J Dilla, The Lost Interview [circa 2004]
Four years ago today, James Dewitt Yancey, better known as J Dilla or Jay Dee, passed away just three days after his 32nd birthday. A native of Detroit, he was a highly respected producer who got his start as part of local rap group Slum Village, which included longtime friends T3 and Baatin.
As the musical force behind the group’s underground classic, Fantastic, Vol. 2 (2000), Dilla eventually broke out on his own and joined The Ummah, a production collective comprised of A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Dilla went on to craft hits for everyone from Busta Rhymes and The Pharcyde to Janet Jackson and the Brand New Heavies.
Meanwhile, Slum added Detroit lyricist Elzhi to the fold and scored a hit in 2002 with “Tainted.” In 2004, controversy struck the group as Baatin, who suffered from schizophrenia, unceremoniously left to go solo, citing unpaid royalties as the reason for the split. T3 and Elzhi addressed the inner turmoil, alongside Dilla, on “Reunion,” which was featured on SV’s Detroit Deli album.
In the midst of all the drama, XXL spoke to all four members about their role in the Slum Village legacy and to document the history of one of hip-hop’s most underrated groups. To commemorate the fourth anniversary of Dilla’s death, we’ve unearthed the lost tapes and present the outtakes from the 2004 interview with the respected producer.
XXLMag.com: What’s your relationship like with everyone in Slum Village right now?
J Dilla: It’s like, I don’t know why people always think it’s some type of friction. Like, I’ve done interviews before where they ask me if me and T3 weren’t getting along. It’s just not true… I look at it like everybody is a grown ass man and, shit, we all got different views and shit on where we wanna take shit. Collectively, as a group that’s what we were able to do but it got to a point where we couldn’t get together collectively and agree on some shit, which was right before that last Slum album [2002’s Trinity (Past, Present and Future)]. Like, creatively we were just on totally different pages and it was hard for me, but relationships… These was guys I grew up with. Went to high school with. I mean, it’s always like that loyalty and love there. Relationships is all cool. Me and El don’t speak that often but we the type that if it’s time to get down to work, it’s time to get down to work.
XXLMag.com: What were your initial thoughts when you heard Elzhi came into the group?
J Dilla: I wasn’t surprised ’cause at that time we was actually looking for another part. We was actually looking for a female member to join Slum for whatever reason I don’t know. But we was actually looking for a partner. Right before Elzhi joined, T3 was calling himself his manager at the time. I had already snatched the nigga [Elzhi] from the Hip-Hop Shop and shit and was fuckin’ with him. As soon as T3 heard that shit—and you can ask him, he’ll tell you—when he heard I was fucking with him he got serious about the shit and started the management shit. That’s how that actually went down.
XXLMag.com: Was it hard for you to leave Slum Village?
J Dilla: Nah, I mean I show my crew love but as far as moving on that was like the best thing I could ever have done. It was like I said, the business situation where you not clickin’ creatively and things like that… Niggas is on some grown man shit. Some niggas wanna eat garlic on the tour bus and some niggas ain’t like that shit. You gotta deal with that shit… Sometimes that friction is a lil too much to handle and I was glad that I was able to walk away before ill shit went down like fighting with niggas on some crazy shit. Like I seen from Pharcyde to Tribe to all that shit, you being able to see that shit behind the scenes… I saw that shit about to happen and that’s exactly the path that we were on. From our crazy arguments.
Like, every time I come to the crib it’s like I had a relationship with a woman because every time I got to the crib from being out of town I get a call like, “Yo, we gotta talk.” I’m like, “I only here that when I’m with my girl and shit. It’s about to go down.” That’s the vibe I was feelin’ from them like, “Yo, you out there doing that shit but what about us?” It wasn’t like that. I was out there… Even how I got with Tip was shopping the Slum Village demo. I’ve always been on Slum Village shit, they didn’t understand that while I was out there doing beats for people I would play these Slum Village tapes and get laughed at. I mean nobody took that shit serious. So to see shit actually do something with “Tainted” actually gettin’ a buzz other than Cali and New York and shit like that and get that kinda support, I was actually happy. People thought I was gonna be upset about it. I don’t know. Like I said that’s still my dawgs.
XXLMag.com: Do you feel it’s important for you to contribute beats and rhymes to each Slum Village album to show the public that support is still there?
J Dilla: No, I mean the reason for this one [Detroit Deli] is ’cause… Honestly, I wasn’t really gonna do any production work with them. What happened is a lot of muthafuckas start talkin’ shit… I be reading all types of crazy interviews here and there and on the Internet…
Last year I came down with this lil illness so I was sick for most of the year, so as soon as I got out, it was like me getting back with them, my peoples and shit. And that just happened like that. It wasn’t really like an objective like I’m about to do some shit on Slum album. I mean, for future shit I doubt I do anything on they shit. I mean, maybe some remixes and shit like that but I’ma just let them grow and do they thing so they can grow. And I wanna be able to do the same.
XXLMag.com: You mentioned being sick. What exactly was wrong?
J Dilla: Yeah, I had ruptured my kidney while I was overseas and shit. My shit was fucked up and a nigga was malnutrition ’cause I wasn’t eatin’ the right type of foods over there. That shit was like wild as hell. Wild as hell.
XXLMag.com: Everything alright now?
J Dilla: Oh, yeah, I’m all good. I’m all good. A-1 health and everything, like I be telling people all the time it was a wake up call for me. A lot of priorities in order [now] as far as family and all that shit.
XXLMag.com: Could you see all four of y’all coming together for a reunion album later on?
J Dilla: Yeah, you know what, me and T was talking about that. We about to do some secret project we got going on with all four of us getting together and just speaking on it. We just gotta make it happen.
XXLMag.com: What’s the Slum Village legacy?
J Dilla: Uhmmm, [long pause] have us on that list with innovators like… I don’t know ’cause A Tribe Called Quest is one of those groups to me that changed what hip-hop was doing. We wasn’t trying to be them we was just trying to bring something new to the table.
XXLMag.com: Early on Q-Tip gave Slum Village his stamp of approval as being the next A Tribe Called Quest. Was that a blessing or a curse?
J Dilla: It was kinda fucked up [getting that stamp] because people automatically put us in that [Tribe] category. That was actually a category that we didn’t actually wanna be in. I thought the music came off like that, but we didn’t realize that shit then. I mean, you gotta listen to the lyrics of the shit, niggas was talking about getting head from bitches. It was like a nigga from Native Tongues never woulda said that shit. I don’t know how to say it, it’s kinda fucked up because the audience we were trying to give to were actually people we hung around. Me, myself, I hung around regular ass Detroit cats. Not the backpack shit that people kept putting out there like that. I mean, I ain’t never carried no goddamn backpack, but like I said, I understand to a certain extent. I guess that’s how the beats came off on some smooth type of shit. And at that time, that’s when Ruff Ryders [was out] and there was a lot of hard shit on the radio so our thing was we’re gonna do exactly what’s not on the radio.
XXLMag.com: Did y’all expect Vol. 2 to be considered a hip-hop classic?
J Dilla: I always tell people, that whole [Vol. 2] album, beats, rhymes all that shit—from T3 freestyling to me doing them beats in three-four days—people don’t understand that was shit we threw together on some feel-good shit and we said we was gonna do that. We put that shit out in two weeks… We wasn’t thinking about the videos and the critics getting the shit in their hands. We was just making what we feel…
It took about two-three years for the shit to even come out and resurface but by that time the shit we was trying to do was on the radio all day on some R&B shit. Then, we was getting looked at as some R&B shit and I ain’t never read so many crazy ass reviews of muthafuckas not even understanding what we do. It’s crazy. So I feel the same when muthafuckas don’t feel the Slum and then I feel excited when they do appreciate it.
XXLMag.com: What are you working on now?
J Dilla: Right now I’m out here in Cali—I relocated from the D to Cali. I’m actually staying with Common, that’s my roommate, we’re doing the Real World style. We just finishing up his shit, some Busta shit… Just the usual people. I’m out here actually, I’m linking up with this dude Rob Walker and shit, the Neptunes' manager. That’s it just really trying to make a move to get back in the game.
XXLMag.com: Anything else you want to add?
J Dilla: Get ready for the up-and-coming, whatever it is. —Anslem Samuel