[An L.A. native, L.A. Weekly columnist Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com, follow him on Twitter and also check out his archives.]
It’s rare to be a legend without having been a star, but that’s to be expected from a man whose alias is No I.D. For anyone paying attention to the liner notes, the producer-turned–executive vice president of Def Jam Recordings ranks among the most influential figures of the last 20 years of hip-hop.
In his first act, Southside Chicago native Dion “No I.D.” Wilson produced the bulk of Common’s first three albums, including the “real hip-hop” requiem “I Used to Love H.E.R.” Then, after mentoring Kanye West, No I.D. experienced a renaissance during the latter half of the last decade. The producer moved to Hawaii and started cranking out the Top 10 hits that had previously eluded him: West’s “Heartless,” Jay Z’s “Run This Town” and “Holy Grail,” Bow Wow’s “Let Me Hold You” and Drake’s “Find Your Love.”
He simultaneously supplied Killer Mike, Nas and Vince Staples — the latter signed to his own imprint, Artium — with beats far too hard for radio. He also ran West’s G.O.O.D. Music and found time to produce three EPs for his own group, the soul, rap and rock fusionists Cocaine 80s, formed with crooner James Fauntleroy and guitarist Steve Wyreman.
“Cocaine just means dope or good, however you want to use that metaphor,” No I.D. explains. The producer moved to L.A. not long after joining Def Jam’s executive team in 2011, eventually settling in Beverly Hills.
“For me, the ’80s was great because you had Boy George, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Prince and Cyndi Lauper,” he continues. “No one put boxes saying this is urban, this is popular, this is underground. It was just good or bad.”
After initially releasing the Cocaine 80s EPs for free, Def Jam is repackaging the material, adding 10 new tracks and releasing the 30-song behemoth Hermes Trismegistus this summer.
“My entire approach is built on the idea that things can be commercial and artistic,” No I.D. says. “It’s written from a real songwriting perspective, not caring about genre, and finding a way to fit it into the current climate without compromising its intention.”
Since first getting a corner office, No I.D. has quietly become one of the best executives in contemporary music. In the last year, Def Jam released albums and EPs from Vince Staples, YG and Logic, representing a counterclockwise shift from most major-label hip-hop. No Hail Marys for radio or contrived crossover attempts. You can see No I.D.’s philosophy within the uncompromised songs and focus on conveying the artist’s story.
“That’s the whole spirit of the Cocaine 80s project and why I’m at Def Jam,” No I.D. says. “I spoke to Rick Rubin before taking the position and asked him what Def Jam means. He said it’s ‘outlaw music,’ about going against the grain.”
In a hits-obsessed industry, No I.D. favors the long-term approach. The wisdom comes from watching Common transform from underground hero to a movie star with a No. 1 album, and Kanye West going from under No I.D.’s wing to donning angel wings at the 2005 Grammys.
With sales still free-falling and streaming starting to supplant those losses, No I.D.’s vision might win out. It’s not revolutionary but rather rooted in old ideas: signing intelligent, gifted artists, then offering them guidance and the full freedom to be creative.
“My personal philosophy is, ‘Do I love the artist?’ Not, ‘Do they have a hit?’?” he says.
“I’m looking for artists who can deliver for the next 10 to 15 years because record labels aren’t even going to recoup unless you sell for a long time. I’m here to find the next Jay Z, Nas, 2Pac or Biggie. If not, what’s the point?”