J Dilla was already making quite a bit of noise throughout the industry when he recorded a full-length debut album with his group Slum Village. After providing several highlight moments on Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifonia in 1995, Dilla saw his work end up all over projects by Keith Murray, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes, Skillz, and De La Soul in 1996.
The 1997 release of Slum Village’s Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1) only furthered his reputation as must-have producer. Originally intended as a limited edition release to generate some industry buzz, the group’s first album was bootlegged like crazy and quickly became a prized possession for collectors and music junkies.
Though casual fans of his catalog may not realize it, MCs/fellow Slum Village members T3 and the late Baatin — who passed away in 2009 — first connected with Dilla when they were still high school students in the late 80s and early 90s. Still developing the sound that would later make him famous, he spent much of his time DJing and making simple but impressive drum machine tracks and pause-tape beats in his home studio.
“Hands down this album birthed the neo soul movement. It was a new way to present raw funk in a contemporary sense.” — Questlove
The two SV MCs made the acquaintance of the aspiring young producer when Wajeed — a talented Detroit artist, early friend of Baatin and T3, and a DJ/producer for Slum Village—caught wind of Dilla’s aptitude behind the boards. Eager to hear his handiwork with their own ears, the three young men tracked him down for an initial meeting.
After Baatin and T3 finally connected with Dilla, they all went over to his house to sample some tracks. Instantly impressed with what they heard, the trio started working together on a regular basis. “We went there and he took us straight to where he had this old school drum machine,” T3 told Ambrosia For Heads in a 2014 interview. “He started playing some of his beats, and they were dope, and really right from there we just kept doing stuff together.”
Despite their initial chemistry, the group underwent several changes and iterations before their breakthrough debut in 1997. First came Ssenepod (dopeness spelled backwards), a short-lived group that consisted of Baatin, Que D, Dilla, T3, and Wajeed. After Ssenepod broke up and Slum Village formed, Dilla and T3 suspected that Baatin was selling drugs on the side. When they decided to question him about it, it didn’t go well. “[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,” T3 told Cuepoint in a 2016 interview. “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.”
“In not even more than two days, they (T3 and Baatin) came over and laid all the vocals to no beats, just a metronome click.” — J Dilla
From there, the group’s future looked increasingly opaque. Though they were able to convince Baatin to re-join the group, a possible label opportunity with musician RJ Rice and former Detroit Pistons John Salley never quite materialized. Other opportunities — like the Dilla & Phat Kat group 1st Down and an increasingly demanding production schedule — took Dilla further away from working with Slum Village. It also led to many trips that kept him far from Detroit for long stretches of time.
After one such trip in 1996, Dilla recalled that Detroit rappers were especially eager to get into the studio and work with him when he finally returned home. “I used to go out of town a whole lot, so when I came back to the D for a while, cats were talking about, ‘Let’s put something out, let’s do something,’” he told Rime in a 2003 interview.
Between all the artists who were clamoring for an opportunity to work alongside Dilla, it was known that Slum Village was his top choice. “Of everyone that Dilla worked with in the neighborhood, Slum Village was the front runner,” Frank of the rap group Frank-n-Dank told Real Detroit Weekly in a 2006 interview. “That was Dilla’s priority.”
“When we were all in the studio, it was like a boot camp. We only had one DAT machine … so there was no room for mistakes.” — Frank of Frank-n-Dank
With that in mind, Slum Village decided to finally record an off the cuff project together. Dilla didn’t have any beats ready when the trio started making the album, so they improvised. “In not even more than two days, they (T3 and Baatin) came over and laid all the vocals to no beats, just a metronome click,” Dilla told Rime.
Picturing Baatin and T3 doing all of their vocals to a simple metronome click is almost unfathomable, but equally amazing is that fact that Dilla also produced all of the beats on Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1) in a matter of days. “After that, I made some joints for two or three days,” he told Rime.
By the time the group finished working at such a manic pace for multiple days in a row, everyone was ready to collapse from exhaustion. “Everybody was tired, about to pass out,” Dilla told Rime.
“I used to go out of town a whole lot, so when I came back to the D for a while, cats were talking about, ‘Let’s put something out, let’s do something.’” — J Dilla
Based on other interviews, one gets the sense this kind of non-stop workflow and studio rigor was Dilla’s preferred operation. It seems an all systems go mentality was the rule, not the exception. “When we were all in the studio, it was like a boot camp,” Frank of Frank-n-Dank told Real Detroit Weekly. “We only had one DAT machine … so there was no room for mistakes. There were no retakes, you needed to get your beats and rhymes together beforehand. We would have five-minute beat-battles where we would take a record and have to finish that beat in five minutes. It was all a serious learning experience.”
Despite the fact that verses were rapped over a metronome click and beats were constructed in a mere few days, the first cassette copies of Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1) sold out with lightning speed, with a second pressing also disappearing within the blink of an eye. People were soon clamoring for an original copy and the album reached an almost mythical status within the hip-hop community.
Much more than a mere novelty or collector’s item, Slum Village’s debut ushered in a new sound that left its fingerprints all over the music industry for many years to come. “Hands down this album birthed the neo-soul movement,” Questlove said in the book 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die: A Listener’s Life List. “It was a new way to present raw funk in a contemporary sense.”