It Takes a Village: The Tragedy and Triumph of Detroit's Slum Village
As the legendary Detroit rap group prepares for the June release of their new album, <i>Yes</i>, we take a look back on the revolving-door history of Slum Village.
Like their home city Detroit, rap group Slum Village is in a perpetual state of reinvention. Since Slum Village was established in 1993, the outfit has seen six members come and go, each taking away and bringing their own rich histories to the ever-evolving group. As life, deaths, and solo careers have shifted the make-up Slum Village over the years, the rap group has soldiered on, most recently completing a national tour.
The duo of T3 and Young RJ is the latest in Slum Village's series of evolving lineups. Their upcoming album, Yes, drops in June.
"We're the first of our kind," T3, the sole member present for the group's entire run, told VICE.
With a dramatic saga spanning two decades, their trajectory recalls earlier Detroit acts like the Temptations and the Four Tops, who pushed forward in the face of tragedy. Founded by T3 and his Pershing High classmates J Dilla and Baatin, Slum Village's early local acclaim led to a major label deal with A&M Records. Following A Tribe Called Quest's 1998 breakup, many expected Slum Village to carry the alterna-rap torch, especially since J Dilla produced the final two Tribe albums. Although A&M folded prior to releasing Slum's debut album Fan-Tas-Tic, Vol. 1, a retooled version titled Fantastic, Vol. 2 arrived to widespread acclaim through local impresario RJ Rice's Barak Records in 2000.
A fulfilling if belated triumph, the debut satisfied high expectations but was J Dilla's final outing as a member of Slum Village. Dilla left the group to focus on production and a solo career, releasing his solo debut Welcome 2 Detroit in 2001 and setting a revolving door of Slum Village members in motion. T3 and Baatin went to work on Slum Village's hotly anticipated sophomore effort, 2002's Trinity (Past, Present, and Future).
"That was the hardest album on Earth to make," T3 says. "Dilla was like, 'OK, you got it T!' I was like, 'I got what?' We was still signed and people didn't care whether Dilla was there or not. We still had a record deal, the money was on the table. I was looking around like, Who can help me produce this album?"
The answer, it turned out, was Elzhi, a young rapper who appeared on Welcome 2 Detroit. A versatile MC, his complex rhyme schemes and poignant introspection brought a heightened lyricism to Trinity, augmenting T3's upbeat presence and Baatin's spirituality. It was a second critical success for Slum Village, but the trio that composed Trinity didn't last either. Baatin left soon afterward, citing health and personal concerns.
T3 and Elzhi recorded the third Slum Village album, 2004's Detroit Deli (A Taste of Detroit), as a duo on Capitol Records, with whom Barak's RJ Rice had brokered a distribution deal. Detroit Deli spawned Slum Village's signature hit, a saccharine love song called "Selfish." Produced by Kanye West, then soaring on the surprise success of The College Dropout, "Selfish" featured a then-unknown Ivy League crooner named John Legend. Between a sing-along chorus over a wistful piano instrumental, West, Elzhi, and T3 pay charming tribute to tour stop love affairs, a vulnerable precursor to Ludacris's "Pimpin' All Over the World." "Selfish" opened Slum Village to a new audience in the age of iTunes, on their third lineup in as many outings.
On Villa Manifesto at least six men—founders, flag-bearers, stand-ins, and blood relatives—stake a claim. Two do so from the grave.
While Slum Village scaled the charts, J Dilla was establishing his own indelible imprint on hip hop. On albums by De La Soul, Talib Kweli, and Bilal, he developed an inimitable sound synthesizing Motown warmth with the Soulquarians' jam sessions, chopping samples with layered synths. 2003's Champion Sound was a landmark for beat junkies.
Dilla was hospitalized in 2004 and confined to a wheelchair by late 2005, suffering from TTP and lupus. He died the week of his 32nd birthday, and Donuts, the instrumental album compiled from his Los Angeles hospital bed, became his swan song. If quietly beloved in life, Dilla was canonized in death. Retrospectives and "Dilla Changed My Life" T-shirts proclaimed his legend, and a benefit circuit helped raise money for the estate and for his mother, who also suffers from lupus.
"His legacy is still growing," says J Dilla's younger brother John, who raps as Illa J. "Not only is his music timeless, but his approach to music [is too]."
But T3 worries that Slum Village has been lost in stories of J Dilla's life.
"Folks have tried to write us outta the Dilla history," he says. "They was acting like Donuts was the start of Dilla. I was seeing documentaries about Dilla that didn't say nothing about Slum Village. How you doing a whole documentary on James Yancey without talking about Slum Village?"
Although Dilla had long ago separated from the group, Slum Village found renewed purpose in furthering his gospel after his death. Meanwhile, the group's other founding expat was facing his own serious issues. By the time Dilla died, Baatin was destitute, homeless, and smoking crack. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and manic depression, complicating the picture of an outwardly spiritual man who made consistently positive music. At a Slum Village show in Detroit he was arrested and jailed after trying to join T3 and Elzhi on stage.
By 2008, Baatin had cleaned up enough to record and perform, and Slum Village welcomed him back. He joined sessions for the purported reunion album Villa Manifesto and the infamously fell off the stage at Maryland's Rock the Bells festival in July 2009. He died later that month. Following a homicide investigation, the Detroit Free Press reported Wayne County had ruled accidental death by cocaine toxicity.
Baatin remains as irreconcilable in death as he was in life: a Muslim, a criminal, a father, a bipolar schizophrenic, an architect of Slum Village's foundational work who was absent for much of their heyday. Like Dilla, D12's Proof, and MC Breed, he's one of the fallen fathers of Detroit hip-hop, only without the attendant fanfare of T-shirts, tributes, and retrospectives in his honor.
"We're kind of like a cover band of our own stuff." —T3
With two of Slum Village's three founders dead in their early 30s, T3 and a circle of disciples committed to finishing the fraught Villa Manifesto. As the record neared completion, Elzhi's personal management complained they were excluded from the group's contract negotiations. His verses were scrapped from half of the record and he didn't appear in the promotional tour or videos.
"He always wanted to be a solo guy. He got caught up in the Slum Village whirlwind," says T3. "Originally, he was supposed to come in on Trinity and do five to six songs as a featured artist. But at the time Baatin was getting sick and I needed somebody to lean on. I can't be Slum Village by myself."
"I'm not mad at Elzhi," T3 continues. "He was there when I needed him to be there. He will always be a member of Slum Village."
With Elzhi on the outside looking in, Young RJ became a full-fledged member, rapping with a laid back nasal delivery in addition to his duties as producer and CEO of their new label Ne'Astra Records. The group also welcomed J Dilla's brother Illa J in a featured role.
Illa J debuted in 2008 with Yancey Boys, a Delicious Vinyl-distributed record built upon unused beats his brother had turned in for the label during the mid-90s. He remembers sitting in his family's Conant Gardens home as a young boy and hearing the Fantastic tapes take shape.
"I understood the musical foundation from which Slum Village was built," Illa J says. "One of the reasons I joined SV was because around the time of Villa Manifesto—I was featured on that album—there was a lot of controversy surrounding the group. It began to bring down the value of the brand. Personally, I felt that it was my duty to make sure that I helped keep the name alive being that that's such an important part of my brother's legacy."
Villa Manifesto finally arrived in 2010, a stark crossroad including posthumous contributions from Dilla and Baatin, an expanded role for Young RJ, performances from an estranged Elzhi, and Illa J's first contributions. It's a fascinating hodgepodge, equal parts tribute, audition, and post-millennial 2Pac record cobbled from cutting room outtakes. Villa Manifesto is probably best viewed as a discourse on identity. When, if ever, does a band cease to be itself? Who holds the rights to a legacy left rejected or unwilled? On Villa Manifesto at least six men—founders, flag-bearers, stand-ins, and blood relatives—stake a claim, and two do so from the grave.
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T3, Young RJ, and Illa J continued to tour as a trio, Illa J posing a wiry bundle of energy next to the older T3 and Young RJ. "On stage, in some crazy way I felt I channeled Baatin's energy, as if he was with me. Sometimes my brother, too," Illa J says. Still, it was a conflicting experience. "I grew up listening to these songs but at a certain point it got weird for me performing my brother's verses because I felt I was turning into a cover artist," he acknowledges. "I felt obligated to give my energy towards this legacy... I thought I would be letting down fans and also letting down my brother."
"We're kind of like a cover band of our own stuff," T3 says, echoing Illa J's assessment. With a catalog spanning two decades and six rappers, Slum Village's second and third generations have been called to perform music recorded by the group's dead and departed members. The plug-and-play approach to band membership isn't uncommon in rock and soul, where a replacement might handle harmonies or instrumentation as well as his predecessor. But in hip-hop, it's unprecedented. One man cannot so easily tell another's story.
"It's only right to keep it going especially after the passing of Dilla and Baatin," T3 says. They continue to close live performances with "Selfish," even though only T3 can rap the verse he recorded for it, the sole survivor of the quartet which exposed Slum Village to a major hip-hop audience.
"I saw an interview where Andre 3000 was talking about how he hated ' Hey Ya' and never wanted to do that song again in his whole life," says T3. "I don't understand that. How can you get mad at a song people love?"
"The Temptations still gotta sing 'Just My Imagination' or 'My Girl' even though this guy died or that guy died," adds Young RJ.
After 2013's Evolution, Illa J decided to cede most of his spotlight and reassume a featured role, becoming the second Yancey brother to vacate his third of Slum Village. Now living in Montreal and working on a solo project, he's struck a balance between upholding the family name and carving his own niche. "My solo career is my priority," he says. "I feel at peace. I've also regained my connection as a fan of the Slum Village legacy."
"I've always felt the spiritual presence of my brother guiding me throughout my career," Illa J says. "I could hear my brother's voice saying 'It's OK, you don't have to be in Slum to show that you have love for me, just do your thing.' No matter where I go in the world, I find pieces of my brother. It's like he never left."
" Yes is classic. We felt like we had to give you that last chapter of the vintage Slum." —T3
The new Slum Village album, Yes, hits stores in June. Illa J appears on the record but didn't join the national tour, during which T3 and Young RJ interspersed new material with standards from Fantastic and Detroit Deli.
" Yes is classic," T3 says. "We felt like we had to give you that last chapter of the vintage Slum." Guests include De La Soul, Jon Connor, and the elusive Phife Dawg, formerly of A Tribe Called Quest. After the release they hope to expand their respective reaches beyond the Slum-brella. Young RJ is planning an instrumental series and T3 is working on his first solo album. Elzhi also plans to follow up his lauded 2008 solo The Preface and 2011's Elmatic with a new record in 2015.
"I could see us continuing to morph," T3 forecasts. "Maybe one day I'll just be on the sidelines coaching some young dudes."
Slum Village's is a saga fraught by adversity and disappointment, but Detroit music is littered with tragedy. It's where young black vocalists flocked from churches and tenements and were packaged by an assembly line to make other men rich. It's where Proof and MC Breed died past their commercial pinnacles but before they could be properly venerated as pioneers. It's home to one of the nation's richest rap traditions, but one that remains largely overlooked save for 8 Mile. In Michigan winters, artists adapt or become footnotes.
T3, Elzhi, Young RJ, and Illa J stand beleaguered, but in their Village that's the only kind of survival.
"No man is greater than the legacy," T3 says.
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