that Dilla may have worked with.”
Inevitably having such a history that involves hip hop greats like Dilla, the thought of whether you can really fill their shoes comes to mind. But for Young RJ, that’s not really a question. “You know it’s like, you can never fill Dilla’s shoes,” he says. “All I can do is just try to make sure that I keep the integrity that he taught me to keep inside of the music, and not to do anything, or put anything out that I’m truly not 100 percent happy with.” He recalls Dilla turning down work from many people, including big names from the 90s like N’Sync. Quite simply, if he wasn’t 100 percent into it he didn’t do it. “We try to keep the same approach, and when we doing things, we try to think what would he do, and just keep the integrity for the best of our ability and just try to stay creative and continue to inspire.”
When asked if they have an intention to release some of Dilla’s work that has yet to drop, he says that there might be something in the works, but right now the focus is solely on Slum Village. “We help Miss Yancey from time to time when she needs it with creative ideas and things of that nature, so we just did the new Slum Village boxset for the Vol. 1 and Vol. 2,” he says. “It came out maybe about three months ago and it’s sold out … so the main thing that we’re playing is Volume 0 which is all the unreleased outtakes and demos that got Slum signed.” This he says, is likely to come out end of this year, or early next year.
Both T3 and Young RJ are also working on solo projects that will drop next year. T3’s is called Trace, which Young RJ describes as a hip-hop/techno kind of project, and Young RJ’s is called Black Royalty, which sees production from Dilla and Pete Brock. “I got a lot of people on the record, a lot of features, I just don’t want to name them yet because then they might just be old news,” he laughs. He’s asked if he could give just one name, “Nah, I definitely call you back,” he says laughing. “When it gets closer, I’ll give you the full lift. It’s a lot of people on the release.”
Slum Village is clearly important to Young RJ and T3, but more important is the music. They don’t feel pressure to create differently, to jump on the wagon and create what’s already being done. They want to make music that just feels good, adding to their volumes. “If people get it, then that’s great, if they don’t you know hopefully they’ll get it next time. Our main thing is just making music that we want to make true expression of that feel good to us.”
Slum Village are headlining Outlook Festival in Croatia, which kicks off today. They’ll then travel to Holland, Spain, the UK and more.
Interview: Audrey Bugeja, Managing Editor, fluoro. Article by me.
featured image: Rzom_, Young RJ (Slum Village) / FlickrCC
post first appeared on fluoro. © HM Group (Aus) Pty Ltd 2016