Slum Village Talk Aussie Shows, The Detroit Scene & J Dilla’s Influence

They may be a heritage hip-hop act, but Detroit’s Slum Village is the most anticipated headliner at Australia’s “boutique” dance music festival Let Them Eat Cake (LTEC) on New Year’s Day. This will be Slum Village’s first Aussie trek since 2007, but it could be their last.

T3 (aka RL Altman III), the group’s sole original member, and Ralph “Young RJ” Rice are talking up the tour from the road. “We’re going through Canada, on our way to Vancouver,” Rice discloses. Rice’s phone line drops out several times — and, confusingly, he and Altman switch the handset without saying. Indeed, Altman has designated Slum Village a “brand”. They are one.

Slum Village have enjoyed enduring success primarily because of their association with the late J Dilla (James Yancey) — the producer who modernised jazz-hop, presaging Flying Lotus.

Hailing from Detroit’s historically affluent black area of Conant Gardens, Slum Village was formed by three school friends — rappers T3 and Baatin, and beatmaker J Dilla (initially Jay Dee) — in the early ’90s. The trio signed to A&M Records but, soon after, the label was dissolved. Their debut, Fan-Tas-Tic, Vol 1, was shelved, though widely bootlegged.

Watch: Slum Village – Love Is (Feat. Bilal & Illa J)

In 2000 Slum Village presented the repackaged Fantastic, Vol 2 — among its prestigious guests D’Angelo — through Barak Records, run by Rice’s father, “Old” RJ. Slum Village were celebrated as a throwback to the Native Tongues’ conscious hip-hop, particularly A Tribe Called Quest’s, but they stressed their street credentials.

In 2001 Dilla quit Slum Village to pursue his surging solo production career. Yet, even now, Altman refers to him as “the foundation” of Slum Village — the “creator of the sound”. “Without him, it would have never happened.” Dilla continued to support Slum Village. “He told me I should keep it going,” Altman says.

Another MC, eLZhi joined Slum Village ahead of 2002’s Trinity (Past, Present And Future) – the LP spawning their cult post-Dilla hit Tainted (featuring Dwele). However, all wasn’t well. Baatin, who’d developed serious mental health issues, split. Slum Village then dropped Detroit Deli (A Taste Of Detroit), Kanye West producing Selfish (the hook courtesy of John Legend) — a second hit.

Dilla, battling lupus, died in 2006, and Baatin succumbed to cocaine abuse in 2009. Dilla’s young brother Illa J rapped with Slum Village part-time, but a frustrated eLZhi departed. Today Rice, Dilla’s protégé, is Slum Village’s beatmaker, and he raps. Rice also presides over their label, Ne’Astra.

Detroit has survived racial division, post-industrialisation and civic neglect. Slum Village, too, are stoic. Their fans are committed. Mind, with the many personnel changes, that loyalty didn’t come automatically. “It took some time,” Altman concedes.

“It was long, hard, and it took a lot of convincing. But I think just the consistency of the music really is what keeps it kinda going. Everybody who’s been in the group has been a part of the history of Slum Village. So I think that’s the main part that makes it credible, you know?”

In June, Slum Village unveiled the album YES!, with Dilla’s beats. “YES! was like a compilation of new and old Slum together,” Altman explains. “Basically, YES! was joints that we found in a J Dilla storage room — old Slum Village joints that we hadn’t finished — so we decided to go in there and finish them.”

Watch: Slum Village – Expressive (Feat. BJ The Chicago Kid, Illa J, Rosewood 2055)

In fact, a record store owner bought the forgotten contents of a storage unit. On realising its source, he dutifully contacted Dilla’s mother Maureen Yancey, who turned the demos over to Slum Village. Says Altman, “We thought they were just still dope and relevant for today.”

YES! has cameos by Bilal, BJ The Chicago Kid, and De La Soul, and Black Milk’s additional production. There is one other revelation. Slum Village’s most political song, Windows, addresses America’s current civil rights unrest.

The Motor City’s unique music subcultures — hip-hop, techno and house — do interlink. D12’s much-missed Proof was friends with the ghetto-tek DJ Godfather and house icon Moodymann. Slum Village have a latent techno pull, and they officially remixed Daft Punk’s Aerodynamic.

What is their relationship to Detroit’s electronic community? “Everybody just meets up around certain events,” Rice says.

“It’s not like everybody goes out hanging out every day. But you got your Detroit Electronic Music Festival that takes place once a year and people go there, and I guess the Who’s Whos get a chance to see what’s going on, catch up… You can hear [the techno influence] in the music [of Slum Village] because every Friday on the radio they play techno music – so that’s a weekly tradition in Detroit.”

Detroit’s most famous MC, Eminem, is still based there — important symbolically. Might Shady do more to foster the underground? “I think people gotta find their own identity,” Rice replies.

“It would be nice to see people have a platform, and that’s what we’ve tried to create. But as far as saying whether Em should branch out… that’s completely on him. But, for the new artists, if you don’t necessarily feel like you got the opportunity or the platform, you gotta create it for yourself.” And Slum Village are assisting local acts, including Grand Rapids combo Rosewood 2055.

Slum Village’s future is under a cloud. Asked if a new album is possible, Altman sounds doubtful. “We’re doing solo albums — we’re both working on solo ones right now. But, with Slum Village, I don’t know where that’s gonna go from here.” Altman’s solo project will be “techno-inspired”, veering off into house and drum ‘n’ bass.

LTEC promoters are touting Slum Village as “the act that your favourite hip-hop artists listen to”. The duo, happy to leave Detroit in what Rice calls “the dead of winter”, will bring the party.

“People [can] look forward to hearing all the classics, the new album — we’re gonna make turtles dance on stage, it’s gonna be a great show,” Rice says. Altman hollers from behind, “especially the turtle part”.

Slum Village perform at Let Them Eat Cake 2016 on 1st January, and Sydney’s The Basement on 2nd January.

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