T3 & Young RJ Breakdown the Legacy of Slum Village, the Influence of J. Dilla & More [Interview]
Okayplayer caught up with T3 and Young RJ to discuss Slum Village’s rotating members, J Dilla’s influence, and the legacy of Fantastic Vol. 2.
When you hear the name Slum Village, a few words come to mind: hip-hop. Lyricism. Detroit. J Dilla. For fans of certain types of hip-hop, it’s a name that ensues warm nostalgia, bringing you back to the exact time and place you heard records like “Get Dis Money,” “Fall In Love,” “Tainted,” and “Selfish.”
J Dilla’s Influence & Legacy Lives On in the World of Lo-Fi Hip-Hop
With a career that has spanned over 20 years, the group has endured many changes, yielding a rather tumultuous trajectory. Slum Village was originally Ssenepod — which is dopeness backward — and consisted of Dilla, T3, Baatin, Que D, and Wajeed. The group split up, and Dilla, T3, Baatin formed Slum Village. However, before their debut, Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1), Dilla and T3 confronted Baatin about the fact that he was selling drugs on the side. An argument broke out and he left SV. He eventually rejoined.
After the release Fantastic, Vol. 2, however, it was Dilla who was departing, to embark on a solo career. By the time Detroit Deli (A Taste of Detroit) released in 2004, Slum Village was T3 and newcomer (at the time) Elzhi. Baatin, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, left the group again. He would pass away in 2009.
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Currently, Slum Village is T3 and Young RJ — who became an official member in 2012 after years of playing the background. When asked what keeps them coming back to the stage, both respond the same: the fans. T3 said, “We took a year and a half off and we’re still on the road. The fans are what keep us touring.”
While Dilla’s legacy can hardly be translated through numbers or plaques, he was just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to Slum Village. Each member played a vital role whether it was their contributions to hooks, verses, production, or simply energy. Okayplayer caught up with T3 and Young RJ to discuss the group’s rotating members, Dilla’s legacy, and ranking standout albums in their catalog.
T3, you’ve been in the group since the beginning. Young RJ, you came on as a producer and eventually joined. Talk about how the group has shifted as members come and go.
T3: Slum Village is a revolving door. We have a lot of members, a lot of situations, but the key of the group is always the same. Dilla showed me how to produce. I wrote 50% of the hooks — as well as doing my verse. Dilla also showed RJ tricks. It’s changing, but the foundation’s always been there. The foundation’s never changed. That’s why we’re able to do things where people say “how did they pull that off?”
Even when Dilla first left, and we did Trinity, I found new producers nobody heard of. Shout out to my mans Black Milk. Kareem Riggins, nobody had heard of [him.] I was able to hear that early because we all did that. Everybody in SV used to produce, rap, make hooks. It was mostly Dilla doing the hooks on SV, but Baatin had the capabilities to do all those things as well.
What’s the formula?
RJ: The formula since Vol. 2, for the most part, was me and T in the studio, and everyone else coming in and adding their pieces after the foundation was done.
T3: Young RJ’s been a part of helping me develop me. I helped him develop his sound as well, but we all were under the tutelage of Dilla. We got joints where just me, him, and Dilla only.
How does having so many rotating members affect the group? Is it hard to maintain?
T3: I didn’t want to rotate members, let me throw this out. People have agendas. Their agendas don’t always align with the group. Salute groups like Wu-Tang Clan and De La Soul who were able to keep it together through the years. My group was the shortest and smallest group with so many agendas within a small group of people that it fucked everything up. So shout out to separate agendas and people coming saying “you this, you that, you should be doing this, you go over and do that” instead of thinking about where it all started.
That ain’t no hate or shade on nobody, people gotta live their lives. It’s 100 muthafuckas in Wu-Tang. You tellin’ me three dudes can’t get it together? God bless them. I know they had their problems, but they were able to surpass those problems. Slum Village was never able to do that. Outside of people passing, ‘cause you can’t do nothing about a person passing away. I’m talking about the people who were alive.
RJ, you were around the studio a lot with Dilla & all the guys growing up before you joined. What was going through your head then?
RJ: Just making music and enjoying the time, because you never know what you’re making and how it’s gonna turn out. You don’t know if it’s gonna be a “classic” as people [like to say] two days after their albums come out now.
T3: We gave RJ hell. We didn’t let RJ just waltz into Slum Village. We had to do beats over, over, and over again. His first batch of beats we didn’t even like. I think that’s what people need.
In this generation, there’s not enough tough love. It’s OK to be like “yo I’m not fucking with that.” Or “that’s trash, bro. I’m sorry, you got to go back.” In today’s society, people need more of that because it makes you work harder as a person. Everybody got shit though. Even Dilla, we’re not letting just anything slide. What happened to telling a mothafucka “it’s not fresh, I’m not fucking with it?” You ain’t gonna go home and cry. You say “Ima work harder. I’m gonna make shit and they’re gonna fuck with it, eventually.”
RJ: People don’t have thick skin nowadays. Everything’s taken over the top. The artist can’t have an opinion, it’s “shut up and take whatever people have to throw at them.” It doesn’t bother me because coming up, I had people say “I don’t like that” or “you need to change this, do that.” It’s about the end result at the end of the day.
What are some of the fondest memories you share looking back?
T3: We went to the D’Angelo concert and Baatin decided he could drink a whole bottle of wine in five minutes.
He threw up anywhere, it was insane. But it was Baatin, he always wanted to go against the odds. He felt like he was a god. Nothing on this earth could tame him. He’d do the impossible even when it wasn’t necessary. We weren’t calling him out to do the impossible, that’s just the thing he’d do.
Same thing with Dilla. Dilla and Baatin were kind of the same person, but not. Dilla would do the impossible differently. He’d say go pick any three records Erykah Badu and Ima make you a single. That’s the impossible Dilla would do and he’d pull it off. Baatin was real earthy, Dilla was real street, and I was the glue trying to bring both these two guys together. Yes, I like the titty bar; yes, I do want to be vegan. That was hip-hop though, that’s the beauty of it. Then we all from the hood, which is ridiculous altogether when you think about. Do you have any stories to share J?
RJ: Nah, not like that. At this point, it ain’t no sense going into old stories. The time we spent, we all enjoyed it. I ain’t out here to prostitute Dilla’s stories like the rest of people doing.
Fantastic, Vol. 2 is 19 years old. What is it about that album that made it so timeless?
RJ: They ain’t give a fuck! T3, Dilla, Baatin, they ain’t give a fuck.
T3: It was a lot of shit with that album. You can’t talk about Vol. 2 without talking about Vol. 1. The fact that Vol. 1 was heard word of mouth to guys who were already established made Vol. 2 so great. All those artists on the album, we didn’t have to pay those artists. They loved us based off our history. Nobody gets that. This was before favors were handed out. Now that’s the norm, but back then, no. Those were all favors. Pete Rock, D’angelo, Kurupt. These are people who just wanted to be there, like “I gotta be on this album!”
It’s just a classic project. You can’t turn back a classic. It was so ahead of its time that the powers that be didn’t get it until after the fact. The Source tried to give us a low rating because we weren’t from New York City and we were “street hip-hop” — we’re not a Tribe Called Quest — they didn’t get it. Even though we had Busta [Rhymes], everybody from New York on there. We had Q-Tip endorsing us, they still didn’t get it. What the fuck we gotta do? Then they went back and retracted it. “You know what, it’s a classic.” After the fact — when nobody cares.
J Dilla’s production is a huge part of that project. How did he mold that album to what it is? How did he direct you guys?
T3: Not to get too deep about it, but we were a part of the album. People think it’s just J Dilla by himself in a think tank. No! That’s not how this album was done. It was me, Baatin, Dilla, and a few other dudes there as well. Now Dilla gotta still make the beats, but I gotta come up with part of the hooks. Dilla came with part of the hooks, Baatin still coming with the verse.
I’m not fronting on Dilla, but we were also producers and other shit. There’s a lot of shit that we did on the album that people don’t necessarily know about. It’s a legacy with that. It’s a group effort.
RJ, what did you learn from Dilla in the studio? How did he affect your own art?
RJ: That nothing has to be perfect, it’s all about the feel. You sit there as long as you need to to get that feel right. If that’s working on a hi-hat for two days, that’s what it is. It’s all about the feel and making the best work you can make. Sometimes you have to take stuff away to make it fit for the artist. Sometimes, simpler is better. You can add a million things making a beat, but you might have to scale it all back to make it glue together. And having fun in the studio. You can be inspired, but you don’t have to sit up there and clone or mimic somebody. He shows versatility doing that in beat tapes, from trap to super soulful to club music. He gave you all spectrums.
How do you feel about rappers rapping over Dilla production in 2019?
T3: It’s all love. You gotta keep the legacy going, I can’t be mad that somebody from the youth is bringing it to today. Shit, it’d be worse if they didn’t give a fuck. Go head, rap on that shit. Lemme see what you do with it. Shout out to even Chance the Rapper’s joint that sampled [“Fall in Love.”] It’s all love, we never tripping on that. We had to go back too. It was just us with rock records, soul records, etc. You gotta go back.
What do you think about the lo-fi scene which has been influenced by Dilla?
RJ: It’s dope. It’s cool to have inspiration because it ties the older generations music into today. Similar elements, things that make you say “oh that sounds like x,y, z.”
T3: Progression in music is always a plus for me. I’m never saying “wait what are you doing? Don’t do this!” Music has to evolve. It’s a creative outlet that has to constantly move in ways you like or dislike, it just has to move.
Do you feel Dilla was the star of SV?
T3: He was one star of Slum Village.
RJ: He’s the person who got the attention because they knew his production, but I don’t think there was a definitive star.
T3: It’s not, because we all did the same thing. If you cut it up, everybody’s still 33 and a 3rd. If you look at the splits, even Dilla gon’ tell you, “without these two guys… ain’t no SV.” Dilla is Dilla, T3 is T3, and Baatin is Baatin. Baatin got so much crazy shit people don’t even know about.
RJ: That’s what breaks groups up. It’s not normally the internal shit, it’s the fact that the fans hold people up and say “this person is better than this person.” If the person isn’t strong-minded, then he actually starts to believe the hype. I’m keeping it 100, that’s what breaks shit up. The reason why me and T can actually be together for over nine years.
T3: Because we respect each other. I know what J do; he knows what I do.
RJ: It’s not about that ego shit. There will be a day where you go in a studio to record, your shit just ain’t dope. You gotta go back to the drawing board. It’s up to your people in the studio, you gotta respect them enough to say that. That’s the reason you see a lot of people falling off.
What are some of your favorite samples [Dilla’s] used?
T3: I got a lot of dope samples. “Tomita” is one of my favorites, because “Tomita” is a bunch of random-ass sounds. He put them together to sound like beats, that’s always dope.
What did it mean to put out a Fan-Tas-Tic box set?
T3: That’s just classic. We’re doing a lot of fun stuff now in our old age. We got new music coming next year, some soul stuff. But we definitely focused on this new Slum in 2020. Me and J will probably drop some loose records here and there. Right now, we just tryna keep the legacy going. That’s all SV’s really about.
RJ: He ain’t gonna tell you he got his solo album rockin’, so let’s talk about that. T’s been putting group stuff first for a long time. Today, we letting everybody know it ain’t just random stuff on IG, that T’s coming with his solo EP, mixtape, album. I got an EP, album, beat tape, drum kit stuff.
T3: But I’m really excited about this new SV, don’t get it twisted. We going to switch it up a little on this new album. At this point in our lives, it’s about having fun with the music. If it ain’t fun, I don’t want to do it. You might make the money or you might not, but if you have a miserable time doing it, then what the fuck are you doing it for?
Yes! just celebrated its anniversary recently. What are some immediate feelings?
T3: Yes! is dope, it’s like old school meets new school. We put some tracks on there we were supposed to use way back in the day, and brought it to new school. Then we brought Illa J in, he’s still an extended member of SV. We really had fun with that record. We didn’t have to think hard, it was just a vibe. That’s what makes Yes! Dope, the vibe. It’s new but it’s old. Even me writing the rhymes, it was easy to write to. Didn’t have to think about it, I was just writing shit.
How does that project compare to the rest of the catalog?
T3: It’s definitely up there. I’d say Vol. 1, 2, then it’s a toss up between Trinity and Yes! And then Detroit Deli, that’s my personal feelings.
RJ: I’ma go Vol. 1 and 2 are the same because that’s a continuation of a body of work. Then Yes! as far as solid body of work. It’s not about the singles or Kanye West, it’s about the solid body of work. Then I’ma put Trinity and Detroit Deli down.
Which songs mean the most to you & why?
T3: We got a lot of songs, they’re like babies. Songs I wish came out that never came out. Since we talking to Okayplayer, the Roots song with Slum Village that never came out. Nobody ever heard it, we haven’t heard it. [chuckles]
Shout out to that, throw that in there. We had a song with Mos Def back in the day that never came out. I got so many great songs just in the vault. I love all my songs man, even the bullshit ones ‘cause they get me to the dope shit.
Common actually raps over a J Dilla beat on his new project. How do you view J Dilla’s legacy? Do you feel the newer generation is doing justice in paying respects?
T3: Yeah… as much as they can. His streams still going up. People still messing with Dilla. We just did a show with Common at the Smokin Grooves with Erykah Badu. Common always doing his thing. People get it. It’s like rock and roll. Some records get popular for a minute, then they don’t. Then it comes back around and it’s popular again. I think the same thing will happen with Dilla’s music, it’s going to keep going and have its cycle.
What is your opinion on the Detroit rap scene?
T3: It’s coming up. I like a bunch of dudes. Shout out to Ty Farris, that’s my mans. Nolan The Ninja, she did a song with another guy that I did a song with. I got so many guys. Shout out to Big Tone, Earlly Mac, Super Kaine.
I like Sada Baby.
T3: I fuck with Sada Baby…He has that Bay feel. When you hear Sadababy, you’re like “this guy don’t give a fuck…” I fuck with Tee Grizzley too. Anybody doing something positive on the Detroit scene, I fuck with it. I always fucked with Big Sean. I’m still old school. Eminem wassup?
Buy SLUM VILLAGE FAN-TAS-TIC VOL 1 on vinyl here
Shirley Ju is a Los Angeles-based writer who grew up in the Bay Area. She lives, breathes, and sleeps hip-hop, and is literally on top of new music the moment it is released. If there’s a show in L.A., you can find her there. Follow the latest on her fomoblog.com and on Twitter @shirju.