14 Years Ago Today, Slum Village Released Their Defining, Fantastic, Volume 2. AFH Took A Trip Down Memory Lane With The Remaining Founding Member, T3 (Food For Thought Interview)
Fourteen years ago today, the sentinels of Hip-Hop history were forced to chisel out a fraction of its foundation and infinitely reserve the section for a budding, yet unconventional trio’s 68-minute audible depiction of the essence of life in Detroit, Michigan. Whether the culture of Hip-Hop comprehended the significance of this collection of expressionism on that exact date, didn’t matter much. They soon would.
Comprised of a brilliant but introverted conductor in J Dilla (then as just “Jay Dee”), and two spirited and eccentric emcees in T3 and Baatin, Detroit’s own Slum Village had formally unveiled what would be the culmination of both their colorful identities and musical visions on their most definitive release to date, Fantastic, Volume 2.
While the hands of time were able to diminish the flesh of Slum Village, those same hands will perpetually fail at subsiding the heart and soul of Slum Village. The core characteristics that were essential in the construction of one of Hip-Hop’s most beloved groups, were at their finest throughout Fantastic, Volume 2. A timeless album that is widely considered to be one of the most complex and subtle collections of Rap music ever created, we talked at length with the sole remaining original member, T3, about Slum Village’s Fantastic journey.
Ambrosia For Heads: T3, can you start off by talking a little bit about how you, Dilla, and Baatin met, and how Slum Village came to be?
T3: We actually all met while we were in high school. I had a group I was already in with Baatin, and we kept hearing about this kid named James Yancey. We heard that he made beats, so we were interested in meeting him and hearing his stuff. We ended up connecting with him and going over to his house one day. We went there and he took us straight to where he had this old school drum machine. He started playing some of his beats, and they were dope, and really right from there we just kept doing stuff together. We were always hanging around each other here and there in high school. Well, when he was in high school. [Laughs] Because he wasn’t there a lot.
Ambrosia For Heads: Was he skipping school to work on music?
T3: Yeah, mostly working on music. If it wasn’t music, it was something else, but he definitely wasn’t at school much. He was always at home. He did his own thing, but was usually at home making music. So yeah, eventually we had this big party at my crib. I asked my grandma if I could have a bunch of people over, and we had a bunch of rappers and DJ’s and dancers to my place. We were all there. Me, Dilla, Baatin, Frank-N-Dank, and a bunch of others. There was this big session with all these rappers doing their thing, and at the end of the session the three of us got together and decided that we needed to start working as a group. So yeah, that was really the moment that Slum Village took form.
Ambrosia For Heads: Slum Village had quite the journey leading up to the creation of Fantastic, Volume 2, as you guys were in and out of a few different record labels before it actually got released. What were the issues going on behind that?
T3: We got our first deal with A&M Records, but what happened was we got our deal and it was right around the same time that Kurupt dropped that double album [Kuruption, with East and West discs]. That album did so bad that they basically shut down the whole Rap Department at A&M. And no disrespect to Kurupt, because he’s one of my favorite MCs, but that is really what happened. You know, initially we had a lot of options on who to sign with. We could have signed with Def Jam [Records], we could have signed with Universal [Records]. I’m not too sure why we signed with A&M, but I think it was because there weren’t a lot of artists to compete with over there. At that time, we didn’t want a whole lot of competition within our own label. Around then, Def Jam had Redman, LL Cool J, Method Man and a whole lot of other big artists. Looking back on it now though, we probably should have chose Def Jam or Universal.
Ambrosia For Heads: So during your time with A&M you guys actually completed Fantastic, Volume 2, but not only could you not release it, people also started bootlegging it too, correct?
T3: Yeah, we finished all this music and did all this promotion, and even though we had a deal, we didn’t get to come out with the album. Somehow our record had leaked through the industry though. So, I guess after the deal fell through, people who had their hands on it were just giving it away. We had never dealt with bootlegging like that before either, so it was pretty crazy. I remember once we went to Europe in 1999, and there were some people that came up to us wanting us to sign our record that hadn’t even been released yet, and the craziest thing was that the cover on it was like a picture of New York’s skyline [laughing], and we’re like, “We’re not from New York, like why would that be the cover?” So I guess whoever bootlegged it assumed that we were from New York just based on our style, and put the New York skyline on there with the words “Slum Village.” A lot of people had that same copy of it, too. So whoever bootlegged that probably made some good money on those. The one good thing about the album being bootlegged though, was that we still toured off of it. People were familiar with our new music even though it wasn’t released yet, so we got to travel and do shows because of that.
Ambrosia For Heads: The album ended up being released by Good Vibe in 2000. Baatin had publicly talked about how initially after the album was released, Detroit wasn’t very receptive to it. Why do you think it was so difficult to recognition and acceptance within your own hometown?
T3: Detroit is just such an urban place. It’s a place full of gangsters and hustlers. As far as the young urban market is concerned, that’s how they liked their music too. There were far more people listening to N.W.A. than to A Tribe Called Quest back then, you know? So, us coming from Detroit they expected us to have that same type of gangster mentality in our music and sound. But we were so left with it, that it really took them a while. Once we got the publicity and accolades though, they really had no option but to accept it. Naturally, Detroit likes hood music. I mean right now, the youth of Detroit’s favorite artist is [Young] Jeezy. I think that’s just Detroit’s mentality on how Hip-Hop should be. Maybe not all of Detroit, but 90 percent of them like their Hip-Hop that way.
Ambrosia For Heads: Do you think that paradigm will ever shift within the urban culture of Detroit?
T3: I don’t think so. At least not in the black community. I mean, we were like the first group out of Detroit to get a major deal. To have both the national and international recognition, we were really the first of our kind. Of course we knew there were going to be some major hurdles for us to jump, and it really wasn’t until we dropped that record with Kanye [West] (“Selfish”), that people really started to understand what we were doing. But no, I don’t think that style of Hip-Hop will ever be what the majority of Detroit wants to hear.
Ambrosia For Heads: There were some significant features on Fantastic, Volume 2, with Q-Tip, Common, Pete Rock, Busta, D’Angelo, and Kurupt. What was the vibe like in the studio during the creation of the album? That’s a whole lot of Hip-Hop heavyweights at the top of their game contributing ideas to one album.
T3: Yeah for sure, it’s not like today where people are just sending vocals to each other through the Internet. We were either traveling to work specifically with those artists, or they were coming directly to us. A lot of that was because of the relationships that [J] Dilla had built with these artists. Also, Q-Tip was a big fan of Fantastic Vol. 1 and was openly shopping it around, so a lot of the artists that heard Vol. 1 through him, loved it so much that they wanted to work with us on whatever our next project was.
Ambrosia For Heads: Anything memorable about those recording sessions that stick with you?
T3: I remember when we were doing the Busta [Rhymes] record (“What It’s All About”) and we went to New York, I think it was Baseline Studios, and Busta put his verse down over the original beat. But on so many tracks on that album, Dilla would do like eight different remixes of them before we would choose the right one. [Laughs] So a lot of the tracks that made it on the album, weren’t even the original tracks.
Ambrosia For Heads: Was Dilla doing so many remixes simply because he was such a perfectionist?
T3: Yeah, he was just such a perfectionist and was always trying to push himself musically to where no one else could go. I would say at least half of the tracks on the album were remixed multiple times before the final track was put on the album. So on a track like that one, Busta would do his verse first in New York, and we wouldn’t even record our own verses until we got back to Detroit, because we already knew Dilla wasn’t done with his remixes on it. On the Pete Rock record (“Once Upon A Time”), Pete came down to Detroit, brought his [Emu] SP1200, played some beats, and him and Dilla were just vibing back and forth. What ended up happening was we picked a beat that Pete made from that session, and changed the vocals on it, and then Dilla went back and remade that same beat that Pete originally made. It was a beat that had a kalimba sample in it, so Dilla went and found a kalimba and played it over the track in his own way, and then chopped it up in the SP1200, and then re-did the beat just so it could be cleaner.
Ambrosia For Heads: That’s a great segue into Dilla’s production on the album. It was so very intricate throughout the entirety of it. The effort he put into the complexity of each track was certainly evident. Can you reflect on the particular sound and vibe he illustrated on that album?
T3: I think Dilla took a lot of the same elements from Vol. 1 and just did them more thoroughly on this album. The thing that Dilla really wanted to do on Vol. 2 was create an album that you could just put on and let it ride all the way through. That’s why he put a lot of extra stuff at the end of tracks. You know like vocal samples, and scratches, and things like that you know just to keep it interesting. He wanted a continuous vibe to it. At that time, we were big into having skits throughout the album, too. Baatin was a large part of that, with creating the skits and doing different characters and voices.
Ambrosia For Heads: Dilla also really showcased his under-appreciated skills on the microphone on this album, which he didn’t do much throughout his career. As the group evolved, was him shying away from the mic just a case of him wanting to focus more on production because that’s what he was more passionate about?
T3: Yeah, I think he focused on production because that was his main love, but he was always rapping from the beginning. We always knew him as a rapper and a producer. Initially he was dropping just as many raps as he did beats, and he was equally as talented at both.
Ambrosia For Heads: Any random stories that Slum Village fans might not know about Dilla, that you could share?
T3: I remember one of the first songs I ever heard from him where he was rapping, was this joint where he was doing this stutter style. He really did have an actual stuttering problem when he was young, but on this track his flow was like he was skillfully stuttering through the whole verse on purpose. I had never heard anything like that before. He had so many of these short songs he used to do that he would just randomly play for you. We would ride around in his old Ford Escort and he would just play little mini songs that he would make, and that track was one of them. He was always an innovator on some next level type stuff.
Ambrosia For Heads: If you had to choose one track off of Fantastic, Volume 2 as the most special to you, which one would you select and why?
T3: I think “Raise It Up” is the most special to me. That was the one song I was the most hesitant about, too. You know, when Dilla came up with the idea for that song [Dilla raps his verse in double entendres and says the opposite of what he means], and then he played the beat, and I was like “Yeah, Okay that seems cool, but let me see what you do to it first.” So, he went ahead and did his verse and I was instantly sold. [Laughs] I was like “Okay, that’s dope. I get it now.” [Laughs] Then I came up with the concept of how all three of us would do our verses in different ways, and we also had everyone in the studio doing the backgrounds on it. It’s still one of the top records that people request when we do a show. It’s always been in our shows since day one, so it’s just a really special record for me.
Ambrosia For Heads: What is it about Fantastic, Volume 2 that has made it so indelible and led to it withstanding the test of time? I witnessed its impact first hand this year in February at Dilla Day. When you guys started performing tracks from it, the energy at the Fillmore hit its climax. The relationship between those songs and the Hip-Hop faithful in attendance was astounding.
T3: I think it was just a new and a different approach to what anyone was doing at that time. We were like the ghetto version of A Tribe Called Quest, you know what I’m saying? We had a similar vibe and soul, but we were saying things that they wouldn’t say. It was just a whole different approach to that sound of Hip-Hop. I remember Maseo telling me, “Man, I’m so happy you guys came out, because you guys made it easier for me to give a little bit more of my perspective.” The music was just all new in itself. It was a new form of musical expression, and when people heard it, it really affected them. I remember artists on the Up in Smoke Tour telling us that they named their three different buses after us. Like one was the Dilla bus, one was the T3 bus, and one was the Baatin bus, just because Fantastic, Volume 2 was all they would play on the road. So yeah, it was just a very innovative album, and it has influenced a whole lot of people.
Ambrosia For Heads: Does the current Slum Village consciously try and maintain some of the same characteristics and elements that the original Slum Village embodied? If so, what are those characteristics?
T3: The thing about that, is that everyone who’s in Slum Village now has been there since the beginning. Young RJ was around when he was a kid and started producing for us on Trinity when he was 15 years old. So he’s been there for a while and was mentored by Dilla back then, too. With Illa J being Dilla’s younger brother, he has been there from day one, as well. I mean, we used to record our first demos in his house. So we definitely are aware of the sound and the formula because we have all been there from the start. It’s never going to be what it was, but it’s constantly evolving and the essence will always maintain. I try and keep it going because Detroit doesn’t have a lot going right now, you know? We’ve got to keep it moving and we’ve got to keep working. We’ve got to keep the legacy going.
Ambrosia For Heads: What is in store for Slum Village in the immediate future? Any current projects in the works?
T3: Yeah, we got a few projects coming out. We have an EP coming out on vinyl only. It’s called Vintage. It’s got a couple joints produced by Dilla, one joint produced by Black Milk, and one produced by RJ. It will be out within the next month or so. We’re also getting ready for a couple tours. We have a tour through Canada, an East Coast tour, and a European tour coming up. We may also drop a mixtape. So that’s basically what we’re doing for this year and what we’re working on currently.
Ambrosia For Heads: T3, thanks for taking the time to talk with us about this timeless album and some of the Slum Village memories that are dear to you. Continued success to you and the Slum Village team.
T3: Thank you. Same to you and I appreciate you taking the time to do this interview.