Fifteen years after the release of their highly acclaimed Fantastic Vol. 2, and five years after their expected retirement date, Detroit innovators Slum Village are on tour with fellow rap legend Pete Rock to promote their eighth album, YES, released June 16. Throughout those fifteen years, they’ve lost two members due to death, and one due to – well, life, but their signature sound is alive and well, preserved through Dilla [heart] beats and a Detroit soul.

Survivors of the ‘90s and 2000s rap landscape, where artists were oftentimes pointlessly segregated and categorized by their relative “mainstream” or “underground” appeal; Slum has always kept it real. Their pointedly raw lyrics paired with choppy soul samples have formed a successful formula that’s been made a standard in the creation of some of Hip Hop’s greatest releases of the past 20 years. In this exclusive interview, T3 and RJ describe the roots of the Slum Village collective from which many of Detroit’s finest have grown while looking forward to breaking new ground for this generation’s rap fans.

Just Say “YES”…to Gentlemen’s Clubs (With Dilla)

DX: So T3 & RJ, you guys have been touring with Pete Rock. Can you talk a little bit about the history of your relationship with Pete?

T3: Pete is like family. I remember he came to the D in the hood with a box of discs for the SP-1200, and just played joint after joint after joint for us. Pete showed us love because he really felt the group early. After Q-Tip played Volume 1 – cause Q-Tip was just going around New York playing Volume 1 for everybody – we had real people that we admired that were really messing with us early, so much so that they came to the D to mess with us, which was weird. Dilla had money at that time, but he didn’t move out of the hood just yet. So we’d be in the hood, and outside you would see the Lexus 450, brand new that he brought cash, just out there. So we were stunting in the hood, but we didn’t move yet cause he really enjoyed the place. So he would make the place immaculate and have all these snacks…Then, he would take everybody to the titty bar cause that was Dilla’s thing. If you were messing with Dilla, you had to go to the titty bar, that’s his vibe. You know what I’m saying? He was like a super Hip Hop dude, who fucks with titty bars. I mean Common, he had to go to the titty bar. Whoever came through, you had to go to the titty bar. That’s how Dilla was. But anyway, back to what I was saying about Pete – we’ve been family for years. He showed us that love early. That’s like my big bro.

DX: Tell me a little bit about your latest album, YES.

RJ: We got De La on there, Bilal, BJ The Chicago Kid, Jon Conner, Phife, Black Milk…Dilla and Baatin on there, unheard vocals, unreleased beats…

T3: Unreleased Dilla beats that nobody’s every heard…

DX: What was the process like of going through the Dilla vault, so to speak, to find beats for this album?

RJ: About a year and a half ago, Dilla’s family came to us, asked us to assist them with keeping his legacy going and putting it back in its proper perspective. So that’s when we did the King of Beats box set. Right after that, you saw the Joey Bada$$ stuff pop up and a lot of other people [were] getting some Dilla stuff. So basically, we got all the music plus what we already had, we just went through it and we picked the things that we liked. A majority of the songs were made for Slum Village; it’s not like we took tracks that were made for Common and rapped on them. When you listen to them, you’ll hear Dilla say “new SV,” because it was made for Slum Village. We kind of took the ideas that they already had back in the Volume 2 era and we just updated them. Then I added a couple tracks, and that was about it. I didn’t have to do much on this one.

DX: What about the Dilla verses? Were they already recorded to the beats that you’re using?

T3: Yep, Dilla had already laid them. I mean, I don’t think people give Dilla his props as an emcee like they should, though. He had verses. He really had verses and he was just getting better and better with it. Like he said, a lot of these joints were meant for Slum Village. These are Slum Village joints. When I was picking, I was picking stuff like, “oh I remember, we ain’t never finished this, let’s finish it up now. Let’s put it together and make it pop.”

No New Friends: “Conscious” or “Mainstream”

DX: Back in 2010, I know you guys told DX that Villa Manifesto would be your last album…

T3: It was supposed to be our last album.

DX: Can you talk about what’s happened between then and now in order for these newer releases to be made possible?

T3: A lot of things happened. Of course, Elzhi broke off and did his Elzhi thing, which I ain’t mad at. So here’s the thing – when we did Villa Manifesto, we were breaking up anyway. We were gone. This was supposed to be the last Slum Village album. But then Elzhi creates this controversy to get his stuff going – I didn’t know that was going on – well, I did, cause he kind of told me, and he wanted me to be on his side with it. But I was more loyal to the people I had been with before him. So that’s what happened with that because we had years with his pops and him. I was more loyal to J since they were my family first. I’m a loyal dude. I don’t do that. And even with him breaking off, I’m still not mad at El. It is what it is, you do what you do…I just didn’t like how he did it more than anything. Like I said, we were breaking up anyway, but it was cool. After that, Slum Village had to restructure. So then we started doing mixtapes with Mick Boogie; we did two – the Dirty Slums projects, we did the Evolution album with Illa J, and we just kept it moving. So I felt like we had to rebuild the legacy because I don’t want Slum Village to end on a bad note. If we ending, we ending right…but I don’t wanna end on no controversy type of thing. That’s the reason why I kind of kept it going for that long.

Here’s what I’m saying to people, nobody’s bigger than the legacy of Slum. We started a lot of careers, whether people want to admit it or not, we started a lot of careers in Detroit. If you look at Slum, we can just go down the line…I’m not even going to say the names, but a lot of careers were started from Slum, from R&B to Hip Hop. We started some dudes out. Without Slum, they would not be here. So with that said, nobody’s bigger than the legacy. You can come through Slum, do your time, and you can move on, it’s fine. Dilla was in there ten, Elzhi was in there eight, Illa J did two, Baatin did about fifteen years, and everybody did their thing with Slum. I’m not mad at a person doing their thing and then moving on, that’s fine. But nobody’s bigger than the legacy. It’s about the legacy of what we did. We were the first of our kind – the first to get the major deal as a group, in Detroit, before Eminem, we were on already, early. I don’t think people acknowledge that enough. I just had to throw that out there.

DX: It seems like now you guys know. You’re comfortable with the Slum Village legacy, and you have a lot planned out. Do you feel like you have a pretty good idea of where you’re going?

RJ: Yeah, I mean, for me, you can never erase the past. Baatin, Dilla, T3 – that’s the original trio. I wouldn’t be here, and a lot of people wouldn’t be here, without the original trio. Elzhi played his part, and whether I like what happened or not, he made his contribution to the group and kept it going. So I wouldn’t be here without El. The thing is, all we want to do – and this is me speaking – is provide opportunities. That’s all it’s about now, is for us to provide opportunities to people that are coming up, and put as many people on as we can, and continue to make good music. You might just get four songs next year from Slum Village; you might not get an album next year. You know what I’m saying? You might get seven albums. It just depends on what we wanna give.

T3: Yeah, that’s true. It’s all about keeping the legacy going. Everybody did their time with Slum, and I did a song about that with De La, on this new album, YES – it’s how everybody did their time. We’re the most slept-on group because we had so many situations. Now, if we were in any other genre of music, it wouldn’t be a problem. Rock groups switch dudes all the time, soul dudes – but Hip Hop, you gotta stay. It is what it is, you can’t switch it when it comes to Hip Hop. Unless you talk about Slum Village, we’re the first of our kind on that. And I’ll take that. De La’s still together, and those are my dudes, so hats off to them. We can’t get Tribe to stay together all the time, but when they come together, they come through – which is my favorite group of all time. You just got Outkast to come back and it’s only two dudes! (Laughs) So what I’m saying is, we just gotta keep the legacy going. It is what it is.

DX: I feel like you guys had such a successful blueprint early on – jazzy, soulful instrumentals with raps that were a little more edgy than what you’d typically expect to hear over those types of beats. Would you attribute that to your growing up in Detroit?

T3: That was Detroit. That was Detroit, all day. Look, I was telling people the other day…we got a lot of shit back in the day for doing that, though. It was like, they wanted us to be these conscious rappers because the beats were soulful. But we’re Detroit niggas, it’s not gonna happen like that. This is how we get down. (Laughs) We Detroit niggas though! You know, we grew up, with titty bars and niggas fighting…it was Detroit all the way! Even though I was more of a laidback Detroit nigga, I’m still a Detroit nigga, at the end of the day. I think it was a gift and a curse. But I remember one of the guys from De La telling me, he was like, “Man, I’m happy ya’ll did that so I don’t have to do these conscious lyrics all the time, over these beats. I like the beats, but I don’t wanna do that conscious shit all the time.” I was like “yes, that’s what I’m talking about!” That was Maceo who told me that. That’s when he started rapping with De La. So I mean, we were just giving you the Yin and the Yang, which was what Slum Village was really about. But, that’s Motown – most of the Motown singers was thugs. That’s what they was. They was singing to you, but they was thugs. They were soulful…that’s the same thing with Slum. That’s what we try to do with Hip Hop.

RJ: Yeah, and I think the original Slum had a balance. Baatin was the more earthy dude, T3 was up the middle, and Dilla was the straight street dude.

T3: Straight street nigga.

DX: Are there any current artists you can hear your influence in? Or anyone you feel like is really getting it right?

T3: I’m sure we influence a lot of artists, and I don’t want to call anybody out. But there are are people that we are fucking with, like Kendrick and Joey, and even some of those B-side niggas I’m fucking with. Even some street shit. I was really fucking with Rae Sremmurd early. Here’s what I like about music when I’m hearing some of these new artists – even though they might not be lyrical dudes, the essence of them having fun with music…I fuck with that because most of the Slum Village joints were built on jokes and having fun. I don’t know why it’s so hard for certain dudes to have fun in music. In the Jay-Z era, Jay took everything serious. It was like, that’s cool, but when I came up, a nigga had fun, he might dance, he might not, he might shoot, whatever…but it was diverse. And sometimes I think there are different categories for music. You need your comedy nigga – you gotta have a comedy nigga come through, put a little joke in there with the rhymes. I think we’re missing that – that was Will Smith back in the day – you need that. I need my Hip Hop to be diverse because everybody can’t be the same way. I don’t want everybody to be the same way. Maybe I’m on my own T3 shit, but that’s just how I feel about music, you know?

DX: Even in the Detroit scene, I feel like there was a period where there was the D12/Eminem scene, and the Dilla/Slum Village scene. But you guys had a connection with Proof, early on – can you talk about that?

T3: Yeah, Proof was our guy, but here’s the thing about Detroit – this is the funny thing about Detroit that I always say. Most of us were never in other studio sessions. In New York, everybody’s in everybody’s studio session, everybody falls through…no. Eminem has never been to Dilla’s studio. Pete Rock’s been there; Questlove has been there, but Eminem? Nah. Now how weird is that? That’s just how Detroiters are. We’re all on our own shit. But the dope thing about that is that everybody’s got their own sound because we ain’t fucking with everybody like that. We’re in our section. D12 don’t sound like Slum who don’t sound like Danny Brown who don’t sound like Big Sean. Guess what? We’re all different. But we’re all from the D, and we all rep D in our own way, and I like that. When I was in the studio with Dre, everybody, and their mama was in there from the west coast. And I admire that too, but that’s not how we came up. That’s just not our tactics. You know what I’m saying?

Detroit vs. Everybody or Everybody In Detroit vs. Everybody In Detroit?

DX: I’m sure you guys know about Detroit vs. Everybody – if you had to pick five from Detroit, who would you pick?

RJ: Nobody. I just keep it funky; I don’t get into none of that. If I name five, I gotta go back home, and hear, “Yo, why you ain’t name me, nigga!” So nobody. It’s just gonna be an instrumental if I’m putting the song together.

DX: (Laughs) Okay, okay. I respect that.

T3: Cause Detroit guys are really sensitive. Rappers overall are really sensitive right now – I don’t understand this sensitive shit. It’s like; today you’re not entitled to have an opinion. When you have an opinion, you’re on some bullshit. Certain shits I just don’t like. Is that my fault I don’t like it¿

RJ: Just make better music! Some shit is just wack.

Pete: Some shit?

RJ: A lot of shit! Last time I did an interview, they were like goddamn, and he went crazy! Nah but a lot of shit is wack, stop being so damn sensitive. Make better music.

T3: I was talking the other day, I was like man, Slum Village gave a lot of opportunities to dudes, but it’s still a lot of dudes that feel like Slum Village didn’t give them any opportunities. How many niggas can we help? I’m not mad, but you can’t help everybody, you know what I’m saying? You gotta have some talent, you gotta bring something to the table. (Laughs) So it’s like, with all the dudes we helped, there are still twenty dudes looking at us like “damn, these niggas ain’t looked back. They ain’t even look at us.” Like, man, I got out the ghetto myself – I had to crawl, I had to scrape, I had to rap my ass off, I had to do everything you can do to get up outta the hood. I did it, you know what I’m saying? So you can do it too, son! My moms passed, my dad passed – if I can go through all those situations, you can go through it too, son. But you know, these new school dudes, they want me to come through, serve ’em their lunch, burp ’em, I can’t do all that. (Laughs) I can’t do it. All right, I’m done. I’m off my soapbox.