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?”



No I.D. suffered through a four-year slump before he placed his next track. At the time he struggled to make ends meet, briefly managed Kanye and tried to develop a few other acts. He landed tracks on Beanie Sigel’s The Reason in 2001 and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 2 in 2002 through his relationship with then Roc-A-Fella A&R, Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua—to whom he would later introduce Kanye.

In the mid 2000s, he moved to Atlanta to align himself with Jermaine Dupri. He credits the So So Def boss for re-energizing his career and providing him the foresight he previously lacked. “I said, 'OK, I think I have a full grasp of what I wanna accomplish as a producer,'” says No I.D. “It was almost like I had done my research, I’ve done my bad experiences, I’ve lost. It’s almost like Donald Trump. You gotta go bankrupt a few times and figure it out.”

A few years later, No I.D. would reconnect with his protégé (who he’s known since Kanye was 14) after 'Ye’s mother passed away in 2007. “Malik Yusef said to me one day, like, 'Yo, he needs you, you know you are a stable person, you are one of the more stable men he knows,” he says. During a two-day stint in Hawaii, the old friends locked themselves in the studio and, to their surprise, crafted nine beats together, including several tracks that wound up on Yeezy’s 808s & Heartbreak and Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3. As a result of their chemistry, he was tapped by Kanye to serve as president of his G.O.O.D. Music label and relocated to Los Angeles.

“I had this conversation with him before it started like, ‘Hey man, be Quincy Jones right now,'” he says of their reunion. “It don’t matter that I taught you. I’m humble enough to play another role so we can just be successful.”

After a productive period he set his sight on an position at Def Jam. His intentions were G.O.O.D. “I made a decision to make Big Sean win and I’m gonna do it in a way where I walk it straight to L.A. Reid,” he explains. “I’ma make it clear that I made this win with the intention of L.A. saying like, 'Damn, we need this guy.'”

It worked. Though Def Jam’s budgets were frozen at the time, No I.D. paid for Sean’s first recording sessions out of his own pocket and got the ball rolling. The Detroit rapper scored a hit with the No I.D.-produced “My Last” featuring Chris Brown. Sean’s Finally Famous hit stores in June and debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200—selling 87,100 in its first week. Though L.A.—who resigned as Island Def Jam chairman in May to run Epic Records —offered him a position under the Sony umbrella, No I.D. stuck with Def Jam and was rewarded with an executive vice president gig and his own label.

Nearly 20 years into his career, No I.D. appears to have finally found his stride and has come full circle in the process. He has tracks on deck on Nas’s Life Is Good and Jay-Z’s 11th studio album, but foremost, he's reunited with Common for the first time in 14 years. He produced Com’s ninth LP, released last December, The Dreamer, The Believer, in its entirety. Again, No I.D. embraced the challenge. “I know the history of my career,” says No I.D. “This is the time to prove something. I could go do records for Watch the Throne. What does that prove? Nothing. It’s Jay-Z and Kanye West. But, Common, acting, no record deal? Let’s try this.” Resurrection.

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