Words by Carl Chery (@cchery)
No I.D. may want to consider changing his moniker. Having earned stripes under the radar for most of his 20-year career, the inconspicuous producer—who’s credits include Common, Kanye West, Drake, Rick Ross and Jay-Z, among others—has seen his name recognition reach its apex in 2011. The Chicago product executive-produced Big Sean’s breakthrough debut album released last August, he was awarded a lofty as Def Jam’s Executive Vice President and, presently, he’s in the lab with Nas at work on the veteran’s latest effort.
“I’m VP but I’m also a producer, so I’m always working on music,” No I.D. says. “I’m in the office when necessary for A&R meetings and trying to bring my spirit, which is super hip-hop purist at heart, who understands how to make it in business cause I’ve seen all sides of it.” Has he ever.
Born Dion Wilson (No I.D. is Dion spelled backwards), he began DJing house music at 14 and only toyed with production so he’d have material to play during his sets. He soon picked up the mic and then experimented with tracks because his rap group, CDR—comprised of childhood friends Lonnie Rashid Lynn, better known as Common, and Corey Crawley—needed beats. His musical aspirations, however, were innocent in the infancy stage. It was simply a way to stay on the straight and narrow path.
“[I] didn’t really look at it as a profession or anything, just more of a fun thing to do to stay out of trouble,” he says. In high school, CDR opened for the likes of Too $hort, Eazy-E and Big Daddy Kane. Skeptical of the group’s prospects because they were based in Chicago, he quit rapping and enrolled at Southern Illinois University to study electrical engineering. After a bumpy first year at SIU, though, he dropped out and on a whim drove down to Florida A&M University where Common attended school—Com continued to rap and was on the verge of signing a deal with Relativity Records.
The trip re-sparked his passion for making music again. The following year, No I.D., then known as Immenslope, contributed eight of the 13 tracks that comprised Common’s 1992 debut, Can I Borrow a Dollar? The then upstart beatsmith says he had to earn each placement. “I was competing for the sake of being viewed as good,“ he says. “It was even internal battles and going on to prove your worth.”
The LP received mixed reviews and sold a disappointing 136,404 units, according to Nielsen’s SoundScan. Two years later, now producing under his current tag, he helmed all but two songs on Com’s sophomore disc, Resurrection. Though it only sold 253,532 copies, the project was critically hailed and established No I.D. and Common as a force to be reckoned in the rap game. Hip-hop’s finest took notice.
“After Resurrection I was getting calls for people to do work with me and I was turning it down,” says No I.D. “I got a call that Biggie wanted to hear some beats, Ghostface [Killah] and Big Pun. I’m like, Nah, I produce for Common. This is like Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth. At that time I didn’t even conceptualize trying to make beats, or produce for other people. It wasn’t even in my mind. I viewed myself as part of a group.”
His myopic vision would haunt him. He may have passed up the opportunity to work with A-listers, but he did show interest in working with promising Chicago talents, including Kanye West and Infamous Syndicate—a femcee duo that featured Shawnna of Disturbing tha Peace fame. Common, for his part, viewed things differently, which led to tension during the making of 1997’s One Day It’ll All Make Sense.
“I think me and him clashed a lot during that time because my idea of a business was, ‘Let’s start a label and let’s sign all these talented people around us,’ and his idea was, ‘Nah, let’s take this music to another level,’” says No I.D.
Despite guest appearances by a red-hot Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu, ODIAMS moved a paltry 284,310 units. The record’s commercial failure launched a streak of misfortunes for the producer. His two-and-a-half-year marriage fell apart, and he was shut out from Common’s fourth album, Like Water for Chocolate—coincidentally the first gold-selling album of the rapper’s career.
“I was upset,” he admits. “As I start seeing the way the music industry was actually forming and going and I was like, ‘OK, wait a minute, I’m the fool.’ A lot of those years, me and Common weren’t speaking too much. I felt like, I just helped build this thing up, and then as soon as you go and get a real major deal I can’t get a beat? Nothing?”
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