“The idea for a Slum Village reunion album came from a conversation I had with J Dilla before he passed away,” says T3, the last living member of the beloved Detroit rap group. Released this week, Villa Manifesto is a fitting end to the Slum Village story. The project reunites the original line-up, with fresh production and raps from Dilla assisted by vocal contributions from Baatin (who passed away last year), also fulfilling the group's oft-quoted tag as the 'new Native Tongues' by adding De La Soul's Posdnuos and A Tribe Called Quest's Phife to the song “Scheming.”
With the album confirmed as the last official Slum Village release, T3 looks back on their relationship with the Native Tongues crew, reveals the Slum songs that ended up on Tribe and Common albums, and explains how Dilla's beats on their four-track demo tape first caught Tip's attention.
On the Slum Village song “Hold Tight,” Q-Tip rapped, “I'm a leave it in the hands of the Slum now.” How did that make you feel?
We were all honored that Tip was showing us all the love he showed us. Q-Tip is basically the guy who started the Slum Village career and the guy who started J Dilla's career as a producer. He gave us that first opportunity.
How did you come to meet him?
We met him through a guy named Amp Fiddler, who was on tour with Parliament/Funkadelic and A Tribe Called Quest. Amp told Tip about us, invited us to the tour, and we gave our demo tape to Tip.
Can you remember what was on the demo tape?
Ha ha, it was four songs, that's about all I can remember. Actually, Tip didn't like the songs on the demo – he just liked Dilla's beats. That's how Dilla started producing for him, on the strength of the beats on that demo. Then once we did Fantastic: Volume One it was a smash. We gave that to Tip and he loved that and started playing it to all his dudes in the industry.
Did you receive much interest from major labels in those days?
Yeah, we had five major deals on the table the first time we shopped our album: Universal, Interscope, Def Jam, A&M and somebody else. If I think about it, we really probably should have went with Def Jam! But you can't go back in time. Slum Village on Def Jam would have worked.
After Q-Tip rapped about passing the baton on to Slum Village, people started tagging you as the 'new Native Tongues'. Do you think that was justified?
Not really. We were so different in a sense not of the music, but what we were talking about. When Slum first came out, people tried to put us in this category of 'conscious rappers,' but we were never conscious rappers, we were street. Our concepts have never been conscious, they've got a street edge, we talk about women a lot, and do a lot of different things those cats aren't doing. I remember Mase from De La Soul was excited that we paved the way for that style. He told us he always wanted to rap in De La, but he couldn't because De La had to stay in a certain language. When they first came out they were about love, peace, some hippie stuff. He couldn't go where he wanted to go. He told us he was so happy we paved the way to try to do soulful music but not have to be like a conscious rapper. The Native Tongues had certain things they'd talk about, but we paved the way for something different.
Was Slum Village's sound influenced by Tribe, De La and the Jungle Brothers?
We were inspired by a lot of stuff, actually. A lot of James Brown and soul and digging, but most of our songs were inspired by comedy back then, if I think about it. Me, Dilla and Baatin used to crack jokes all day long and do impersonations of people. That's how we got our concepts for songs. We'd make jokes into serious songs. That's what we did, as adolescents making music.
Who was the funniest member of Slum Village?
Baatin, for comedy. He had the most jokes. He could impersonate anybody. If he talked to you for five minutes, he could do your accent and it was spot-on, hilarious.
So which Tribe record influenced Slum Village the most?
I'll go with Midnight Marauders. A lot of stuff they were doing on there, the beats, rhymes and concepts, was real advanced.
Before Slum Village got to release an album, Dilla started producing songs for Tribe and De La Soul. Did that create any resentment within the group?
Nah, it felt good. Even though we were still on the sidelines waiting for our opportunity to get our shine, it felt good cause a lot of cats at that point didn't want to work with us. We saw being affiliated with Tribe as a blessing. Dilla was the first to produce for Tribe like that.
Were any of the songs he produced during that era originally Slum Village songs?
Yeah, there's a couple of beats that were Slum Village songs. “Find A Way” on Tribe's album was a Slum Village song. We had a similar concept for that. And for Common, “Thelonious” was a Slum Village song but we put that on Common's album. There's at least two more records that were Slum Village records that turned out to be somewhere else. But it wasn't even just Slum Village records – Dilla used to produce records for guys in Detroit and some of those guys bought the beat from Dilla and he ended up selling the beat on to a major cat! Then he'd have to go back and remix the joint for the Detroit cats! That happened a lot of times. A lot of the Pharcyde records that he produced on Labcabincalifornia were that way.
How did people back in Detroit feel when that happened?
They understood. As long as they got a new Dilla beat in the end they were always happy. Dilla's view was that you're really just renting the beat. If someone wants to really buy the beat, he'd then make you another beat. It was his equal opportunity side. I mean, he didn't charge those cats nothing, maybe a couple of hundred a track, it was just for guys who didn't have much money but wanted a Dilla track. But when a bigger artist paid the bigger fee, then it was theirs.
Are there many unreleased recording sessions between Slum Village and the Native Tongue groups from that era?
Yeah, there's some, but not a lot. We recoded together, but not really all together like that. Dilla did a lot of sessions by himself with those cats like De La and Tribe. We'd do shows with them all together, but Dilla would be the one in the studio with individual members. It was the same with Busta Rhymes, who he was recording for, and cats like The Roots and Talib Kweli. I remember that they'd come to Detroit to work with Dilla. They came to Dilla's basement on the east side of Detroit in the middle of the 'hood. It was a great vibe. I was surprised that these people wasn't scared. They were real celebrities, and they'd come to the 'hood just to record with Dilla. That's a great thing, it means music brings people together regardless of the situation.
Why do you think those artists gravitated towards Dilla's sound?
It was because he could do a little bit of everything. That's what made his sound so crazy. He wasn't limited. He was a real producer. You have a lot of beat-makers but not a lot of producers. He could arrange, write a hook, play the keyboard, and even play the guitar enough to sample it and then chop it up to make you think he could really play the guitar. There wasn't anything he couldn't do. If you played a jazz song he'd figure out a way to remake it. There's only a few producers around – Dr. Dre is a producer, Timbaland is one. We're talking about a guy who can help you get your record and point it in the right direction.
What's the biggest misconception people have about Slum Village?
I think that they don't really know everybody's position in Slum and what we had to offer. I think sometimes when you get groups, people from outside the group try to pick you apart. We always heard things like, “What is Slum Village without Dilla?” But we all brought things to the table; musically, we was like one. We all was rappers and producers slash arrangers. I don't think people really know that about Slum. Me, Baatin and Dilla, we did all that. People don't know the ins and outs of who did what.
If the group hadn't split up so early on, do you think people might have understood that better?
I think so. But then Slum Village was always evolving and at every stage we got a lot of critics. Instead of just listening to the music, they're more concerned with who's there and whether Dilla is or isn't involved. As long as the music is good, it shouldn't matter who is and isn't there. That happened a lot in Slum Village's career.