The diminutive offices of Barak Records in Southfield teem with chipper people. It’s hard to tell who is employed and who is visiting, since everyone is greeted with a hug or handshake. Even the employees seem to be just hanging out.
The Barak “lounge” is the locus of pseudo-social activity. It’s furnished with two love seats, a mounted television and a vintage Pac-Man tabletop arcade game that, for now, is just a place on which to set the more contemporary Playstation 2, along with an assortment of video games and DVDs.
“We just finished a mailing. What are we going to do with all those boxes?” asks Barak publicist and product manager Biba Adams, one of the few employees who’s in a serious mood. She is slightly vexed; her relief at having completed one mass mailing is tempered by the arrival of an additional shipment of promotional materials, in boxes that stand 4 feet high.
Just past the promotional shipment, which blocks the entrance to Barak (Hebrew for “blessed”), is the vocal booth for the company’s in-house recording studio. Seated inside are the company’s prize breadwinners, rappers R.L. “T3” Altman and Jason “Elzhi” Powers, the constituent parts of Slum Village. They sit on either side of musician Amp Fiddler, the man who gave them their first recording opportunity.
These are good times — maybe the best of times — for all three men. Barak, in a joint venture with Capitol Records, will release Slum Village’s third national album, Detroit Deli (A Taste of Detroit), on June 29. Fiddler’s second solo album, Waltz of a Ghetto Fly, is an overseas smash. He has just returned from a European tour, and talks about how good it felt seeing his promotional poster in London train stations. The Slum Villagers and Fiddler grew up together, in the historic Conant Gardens section of Detroit. East Side, Nevada and 7 Mile area, it’s a tough, impoverished neighborhood that bears the typical pockmarks of Detroit’s lower- and middle-class aesthetics.
Today, T3 and Elzhi are stars taking a moment to reminisce about Fiddler’s contribution to their rising celebrity.
“We did our first album in Amp’s basement,” says T3, referring to the place Fiddler used to call “Camp Amp.”
“Amp first showed Jay Dee (an inaugural member of Slum Village and a legendary local producer) how to work the MP (MPC 3000 drum machine). And he was the first guy to show me falafel. I was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ We did the whole first album sitting with him.”
“Yup,” Fiddler recalls, laughing. “I always knew we’d make it jump off. I told ’em, ‘Come do your demos, whatever. Whatever it takes to get on.’”
Fiddler still has an original copy of one of Slum Village’s first-ever recorded songs, “Is It The Magic.” T3 expresses amazement when Fiddler mentions it.
They talk about Barak’s June 22 trifecta of releases, just a week before Slum Village’s. Three of the company’s artists — Phat Kat, B.R. Gunna and Ann Arbor’s Athletic Mic League — are slated to drop albums simultaneously.
Barak has dubbed the release date “Super Tuesday.” It’s a rare marketing stunt for an independent record company, and the hope is that Slum Village’s album will be the coup de grâce.
As T3 and Fiddler bask in a nostalgic glow, Elzhi soaks in the conversation. He was not around in the Camp Amp days. T3 is, in fact, the last founding member of Slum Village remaining. James “Jay Dee” Yancey, now known as Jay Dilla, is gone.
Titus “Baatin” Glover, the man many thought to be the stylistic anchor of the flagship Slum Village trio, is also gone.
Jay Dee did not return phone calls requesting an interview for this story. He left Slum Village in 2001, after its debut, Fantastic, Vol. II, was released. He still contributes to the group’s projects as a producer, but has embarked on a solo career. His most recent album, Mad Scientist, a one-off project he recorded with California producer Madlib under the moniker Jaylib, was moderately successful.
Metro Times reported last year that Baatin was asked to leave Slum Village after being diagnosed and hospitalized with schizophrenia. He has recovered, re-emerged as Baatin the Slum Lord, and begun a solo career. He tells Metro Times he recently secured a distribution deal with BMG/IMG.
Baatin and T3 have not spoken since just after Baatin got out of the hospital. Baatin says he was told he was not welcome back to the group.
Now, Slum Village has a hit lead single from the new album, “Selfish.” The hip-hop love song was produced by and features rap’s latest it-man, Kanye West, and upcoming crooner John Legend. Slum Village also enjoys heavy radio and video play nationwide, thanks to the record’s feel-good approach to romance.
This despite the fact that the Slum Village lineup has been a revolving door.
T3 and Elzhi say they are more comfortable with their careers than they have ever been. Telling their story, however, elicits a certain melancholy that a hit album and long-sought mainstream recognition can’t necessarily cure.
Slum Village’s road to rap success has been bumpy, and the rewards are bittersweet.
It takes a village
T3 describes his childhood with rolling eyes and a smile.
“Tough, man,” he says. “You know how it is. Mom was addicted to alcohol. She died from cancer. Then I moved with some relatives, and they wouldn’t let a nigga out the house. Then I lived alone.”
Everybody has it rough, he says, opting not to use his background “as a crutch.”
Slum Village began as a quintet named Senepod (“dopenes” backward) in 1989. Jay Dee, T3, Baatin, producer Wajeed and dancer Que D comprised the roster.
Over time, the group contracted to what T3 calls a duo. Baatin left twice.
When a friend named Cricket discovered T3 and Jay Dee had lyrics but needed music, he took them to meet Fiddler and see his studio. They struck up a friendship, began recording and joined a collective of neighborhood rap crews called Ghostown.
Their initial sound was very abstract. The vocals were experimental. Tone changes, imitations. The members were inspired by rap’s old school — Big Daddy, Kool G. Rap — as well as the sounds of Motown. The songwriting seemed bent on maintaining about as much form as water.
One thing did take form: differences of opinion.
“Our first songs were about Baatin,” T3 says, mentioning “The Man,” a tune he and Jay Dee wrote to vent frustration at their friend’s choice of social activities.
“He started selling drugs!” T3 says. “But he had home support! I didn’t get that.
“I remember when he left. He actually kicked himself out. It was me and Jay Dee, sittin’ in the Escort. We were like, ‘Baatin, what’s up?’ And he was like, ‘Man, y’all can’t question me.’ He left, didn’t even give us a chance to respond.”
Baatin, talking via cell phone, says this was not the proudest time of his life. “Yeah, man. That was a little phase in my life. High school, peer pressure. I was on some other shit. Que D. pulled me to the side, said I was headed for death.”
Que D. almost lost his life one night because of Baatin’s activity. “It was me, Que D., Jay Dee and T3, went to a coney island on the East Side,” Baatin says. “Some cats were beefing with me, and they shot at Que D. To this day, he’s got a bullet in his neck. That helped me look at it like, cats be on this thug image. We don’t have to grow up thinking it’s supposed to be this way.”
Que D. says the shot entered his jaw, ricocheted, and lodged near his spine.
T3 says he and Jay Dee recorded for five years without Baatin and then, realizing they needed him, invited him to return. Baatin had sharpened his skills with another group, Last Wunz Out.
“I had actually left the group twice,” says Baatin. “I went back, did a show at the Blind Pig (Ann Arbor). It went so deep. We got into rappin’ with a different rhythm over the beat.”
Vocally, T3 and Baatin were deep into rhythm and characterization. They could rap the length of songs using different vocal tones. Their adept manipulation of voice would later show on a skit from Fantastic, Vol. II, their first nationally distributed album, where they imitate Louis Armstrong and Prince.
“T3 is a stylist,” says DJ Dez, a longtime friend and DJ for Slum Village and Afro-Latin band Ozomatli. “Baatin is also a style master. Within Slum Village, you have lyrical aspects, but the overall angle that captures people is the style. How they flow over their music. Like, ‘Hey, hey, hey, whatcha say. Get this mo-ney.’ It’s totally feel.”
Holding the ever-morphing vocal styles together were Jay Dee’s beats. His production methods were unorthodox. He was good for programming claps and snare drums on off-counts. On a whim, he might layer sampled sounds, some of which would be subtle and barely detectable. As a result, Jay Dee’s beats sounded sparse on weaker systems, but full and textured on state-of-the-art equipment. It was a perfectly awkward style that complemented two perfectly awkward emcees.
“Slum Village is the type of hip hop that isn’t afraid to allow their influence to show,” says DJ Dez. “If they got a track that happened to be influenced by a bossa nova tune, then you gonna hear it.”
The trio officially christened itself Slum Village in 1995, around the time the musicians learned of another studio called Hoops, which was working with popular local acts. Dopeadelic. Dez. Burgeoning national rap acts like Home Team, which recorded one hit, “Pick It Up,” also recorded there.
R.J. Rice was one of the men running the place. Former Detroit Piston star John Salley was his partner.
Many of the Detroit groups using Hoops were regulars at spots like the Hip-Hop Shop and the Rhythm Kitchen. But Rice took a special interest in Slum Village.
“R.J. would hook us up,” says T3, “let us record for free. He would give Jay Dee the keys. This was the second evolution of Slum Village.”
Having been an artist, and now a businessman, Rice was a veteran of the music industry. His group, RJ’s Latest Arrival, was a hit machine in the ’80s, the driving force behind hits like “Shackles,” “Wind Me Up” and “Baby I’m Sorry.”
“I feel like I have an eye for talent,” says Rice. “There was nothing like Slum Village.”
Rice began shaping and shopping the trio under the Hoops banner, but says they became a victim of industry politics early.
“We shopped them. Somebody heard them, and told Digable Planets to sound like them,” Rice says.
That somebody, according to T3, was Columbia Records, which did offer Slum Village a deal. The rapper claims Salley ruined the deal by demanding more up-front money than Columbia wanted to pay.
Rice agrees with T3’s assertion, adding that it fell through because Columbia pushed Digable Planets, the creators of the early 1990s jazz/hip-hop anthem “Cool Like Dat,” to assimilate Slum Village’s signature sound.
Yet Slum Village was gaining a reputation on the street. The group’s stage shows became almost mythic, partly because no one ever knew which members would show up.
“Early shows was always crazy ’cause they’d never all be there,” says DJ House Shoes, a longtime resident DJ at St. Andrew’s Hall in downtown Detroit, and an early Slum Village supporter.
“One show was in the basement at ‘Drew’s. It was ’98, or ’99. It was T Da Pimp, Phat Kat. T3 was up there for a hour by himself. He was just kickin’ it with the crowd. Jay and Baatin got there with like five minutes left, and they did four joints. It was ridiculous. That was the last show where they were all present.”
Audiences often forgave tardiness and no-shows. House Shoes says he became such a fan that he purchased a digital audio tape player to keep onstage while spinning at St. Andrew’s Friday night hip-hop parties, just in case Jay Dee brought new material from the studio.
“St. Andrew’s got to a point where Slum’s shit — anything produced by Dilla — was 60 percent of my shit,” says House Shoes. “Cats would say, ‘What I gotta do to get you to play my music?’ I’d say, ‘Go get a beat from Dilla.’ That was just my shit, man.”
Slum went on to record the deeply underground precursor to Fantastic, Vol. II, aptly titled Fantastic. It was received favorably in Detroit, but traversed little beyond the city’s borders.
This period, also part of what T3 calls their second evolution, was also marked by Jay Dee’s chance meeting with Q-Tip, lead rapper of the New York-based rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Passage of Jay Dee’s beat tape to Tip led to creation of the production team The Ummah.
Jay Dee, Q-Tip and Tribe member Ali Shaheed Muhammed comprised The Ummah, which immediately went to work on A Tribe Called Quest’s fourth album, Beats, Rhymes & Life. It was good exposure for Jay Dee, and, by association, Slum Village.
The album was rife with Jay Dee’s sound, so much so that it departed almost completely from Tribe’s three previous groundbreaking albums.
Unfortunately, Beats was not embraced by Tribe fans. It failed commercially.
Jay Dee’s production work, however, was on the map. He went on to work with Busta Rhymes, De La Soul, Common and a host of other notable artists en route to becoming a producer sought out by A-list rap artists.
“Jay Dee and Slum influenced so many people,” says House Shoes. “All that Philly sound, all that shit comes from Slum. It started with D’Angelo, and it was not mentioned in his liner notes, the contribution that they made to that album. It sounded like it was done in Jay’s basement.”
D’Angelo was one of many artists who eventually came to Detroit, attracted by Jay Dee’s sound and the group’s ingenuity, to work with Slum Village.
D’Angelo recorded “Tell Me” for Fantastic, Vol. II. Later, he released his own sophomore album, Voodoo. Jay Dee’s production style is heard throughout the album.
Dez marvels at the number of artists Slum Village influenced before releasing its own first album.
“I’ll put it like this,” he says. “Amir [Thompson, also known as ?uestlove] from The Roots, when I first met him, was just in awe of them. He said if it wasn’t for Slum Village, he would’ve went back to college.”
Between 1998 and 2000, Barak would sign and nix or buy out recording contracts for Slum Village with A&M (1998), Interscope (1999), Good Vibe/Atomic Pop (1999) and JCOR (2000). Most of the companies were enamored with the group but had no idea how to market it.
T3 chuckles at the response they got when Slum Village turned in the first copies of Fantastic, Vol. II to Interscope. “Interscope was like, ‘What we supposed to do with this? This is not our type of music.’”
By the time Good Vibe would team with Atomic Pop, one of the music industry’s first recognized Internet-based record companies, to release Vol. II, Slum Village had been heavily bootlegged. This would hurt record sales, but make them one of hip hop’s most anticipated underground rap groups by the time the album was officially released in 2002.
Fantastic, Vol. II received critical acclaim everywhere. A Metro Times review predicted that the album’s alternative approach to conventional hip hop would make success a “slow burn” that would eventually burst into flame. The album boasted collaborations with D’Angelo, Pete Rock, Busta Rhymes and Dogg Pound gangsta Kurupt.
Slum Village slowly began to receive the praise nationally that the group had enjoyed for years locally.
T3 says that Slum Village — the original trio — was always the sum of three divergent parts. Each member’s personality was strong and highly creative.
Inevitably, T3 feels, conflicting wills proved stifling. Jay Dee was the first to voice discomfort, although he never did so publicly. He decided to stretch out in private, and left the group quietly in 2001.
“The reason I think Dilla left,” he says, “is he wanted to do his own thing. Now, I don’t know if he’ll tell you that, but he couldn’t express himself the way he wanted to.”
Jay Dee, he says, was always the street-oriented member of the group, more apt to rap about Range Rovers and strip clubs. Baatin was the direct opposite. He delved more into his own spirituality as time progressed.
“I was the middle person,” says T3. “We grew up on the same page, but went our own way once everybody grew up.
“I mean, it’s hard man, when ya boy wanna go to the titty bar, and ya other boy wanna eat Grape Nuts.”
Jay Dee’s departure was awkward but amicable. Still, it left a void in the group that many, including people within Slum’s inner circle of friends, thought would spell the end.
“My bestest, bestest friend said, ‘Man, you need to quit,’” says T3.
T3 and Baatin’s prayers were answered when House Shoes suggested they check out a young emcee he’d been working with.
Baatin had met Elzhi in 1997 at the Hip-Hop Shop’s Saturday afternoon open mics. He and T3 took a liking to him, and he began recording guest appearances for Slum Village’s second album, which would be released on Barak/Capitol.
By the time Trinity: Past, Present & Future was released in 2002, Elzhi was a full-fledged member appearing on every song.
Production was handled by a bevy of new producers and a couple of heavyweights in Karriem Riggins and Scott Storch. Jay Dee, who had changed his tag to Jay Dilla by then, produced three songs.
Trinity yielded the hit “Tainted,” which was produced by Riggins and featured the vocals of Dwele, a bubbling crooner who had hovered below the radar within Slum’s collective of artists and friends for years.
“Tainted,” with its easy groove and message about love, garnered national attention. The group became a summer favorite on BET’s hit show “106 and Park,” and enjoyed heavy radio rotation.
According to Neilsen SoundScan, the album sold some 206,000 copies.
Success required the newly formed trio of T3, Baatin and Elzhi to tour more frequently. This did not sit well with Baatin. He recalls the chilly reception the group would get from fans who missed Jay Dee.
“We felt like we worked so hard to get our shit back after Jay Dee left,” he says. “We did shows, and [promoters] would have signs up saying ‘Jay Dee will not be performing.’ People actually left.”
Then Baatin got sick. He began to display illogical thinking and behavioral patterns.
“I brought a lot of pressure on myself,” Baatin told Metro Times in October 2003, “It ended with me going into a stroke on my right side. While it was going on, I feel like I didn’t get any support from my label.”
Elzhi says that Baatin also began drinking heavily. Just when things were poised to take off, Baatin’s struggles began to take a toll on the group’s cohesiveness.
Eventually, Baatin had to be hospitalized.
“I went into the hospital on some Gothika shit,” he says, still emotional about the episode. “They didn’t call the whole time I was down. I was terminated after I left. They didn’t see nothing I was going through.”
Elzhi says he and T3 did see what Baatin was dealing with, but also felt compelled to act on behalf of the group.
“It’s a hereditary disease,” he says of Baatin’s illness. “Plus the heavy drinkin’ and smokin’. It brings out the worst in a person. I’m prayin’ for him. We want him to be a part of this.”
Past, present and future
With Baatin gone, T3 and Elzhi are in the unenviable position of having to reinvent themselves … again.
The group headed into production for Detroit Deli as a duo for the first time since their first rhyme.
T3 might call this the third evolution of Slum Village. He says the adjustment was challenging, but everyone in the group is finally on the same page.
“At first, we had to create a new group. Once we figured out where to go, it was easy,” T3 says.
B.R. Gunna — the production team consisting of Rice’s son Young RJ and partner Black — produced the majority of Deli. Jay Dee contributes two tracks. It is the most consistent Slum Village album since Fantastic, Vol. II, and features a balanced list of national and local guest appearances, including Dirt McGirt (formerly Ol’ Dirty Bastard) of Wu-Tang Clan, Dwele, MC Breed, Pontiac songstress Melanie Rutherford and Detroit favorite Big Herk.
“We strategized this album,” says Elzhi. “This is the voice of Motown. The Motor City. Rock City. The Techno capital. Everybody who hang at Belle Isle, who eat at Fishbone’s. It’s a brochure to Detroit.”
“I love Detroit Deli,” says DJ Dez. “I would love to see Detroit embrace that album. It’s one of my favorite full-length albums to come out of Detroit.”
Baatin, who says he still loves and wishes the best for his former bandmates, also has high hopes for the project.
“I haven’t heard the whole album,” he says. “I heard a couple of songs. I really liked what I heard. I think they got a whole new niche. They’re lookin’ good. I want the best for those brothers, man.”
Slum Village will hit the road on June 19 as an opener for D12. It’s Slum Village’s first arena tour, and T3 says it’s happening at the right time.
“I talked to Proof [of D12] yesterday. He was very excited.
“It’s a new audience for us,” he continues, wondering if fans of Eminem and D12 will embrace them. “But we’re ready, ’cause we’ve been in a few awkward situations.”
He says it’s also a good time to remove the air of mystery that he feels has always loomed over the group. Asked whether he thinks it’s good that fans know their music, but not their story, he winces.
“Mmm … I think that’s a good thing … at this point,” T3 says. “If they knew us, we’d be old by now. We’re basically a new group.”
“We’re a new group every time,” Elzhi adds, “’cause you never know what’s next. So you wanna leave that air of mystery.”
Both say the reason Slum Village has remained relevant to hip hop is because neither they nor Barak have given up on their promise.
“We just keep pushin’,” says Elzhi. “Label changes. Group members leavin’. We didn’t let it make or break us. Our ribs might be touchin’. We might be crawlin’. But we’re here now.”
Baatin, who has since recovered and takes medication for his condition, believes Elzhi tossed some veiled barbs his way prior to Baatin’s crash.
“When I okayed Elzhi to be in the group, it wasn’t a thang,” he says. “I had ambitions for the Trinity album. [But] I’m at a show in Cali, and the whole audience is like, ‘Why is Elzhi pointing at Baatin when he say his dis rhyme?’ I felt it was some unexpressed shit we never let out when we was workin’.”
“Aw, not this again!” T3 says when asked about Baatin’s comment. (Elzhi was unavailable). “Man, that is comedy! First of all, you gotta understand, the brother is half there and half not. Elzhi used to do battle rhymes so people would feel him as a person. ’Cause it’s hard to do a show when people lookin’ at you, and lookin’ for Jay Dee.”
Baatin calls back two days later to clarify. His behavior, he says, was too erratic to let go unchecked.
“I don’t really feel that way no more,” he says. “It’s just the emotion of the whole situation, but those are old feelings. I take the blame for myself. I don’t wanna sound like I’m pointing the finger at anybody.”
He says his slate is clean. The deal with BMG, he says, is “non-exclusive. I can shift over to Capitol and get an artist deal at the same time.”
He is also trying to develop his own roster of artists. His new company, Motin, is working with four local performers, Boss Mack, Sick, Secret and Toy.
Yet old feelings linger. Asked whether he thinks an opportunity to talk with T3 and Elzhi face-to-face might help mend fences, Baatin is less than confident.
“I did what I could do, but I don’t really know if it could be like that with [us] sittin’ down. I feel like I was played. If you had some genuine love, you would have called and made sure a brother was tight.”
T3 says it’s “been a minute” since he or Elzhi last talked with Baatin.
Elzhi, however, uses the closing verse on Detroit Deli’s final song, hauntingly titled “Reunion” (which features Jay Dee) to explain his feelings toward Baatin, once and for all. The verse is both revealing and searing.
I picked apart your words and I’m shocked.
In the interviews, I’ve been accused of not caring… It’s not fair when I’m learnin’ about how stressed you feel in a article. …
I wish we could go back.
But don’t act like you wasn’t buggin’ out,
like a phone tap … you know I cried when I
saw you wildin’ at the State Theatre, near the door, by the side.
Wanted to throw you in the trunk and find a preacher for you.
’Cause I thought you had unlawful demons on you. …
Your parents finally got you some help.
You came out seemin’ normal
And believe me, me and T3 kept it low.
Don’t take it as a dis.
This is just to let you know that I love you. …
Get your mind right. …