Dilla Forever: An Interview with T3 and Young RJ of Slum Village

A conversation with Young RJ and T3 about what it was have Dilla as a mentor, and their latest, Jay Dee produced album"Yes."
By    July 16, 2015


Art by Coup d’Oreille

Record store owner Jeff Bubeck thought it was just business as usual when he decided to purchase a massive record collection from a forgotten storage unit. It wasn’t until the Detroit resident started getting his fingers dusty that he realized it wasn’t just any abandoned record collection–it was J Dilla’s, and inside, were unreleased Jay Dee beats.

J Dilla’s mom, Maureen “Ma Dukes” Yancey, received his collection and turned the beats over to friends and colleagues (enter: Slum Village). Soon after, ‘Yes’ happened.

Released June 16th by Slum Village, Yes, their 8th studio album, is a nostalgic but novel installment to their repertoire. It boasts J Dilla’s signature smooth and textured jazzy beats, tales of romance and heartache, collaborations with familiar faces, and nods to past works.

Most of Dilla’s beats were cuts from Fantastic Vol. 1 and 2 that received freshening up by producer Young RJ, adding layers of instrumentals where he saw fit. Vocals of Baatin from previous works, of which they have plenty, were incorporated as well.

It’s a fresh spin on a posthumous body of work. An exhibition of not only J Dilla and Baatin’s cutting edge styles, but also of T3 and Young RJ’s innovations at making them relevant.

While the album’s concept is captivating, the intent is seemingly far less complex. Slum really just “wanted to keep it fun,” Young RJ explained, and get back to their classic sound.

A simple enough goal for a record. Almost as casual and unassuming as stumbling into an abandoned storage unit.
Andrea Aliseda

Tell me about your mental process for this album, why this concept and why now?

Young RJ: Well comin’ after what we went through after 2009 we already had some of the tracks but we didn’t feel like it was time. We wanted to come out and reestablish the group with Evolution. With everything that’s going with the [inaudible] and everything that we’ve been doin’, it felt like now was the time to finish it, especially after they found the masters [tracks] when they found that storage bin in 2012. They found his [J Dilla’s] storage bin and they returned to us our masters with the storage bin. So a lot of the stuff that we did for this record were ideas that Slum had already been workin’ on for [Fantastic] Volume 2. Volume 1 that was just never completed and then when we went back through it and listened to everything, it just clicked. We figured out a way to bring all the past and present members and make them a part of the album.

T3: I think it was time for the concept. Basically what happened was Miss Yancey got a lot of [old stuff] back. And most of these records were old Slum Village joints anyway. So once it all got released when Miss Yancey found the storage stuff we started going through it and I remembered these records, and they didn’t sound dated to me so I wanted to use those records and that’s how the process started with that. And then I felt that I had to infuse some Baatin on there and just make it all completely nostalgic. This record is kind of a throwback mixed with the new. That’s the concept behind this whole record.

How did you uncover these tracks?

T3: They were in his [Dilla’s] storage bin, and a guy had bought it. And when he found it was a lot of Dilla’s stuff in there he contacted Miss Yancey and he gave it all to her. He was a good guy. She didn’t even know about the storage bin. That’s how it all started. Then Miss Yancey came to us. And that’s how we got it. She didn’t want [just] anyone to use it, he wanted us to use it. That’s how it all formulated.

So this is stuff that Dilla had from Fantastic Vol. 1 and 2?

Young RJ: Yeah

Are there more beats that he has or is this all that you guys unearthed from his collection of beats?

YRJ: We got some more stuff, we’re just waiting for the right time to put it out again. We got a couple ideas [that] we’ve been bouncin’ around.

T3: There are more Dilla joints, yes. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s really up to the estate and Miss Yancey, but yes there’s quite a bit. There’s a whole Dilla album of unreleased vocals nobody heard, it’s a bunch of stuff. A lot of stuff people haven’t heard. Dilla was a constant worker, he just made music upon music. He never stopped, so it’s quite a bit of stuff. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it, you know it’s not in our hands, it’s really up to the estate.

Can you fill me in on some of those ideas?

YRJ: Not right now, it’s a little premature now. But we’ve got some ideas, some more book boxsets, other stuff that we’re working on.

You also incorporated Baatin into this album, can you talk to me about that? Where did his vocals come from?

T3: We still have many vocals from Baatin, we got albums–we got whole albums that we want to release, we’re just waiting on his family to figure out what they want to do. But we got plenty of stuff that Baatin recorded. Baatin recorded a lot of stuff. So we got plenty of vocals off that. And we figured–I’m not sure it’s going to be the last chapter for Slum but if it is–we want to complete it with as much of the original cast as we can. So we felt like Baatin was that last piece we needed. Also, it’s a way to give back to his family ’cause they’re still getting a percentage of this album. It’s a win-win situation. Baatin has two children, and so we wanted to give back to that too as well.

Where did Baatin’s vocals come from?

T3: Some of the stuff he recorded for our albums that we never release. Like, if you hear the joint with Black Milk that he just never released. Those were a good amount of tracks that never happened. And some stuff we just made magic out of. Just put his vocals to certain joints. But me and Baatin already had some stuff too. So it was kind of a mix of us [Slum] and stuff he had already recorded that we just hadn’t released.

What sound were you looking to create with this album?

YRJ: We just wanted to get back to the classic sound that Slum is known for. This album was really for the fans. We wanted to make sure that we gave the fans that have been around with Slum for 15-to-20 plus years what the group is known for. [And to] educate the new fans that are comin’ into play too.

What were your sources of inspirations for this album? Lyrically, conceptually, musically…

YRJ: We wanted to keep it fun. Slum was never really known for getting too conscious or make a lot of concept records so we wanted to just keep it fun, [have] a summertime record. And with some of the stuff that we had seen in the news, we wanted to touch on that with tracks like, “Windows” for the new album. [But] it was mostly just a lot of having fun in the studio and just sticking to the formula that was already there.

T3: I just wanted to have a good, feel-good album for the summer. It’s really what I was going for when I created it. We got a couple of records on that album that [are] real live records. But mostly it’s just us having fun. And we wanted to kind of get back to that. Us just having fun with records. We have a bunch of girl records on there, we always do–female friendly records. Slum Village is known for doing that. And we just wanted to have fun with it. So basically that was the whole goal: A feel good record for the summer.

What do you mean by female friendly?

T3: We got a lot of records talking about relationships. And us getting with women or us dealing with any type of relationship issues, weather it’s good, bad, or indifferent. So anywhere from too much from what we have to fantastic. We got a lot. I mean, “Love is” … We got a lot of records that are real female friendly. Which means, it seems like when we talk about relationship issues that women can relate more than men when we do those types of songs for whatever reason.

You guys wanted to touch on stuff from the news?

YRJ: Yeah, with the song “Windows.” You know, with all the riots and stuff that went on in Ferguson. The Mike Brown situation, Trayvon Martin, you know all of these situations, we touched on that with the song “Windows.” That was the only song that we really, really kind of talked about something going on in the times now. The rest of it was just feel-good, a fun record to have.

T3: We wanted to show a different side of Slum Village. When I wrote “Windows” I was like, there’s been a lot going on in the news in the U.S. with cops and black people so it’s a really big issue in our community. So I wanted to make sure that we touched on it. We don’t really do political records or stuff like that but I’ve always had–we’ve always had our say but we really kept that to ourselves. So I wanted to put that to the forefront because I just felt like, this is the time to address those issues. We only did it for one record, but I felt that it was needed for Slum Village to let people know that we see what’s going on in the world, and we’re not blind to it. And, it ain’t always just about havin’ fun. Sometimes you have to deal with real issues. And that’s the reason why I felt that it was necessary.

Would you say producing “Windows” was a sort of coping mechanism?

T3: It’s really a frustrating issue, it’s really frustrating right now Because a lot of the issues we’re dealing with right now could be easily avoided. It seems like it’s a double standard on both ends. Because I know people that are good cops, and I know good people that bad cops do situations too as well. So it’s kind of a weird situation.

Young RJ, you’re a producer for Slum Village, at least that’s your main role right?

YRJ: I’ve been producing for Slum since Volume 2. I started when I was about 15 producing for Slum and workin’ on the albums. Villa Manifesto was my first appearance rapping. And from then on I’ve been rapping in the group.

As a producer, what was your role in this particular album as a producer since a lot of the beats you guys used were already, for the most part, made by J Dilla?

YRJ: Well this album was polishing what Dilla had already kind of laid out for us, and for some other songs I didn’t have to do anything for but just make sure that the actual vocal performance in the song turned out right. Some of the beats I had to add bass lines too and add extra instruments to it. So it was just doing whatever was necessary and sticking to, like I said earlier, sticking to the formula that Dilla, Baatin and T3 had already started with. Not tryin’ to make Dilla’s production something that he wouldn’t want.

When you say you added like bass and different instruments did you guys use live instruments? How did you layer it on or add to the existing beats?

YRJ: Some of it is live and some of it is samples. A lot of the time, from the time I was 15 to the time Dilla passed, he mentored me and taught me how to make beats. I know how he would want something finished, I know what he would approve of. So that’s why I think that the album is perceived well, it’s because it’s what he would want. So when I went into the studio, I was sticking to the formula that he taught me and doing what he would want, but keepin’ it updated to where it didn’t sound dated.

Had you collaborated with Dilla in the past, like when he was mentoring you? Did you guys collaborate musically? Or was it just a teacher-student relationship?

YRJ: No, we collaborated on music. We did, like I said, the first song we collaborated on for Vol. 2 which was “Climax.” And after that I was working on some stuff with him for the MCA album. Then we worked on some stuff in 2003, I helped him put some songs together. Around that time is when I helped out with a couple remixes.

How was the experience for you to collaborate posthumously with him? Was it more personal or emotional for you guys?

YRJ: There was a lot of jokes. Talkin’ about music back and forth and a lot of it was just watchin’. When you’re in the studio with a guy like Dilla, you really want to try and pay as much attention as you can, and learn, from what he was doin’ or why he was doin’ what he was doin’. So it’s like somebody saying “I got a chance to work with Miles Davis, how was it workin’ with Miles Davis? Or, Quincy Jones?”

T3: On this record, it’s really a throwback. It’s a give-back record, Dilla is always going to be a part of my heart. We always represent Dilla and Baatin in every interview or any show we do, or anything we do. Because, we are the first of our kind, being Slum Village, we’re the first to get a major deal as a rap group from Detroit so we feel like we have to rep that legacy, so we always uphold our legacy. And, we always put them guys in the forefront, ’cause they’re our fallen soldiers.

Yeah, when they’re alive it’s a bit of a different experience, but once they’ve passed it’s more nostalgic. Do you guys feel like it was a homage to him?

YRJ: It was a homage to Dilla and Baatin. We always wanted to keep their legacies alive. And educate the new fans that might not necessarily know who Baatin is, or might not necessarily know who Dilla is. But we do our part to keep their legacies alive.

Was it a more emotional endeavor?

T3: Of course it’s emotional, because those are friends first, that’s family, but it’s more of a way to wave the flag and let people know about the history of it. It’s always going to be emotional because we are family but it’s the younger generation, sometimes need a history about the music and what was before.

Does it still feel like they’re around in that sense? Like group members for Slum?

YRJ: Yeah, I’ve been knowing Dilla and Baatin since I was six years old. So it’s like family, watching them in the studio at a young age. T3, Dilla, and Baatin, that’s like watchin’ big brothers work, so I always want to show respect, because the group wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the original three.

You guys have collaborated with a bunch of other artists in the past, in other albums, what about these kind of collaborations do you think enrich your musical process?

YRJ: Sometimes it takes you out of your comfort zone, sometimes it gives you a fresh approach. Just bouncin’ of off people’s energy. Sometimes being in Detroit, it’s not like New York or LA, where people just bounce around from studio session to studio session and have that camaraderie. Everybody’s kind of separate here. We work out of our own studio. Black Milk is working out of his place, and everybody keeps to themselves. So when you do get a chance to collaborate with other artists it’s kind of refreshing.

T3: We try to keep our family tight-knit and we try to make collaborations make sense. And I think certain people should never make music together but that’s just my certain thing. I think it has to work, it has to fit. Sometimes, in this generation, people just look at numbers and do things that just [don’t] work naturally. But that’s just my personal opinion.

Why do you think that Detroit’s hip-hop community is less involved in one another’s work?

YRJ: Because there are no central studios like that. The last studio that we had where everybody used to come gather was RJ Rice Studios. And you would see people like Proof there, you would see Dilla there, you would see Billa up there, [but] that was really the last place where people could come and gather and stop in. You still have studios in New York, you still have Electric Lady and all of those places up there. You still got Record Plant in LA, you can go up there and they know artists on the air. They just go and trade CD’s, give somebody a beat CD you know. It’s a different work environment than Detroit.

Tell me about the RJ Rice Studios experience.

T3: That was where we really honed in our own style. That was the first Dilla stuff, Slum Village stuff, we did a lot of our demos there. Part of Volume 1 was done at RJ Rice Studios all the way to Volume 2, Trinity, Detroit Deli, and the self titled. We did a lot, we did like five albums there. It was really the homefront where people can come through and everybody, from members of D12 used to come through, everybody. It was like a central studio where everybody could come and kick it and they knew they could see Slum. Usually three times a week we [were] there. One of us was there. And we were workin’ there all the time. So it was a place of opportunity for people. That’s where we did the three district albums and a lot of stuff. It was kind of dope. We don’t have that no more, like a central studio where everybody comes through and that’s kind of sad because everybody’s on their separate own accord and a whole new generation. It’s just not like that now. It was a dope spot for us.

Do you think there might be something like that coming up again in Detroit?

T3: We’re thinking about doing it again, but Detroit is so… I don’t know, it may happen again. We may think of doing it again. For the youth, try to give them an opportunity.

From this new album, if you had to pick, which track speaks to you the most?

YRJ: Every song has its own place. It’s like picking a favorite child, you love them all. So that’s kind of hard.

T3: My favorite track of the album would be “What We Have.” Just because I haven’t heard a track like that in a while, it’s really really slow and it’s really melodic, and it’s just a dope record to me. That’s my favorite track that speaks to me the most on the album. Only because of the music and the flow of it.

About the cover, it’s vastly different from other Slum album covers in the past, it really reminds me of an old jazz compilation album cover. Where did that idea come from?

YRJ: Why yes, that’s kind of the feel. That was the original cover for Volume 2, but the group changed their mind at the last minute. And we felt like now was the time to complete the vision.

Sort of like rehashing older ideas that hadn’t quite come to fruition.

YRJ: Yeah, everything is about time, if we would have done this album two years ago it might not have been perceived like it is now. So everything is about time, and we just felt like the artwork worked. We had other ideas for the artwork different covers, but that one just stuck out.

How do you feel that your sound as SV has changed throughout the years?

T3: We didn’t change that much because, like I said, (Young R)J was there when he was a young kid. So everybody who’s been part of the cast of Slum Village has history with Slum Village. So, the only thing that really changes is the lyrical content and being with the times. Lyrical content constantly changes. But musically and everything else, kind of remains the essence. It’s not the same but we always include a certain essence. And J came up under J Dilla and so did I, taught us how to produce. So, the essence never changed. That’s the reason it sounds similar to something with out being that old school sound.

How long did this album take to put together?

YRJ: Between touring and everything else we took about maybe two years to put it together, off and on.

How did the hip-hop community take to the album, specifically in Detroit?

T3: The reaction is, everybody loves the album. We got 99% good reviews on the album and it’s always been pretty loved.

YRJ: We haven’t seen any negative comments. Everybody has been in full support of this album and what we’re doin’ to keep the legacy alive.

Is that your main priority as a group, to keep the Slum Village legacy alive?

YRJ: A bit of both. We back havin’ fun with it. So it’s a bit of both, keepin’ the legacy alive but bringing something new to it as well.

What’s next for you guys? As individual artists or as a group? Any projects in progress?

YRJ: Yeah we got a lot of projects that we’re workin’ on. We got another Slum album that we’re working on, T3′ solo album, we’re working on instrumental albums, we’re workin’ on our new groups that we’ve been signing and developing. So we got a lot of music that we’re preparing for 2016.

Is there anything you want to say about the album I haven’t touched?

YRJ: Nah, just that we did this album for the day one Slum Village fans and we appreciate everybody ridin’ with us through out the changes and supporting the group for 20 years.

Featured image originally used by  Vice, shot by Andy Rudd

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