The ‘Fantastic’ Origin Story of J Dilla & Slum Village

Q-Tip fueled the industry buzz by telling anyone willing to listen about his new favorite group from Motown

By Martin Caballero


Conant Gardens is a small place. From its northern border along Seven Mile Road in northeast Detroit, the quiet tree-lined streets, dotted with single family homes and large lawns, stretch only about six blocks south, ending at Nevada Ave, and eight blocks going from east to west, from Conant Street to Ryan Road.

The childhood home of T3 — the last surviving member of Slum Village — wasn’t far from where the other two members lived, with whom he would rewrite the history of Detroit hip-hop. Yet the trio didn’t know each other until their teens. As T3 describes it, “Conant Gardens is big enough where it’s not like the streets are super close together. Dilla was a seven minute walk from my house. Baatin’s house was even further, another 10 minute walk. So it wasn’t like we were right super close, but we were close enough.” He adds: “You didn’t go to other people’s blocks, that’s why everybody didn’t know each other. That’s just how it was.”


Beginnings

From an early age, T3 already stood out from most of his friends around the way; while they gravitated towards sports, his passion was always music. “When you are growing up in a neighborhood like Conant Gardens, and you have a particular taste, there wasn’t a lot of guys that were taking music serious that I knew personally.”

At Pershing High School, he eventually met two other kids who shared his interest in listening to hip-hop — and more importantly — making their own: Robert O’Bryant (aka Wajeed) and Titus Glover (aka Baatin). “I knew Wajeed, who was kind of the glue to bring us all together,” he remembers. “He had beats and was doing music stuff, and that’s how I got to know Baatin. We started off knowing each other through music and then became friends afterwards. But it was always about music first.”

Their first collective effort was “Tales from the Eastside,” featuring verses from T3 and Baatin, with production by Wajeed, who flipped John Carpenter’s classic piano theme from Halloween into a hardcore track inspired by their affection for N.W.A.

The demo was never released and it ended up being the only song they recorded as a trio. The next time they would get in the studio, they would be joined by two new members and rechristened as the group Ssenepod (or “dopeness” backwards). One of their new co-stars was Que D, a longtime friend of T3’s from the neighborhood. The other was another Conant Garden kid whom Wajeed had heard supposedly had beats. He arranged a meeting so Baatin, T3 and himself could hear for themselves.

James “J Dilla” Yancey

The first encounter was brief; a few minutes spent in a hot attic. Their host, a kid named James Yancey (aka Jay Dee, or J Dilla), took out a small grey drum machine — the first T3 had ever seen — and started playing them some instrumentals. “I just knew when I heard it that he had some joints,” T3 remembers. “He was from our neighborhood and we were wondering how there was a guy this good that we didn’t even know about. We couldn’t believe there was someone making something like this here.” When he was done they left, having only exchanged a few words with the reserved Dilla while listening to beats. “He was a quiet guy. I didn’t even know he could rhyme, I only found out later that he could rap. But the vibe started there, saying we should start talking. We would see him from time to time, and then you build the friendship after that.”

As a group, Ssenepod wasn’t particularly prolific. But out of it came a special chemistry between Dilla, Baatin and T3. Moving away from hardcore and closer to the loose, inventive “super rap” (as T3 calls it) of A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School, they began experimenting freely with music and honing a style of their own. “I think we were all experimenting at that point. Personally, I used to just sit in the basement for hours recording myself over different beats, just making up as many styles as I could until I picked one I liked and then I would present it. Baatin used to do a lot of impressions. And then Dilla, I don’t remember where he got his ideas from, but I remember one of his first raps was the stutter style. The beat he made really did stutter, so he took that and made a whole rap about him stuttering.”

Encouraged by what they heard, Baatin, T3 and Dilla saw an opportunity to create a sound that represented the unique flavor of where they were from. They just needed a name.

“[Slum Village] was just random words picked out of the dictionary, really” remembers T3. A moment later though, he makes the choice seem more purposeful. “We wanted a name that could describe where we came from. Because we were from Detroit, we felt like we had our own community within the community, which is why we called it Slum Village. That’s the whole thing: we found each other doing music in Conant Gardens and not a lot of people are doing what we’re doing. We’d made our own community. That’s basically how we came up with that.”


Raise It Up

However almost as quickly as Slum Village was born, it nearly fell apart. “[Dilla and I] found out that Baatin was selling drugs, or we thought he was selling drugs, and we didn’t want to be a part of that. So we confronted him — not to kick him out of the group, but just to confront him. And he just walked out of the group.” Thus, the first SV songs, recorded in Dilla’s makeshift basement recording studio, were actually just T3 and Dilla. One of them, “The Man,” was dedicated to their absent friend. “We were talking about how people blame ‘the man’ for all the stuff they do instead of owning up to it themselves.”

Their early material attracted the attention of RJ Rice, a local-born musician who scored hits like “Shackles” and “Harmony” in the mid-80s as frontman for the electro R&B group R.J.’s Latest Arrival. Rice had partnered with Pistons forward John Salley to open a studio in Detroit called Hoops. According to T3, “They were going to sign a bunch of acts and start this big record conglomerate. So me and Dilla had to audition for them and they liked us. They were getting ready to sign us and let us use their studio to record joints.”

Yet before they could get going, they needed to bring the third piece back into the puzzle. After convincing Baatin to return to the fold, Slum Village recorded their first real track at Hoops. Called “Drop the Drum,” the track featured Baatin doing a Sammy Davis, Jr. impression. Their proposed deal through Hoops never materialized, but Rice would continue to be an important supporter of the group throughout their career signing them to his record label Barak Records.

The period that immediately followed was full of stops and starts for SV. On the one hand, Dilla’s star was rising fast. Joseph “Amp” Fiddler was an established musician in Conant Gardens, who had schooled Dilla on how to sample on the MPC-60 as a youngster. Fiddler was also a part of George Clinton’s band for the 1994 Lollapalooza tour, during which he shared a tour bus with A Tribe Called Quest. While on the road, he played a tape of Dilla’s beats for Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammed, urging them to check out his young protege. They listened and were convinced. Soon after, the pair signed Dilla as a member of their production collective The Ummah and he made the most of his chance. Before SV had released a single project, their producer had racked up prominent credits on acclaimed albums by De La Soul, The Pharcyde, and Tribe themselves.

Meanwhile, T3 and Baatin continued to develop on their own. “There was a spot downtown called Saint Andrews that we used to go to on Fridays. If we came up with a record, we would give them the CD and they’d play it live to see how the crowd reacted. That’s how we built our audience base. We would try to have something new every week.”

During this time, Dilla was also continuing to make beats for other Detroit artists like Phat Kat (together forming the duo 1st Down) and 5 Elementz. After watching their peers drop projects with the person that was supposed to be their producer, T3 and Baatin decided that signed or unsigned, Slum Village couldn’t wait any longer.

“We took all the little money we had, we bought some cassettes with some labels, and we went to Dilla and said, ‘We got to do this today.’ At the time he was just doing some remixes or whatever The Ummah had him doing, so we ended up making Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1 all in a week.” The marathon recording sessions in Dilla’s basement studio lasted for hours, but the rushed production only ended up giving the group’s debut album more flavor.

The approach almost seemed sloppy — revealing their quirky individual styles in quick freestyles and sketches, sometimes over beats and sometimes over just clicks — yet the results kept coming back strong. “The tracks were short because first of all, we were just trying to get it all done, and second, we felt like if it was dope then it was dope. We would do 12 bars, we would do eight bars, and then we gone. That’s all you’re getting.”

The limited equipment available also played a role. “Back then, we had to record shit on DAT (digital audio tape), which means we had to do the whole song in one take. We only had two microphones so we would have to pass the mike and do the ad-libs. Then the main microphone was for the guy doing his verse. We recorded a few songs like that on Vol. 1. That means if somebody messed up, we had to start the song all over again, which was frustrating, but it did help us get our style together.”

At the end of the week, they had a rough but undeniably dope collection of 24 songs ready to go. They dubbed 300 copies on cassette, shipped some out to Q-Tip, and sold the rest hand-to-hand at Saint Andrews to people that they knew personally. Within a week they sold out, so they pressed up more and brought them to local music stores on consignment. Soon those were gone too. All the while, Q-Tip was fueling the buzz amongst his peers in the industry, telling anyone who was willing to listen about his new favorite group coming out of Motown.

In the current age, where major label A&Rs scour through YouTube and Twitter seeking the next hip-hop superstar, it’s hard to overstate the power of a record like Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1.It was lightning in a bottle: a true bootleg, with no radio support, being passed from fan to fan on dubbed cassettes purely off the strength of their enthusiasm for the music.

Two years after the first Vol. 1 tape hit the streets, SV were playing in front of huge audiences in the United States and Europe as the opening act for A Tribe Called Quest’s farewell tour in 1998–1999. They’d come a long way from that first meeting in Dilla’s attic, but they still had further to go.


Hold Tight

Fueled by the positive reception for Vol. 1 and now backed with strong connections within the industry, SV set about creating a second album which would serve as their proper introduction to the broader hip-hop world.

With their buzz now at full boil, the major labels came calling. They had signed with RJ Rice’s independent label, Barak, but now the likes of Def Jam and Universal were eager to get behind SV. Eventually — with Barak in tow — they signed with A&M Records.

Yet the deal didn’t affect their approach to the music. The group flew to Los Angeles for meetings, but all recording for Vol. 2 was still done back home in Detroit. Yet this time they got more people involved, with the likes of Common, Kurupt, ?uestlove, Erykah Badu, Busta Rhymes and Pete Rock — plus early supporters like Q-Tip and D’Angelo — coming to record at either RJ’s studio or in Dilla’s basement. “Everybody wanted to be part of the album, that’s why we had so many features. Busta came in from New York. Pete Rock came to Conant Gardens to do his song. He came down and played beats and loaded up his SP-1200.”

In terms of style, Vol. 2 was meant to carry on the loose vibe of its predecessor but bring it to a higher level. Songs were longer and more fully formed and the record showed a more complete vision of how SV would blend smooth with street.

“We wanted to do a record that would get more play, so we always felt that female-friendly records were the first move for us. We didn’t want to come on super aggressive like that. But we still had that hard energy on it because of the kind of things we were talking about.” Plush cuts like “Climax” and “Players” were balanced with tracks like “Raise It Up,” an amped-up crowd favorite from their live shows.

Other than that, there was no need to overthink things. “It was supposed to seem like Michael Jordan playing basketball; he knows he’s good but he doesn’t have to try hard. He just shoots and it goes in every time. That was the goal. It’s supposed to sound like effortless music.”

By 1998, the record was complete, but it would take another two years before Vol. 2 would see its official release. According to T3, the label’s rap department was already wary of the record after they watched Kurupt’s expensive double-disc debut album Kuruption! bring less-than-expected returns. Shortly after in January 1999, A&M ceased operations after the company was merged with Geffen and Interscope Records. A year of legal limbo and uncertainty followed before SV were able to find a home for Vol. 2 on RJ Rice’s independent Barak (along with Atomic Pop/GoodVibe Recordings). After the long wait, SV released their sophomore album on June 13, 2000.

For many fans and critics, it was worth the wait. Dilla’s intoxicating production, along with T3 and Baatin’s inventive flows and improved songwriting, plus the impressive roster of guest stars, delivered on the high expectations established after Vol. 1.

But, ironically, one of their biggest co-signs created a challenging situation that would overshadow some of SV’s early success. T3 explains: “The only thing that hurt us was when Q-Tip said he was passing the torch to us on ‘Hold Tight.’ Before we even got out the gate, a lot of diehard Tribe fans who were reporters and stuff like that, they trashed the album based on that line. They felt like they didn’t know who we were for Q-Tip to say he was going to pass the torch to us. Before all of that happened, I knew the album was going to be successful. I knew it was going to be great and we all felt that way. Once that trash talk started happening, it made it hard for the group. We just wanted to do a regular song with Q-Tip, and the fact that he would put that in the song made it kind of difficult for us at that point.

“I did talk to him about it, one day in New York. He was just saying, ‘Man, I’m done with this industry, I don’t want to be part of this no more, I might go on to do other stuff.’ What are you going to say? I didn’t know him well enough to tell him what or what not to do. I just got him to do a song and vibe and kick it.”

Despite pockets of backlash, the album succeeded in presenting SV’s smooth, spontaneous style on a larger stage. Although it was not a smash hit at the time, T3 takes satisfaction in knowing that many of the same critics who derided Vol. 2 when it came out have since acknowledged the record as a classic.

The late great J Dilla is still shining.

Epilogue

The release of Vol. 2 marked the end of Slum Village’s first era. A month after that album’s release they dropped one final project and went their separate ways. It was an extremely limited 10-track EP released under the name J-88 called Best Kept Secret. “After the lukewarm success of Vol. 2, that’s when Dilla decided he wanted to do his own thing because he already had a deal in place at MCA. He said, ‘I’m going to do my thing, y’all should keep it going.’ So that’s what we did.”

Despite never officially releasing his album Pay Jay for MCA Records, Dilla resumed his ascent towards becoming one of the most acclaimed producers in hip-hop history through albums like Champion Sound (with Madlib), Ruff Draft and Donuts, plus countless other credits. After a long battle with a rare blood disease, J Dilla died on February 10, 2006. He was 32.

T3 and Baatin, joined by a talented upcoming MC from Detroit named Elzhi, carried the SV legacy forward and signed to Barak Records/Capitol Records. Trinity: Past, Present & Future featured only three songs produced by Dilla, yet the single “Tainted” and its accompanying video received solid traction on radio and TV. Baatin continued to struggle with health issues in the subsequent years, remaining absent from the group for their next two albums, but reconnected with SV in 2008. On July 31, 2009, Baatin died at his home in Detroit at age 35. His contributions to Villa Manifesto, released in 2010, mark his final work with Slum Village.

As the last remaining original member of the group, T3 takes pride in his responsibility for maintaining SV’s storied legacy, as well as moving it forward. The group, which finds T3 now joined by RJ Rice’s son Young RJ and J Dilla’s brother Illa J, released their latest album Yes! in 2015. Even with all the changes that have happened in between, SV still represents the same mentality that it did when the name was chosen: a community with a shared love of music, born right in Conant Gardens.

“Our recognition has been a long time coming. I think sometimes things just take longer than others to spread and get recognized. So, with that, I don’t take it personal. Who’s to say how long it should take when it comes to music? A lot of people abandon their Detroit roots. The fact that you can see we’re still here, it says a lot about Detroit to me.”


Excerpted from Slum Village’s new Fantastic Box set from Ne’astra Music Group. Limited to 1000 copies worldwide, the set includes four CDs and five 45 rpm 7-inch singles, which includes Slum Village’s Fan-Tas-Tic volumes one and two, along with original album vocal tracks, bonus remixes, and instrumentals. Available now at Get On Down.

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