It's noon on a Friday, and T3 and Young RJ are sipping coffee in the quiet of their Milford studio. The duo comprises two-thirds of the group Slum Village, along with rapper and producer Illa J (younger brother of the late J Dilla, who co-founded the group with T3 and rapper Baatin in 1996, and couldn't be present for the interview). They're in full restoration mode after recently taking a break from an ongoing tour with legendary producer and DJ Pete Rock. Their studio serves as an impromptu Slum Village museum. There's a J Dilla MPC 3000 box set resting on a corner table, a framed cover of their first appearance in Metro Times hanging on the wall, and other plaques and awards placed throughout.
"We just stay persistent," T3 says with a big smile about the band's consistent progress. "It feels good. It's hard work: You got your ups and downs, of course. In the beginning, most of our songs were based on comedy, because that's all we did. We joked around all day long. For us, the music was our escape. We were in the inner city, and it was our escape. Now, it's still fun, but it's a business. Now I try to go out of my way to have fun with it, because it can get so serious."
Young RJ stands up and places his coffee mug on a table. "They had a chance to try out what worked for them and what didn't. I feel like the sound is more refined, and we know what the fans want," RJ says. "I feel like we're the first of our kind from Detroit. We were the first group to do what we've done from Detroit," T3 says.
What they've done is analogous to replacing the parts of a race car, without ever making a pit stop. Slum Village have replaced their main players while still moving, still winning races. "Hip-hop fans aren't used to it — like the culture of rock, jazz, or anything else," T3 says. "It's a legacy there. The music is there, the fans should still be able to support like they do other genres of music. I didn't know Dilla would pass away at 32, or Baatin a couple of years later. That's just the ups and downs of life. I do know they would want me to keep the legacy going, and that's the reason we kept it moving," T3 says.
Young RJ, who spent most of Slum's early years behind the scenes, has now stepped to the forefront as an emcee and producer. "My father did music in the '80s; he had a group called R.J.'s Latest Arrival. Being around him, watching him perform, and then he set up a studio, which is when I first met Slum in '92-'93. From then on, it was like a mentorship between me and Dilla. He taught me how to produce," he says.
Illa J has been the most recent addition to the group. "It was a collective idea for Illa to join Slum," RJ says. "He didn't want to see all the work his brother put in, all the work T, Baatin, and I put in, for the legacy to end on a bad note," he says. "When we would record at Dilla's house, Illa was always around," T3 says. "He did a solo album first with the Yancy Boys — him and Dilla — and he started coming by the studio more and more, and we just made it happen. He's going hard on his solo work because he doesn't want Slum to be his only legacy. He did fill a void though. At times he felt the spirit of Baatin and Dilla when he performed with us. It's like the Temptations, when the other guys know the steps already."
In general, both critics and fans admire the fact that Slum Village have not been afraid to change the roster in order to keep moving forward. But there have been rumors of artist mismanagement, and people who think the original trio was the best. Still others are just now finding out that Elzhi is not in the group (he left in 2010).
T3 leans back in a leather couch. "Everybody who was in Slum deserved to be in Slum: Elzhi, Dilla, Baatin, Illa, RJ. Elzhi played his part; he did eight years of Slum," T3 says. "If you like those eight years, then that's fine. If you like the early Slum, fine. I feel like if you like Slum Village, we're going to give you all the years anyway if you come to the show. So I don't care which part you like the best, it's all Slum Village at the end of the day. People move on, but they will always be a part of Slum."
T3 and Young RJ both currently co-own and release their music through Ne'Astra Music Group. It's a label they started after R.J. Rice (owner of Barak Records and Young RJ's dad) retired from the music business. Young RJ doesn't bite his tongue regarding criticism of his dad's label from fans and former members. "If the label was so bad, why did Dilla continue to work with Barak?" RJ says. "Why did Dilla's mother continue to work with R.J. Rice? Why did Baatin come back to Slum Village when they were still under Barack? People don't know how to express the issues they have and they go in and say things out of anger, and once they get a chance to see it on their own, they come back and see the grass wasn't greener."
The official debut of the current lineup started in a series of mixtapes released in 2012 that led up to 2014's full-length Evolution. "It started with the first Dirty Slums, which was a mixtape. That was the first official release of Slum after Elzhi's departure. Then we came back with Dirty Slums 2. Parts of it were supposed to be the Evolution album. And I felt Evolution was a good body of work. But this new album is a great body of work," T3 says.
The new album, Yes, will be released next week, on June 16. And unlike Evolution, there will be some production work by J Dilla on Yes. "This is a throwback album, the album that the Slum fans have always said they wanted," RJ says. "This album is constructed from past and present. That's the difference in this album; we had Dilla beats we already had, and Baatin vocals," T3 says.
In death, J Dilla's legend has grown immensely. Fans and fellow artists consider him the greatest hip-hop producer ever, while critics refer to him as "your favorite producer's favorite producer." "Dilla's legacy has grown like the Loch Ness Monster. Most of the people rocking these 'Dilla Changed My Life' shirts weren't even born in that era. The thing is the stories they've heard from the artists that they love. They've also done a great job marketing his music," RJ says. "I'm not mad at it," T3 says. "It's bandwagon-ish. But I still think some people need to hear, and it helps us. Plus, Dilla gets a younger audience. So even if it takes a campaign for people to hop on, that's fine as long as they get it."
As they finish their coffee, they trade stories about meeting crooner Dwele at Café Mahogany, about being called the next Tribe Called Quest, about helping newer artists Rosewood 2055 and Earlly Mac, and about the universal love that existed around the Detroit hip-hop scene in the '90s. "We were all separate back then, but we always had a spot to converse — like we had the Hip-Hop Shop and Stanley's Kitchen," T3 says. "They don't have that now. Back then, we were more together with our music. I just feel like there is no place for that camaraderie. But it's getting better. And I'm still excited for the future of Slum, and Detroit hip-hop as a whole."