Trenches may not be glamorous places, but sometimes that's where beautiful music is made. The soulful, spare hip-hop of Slum Village springs from just such a locale, the city-versus-suburbs isolation of Detroit that makes songwriting such a welcome escape. Cold winters can turn this gritty industrial world into a mess of black and dirty white, but on this warm summer day in the studio, Slum Village's rhymer Elzhi is experiencing multiple hues as his group finishes its latest album, Slum Village (Barak), coming out this fall.
“When I hear music, I hear colors,” Elzhi says, taking a break from a mad rush to finish Slum Village's fifth record in time for the deadline. “I see colors, actually. It comes down to whatever kind of music you have. A beat is like a burgundy-reddish purple. You take them colors, and you make sure that every tune on the album has a reddish color on it to keep it going. When you rap on any track, you've got to realize that every track has a color, so you may have an aggressive color red over something funky. Your vocal tone has colors, too — therefore, you have a concept of the song where every color meshes well with the track.”
ADVENTURES IN HIP-HOP
Those musical colors are an important part of filling out the concept, and Slum Village is very much a concept album. But before Slum Village could get to this point, the embattled group had to make sure it survived the ravages of the music industry. Formed in the hallways of Detroit's Pershing High School in the mid-'90s by MCs Baatin, Jay Dee and T3, the threesome started by making waves locally. Along the way, Jay Dee found success with the Ummah production team, which made hits for Q-Tip, a Tribe Called Quest and Common, to name a few, as well as remixes for Janet Jackson and the Brand New Heavies. A Slum Village album, the melodically mystifying Fantastic Vol. 2 (Goodvibe), emerged in 2000, followed by the far-reaching Trinity (Past, Present and Future) on Barak Records in 2002 and the more highly produced Detroit Deli (A Taste of Detroit) on Capitol in 2004. (Best Kept Secret, an album of early Slum Village material, was released under the J-88 pseudonym on Groove Attack in 2000.)
The Slum Village sound is grounded in intriguing vocal cadences, deep-funk bass lines and smartly sampled parts, but despite its focused sound, things have always been rocky for the band. Group members had a way of coming and going. Baatin developed mild schizophrenia. Capitol entered the scene to release Detroit Deli and left the collective feeling distribution-rich but purpose-poor. “When we did Detroit Deli, we was basically walking a tightrope with the music,” Elzhi explains. “We were trying to please the label by giving them music friendly to the commercial ear and give them music that the Slum fan would appreciate.
“Detroit Deli was a lot of compromises,” he continues. “Just like on the lyric standpoint, I couldn't get my full capacity of what I could offer to the people. By how the mainstream is set up, there's only so much you can talk about there — if you being humorous, being crunk, there's a limited amount. But us walking that tightrope with the music, it was about us trying to touch both ends: It was us trying to compromise to the fullest. But with this new album, there's no compromises at all.”
The new record's beats and melodies mainly came from Detroit Deli production team BR Gunna, aka Young RJ and Black Milk. Before starting Slum Village with T3 and Elzhi, the rappers and producers made a serious study of the concept album, referencing other collections such as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (Motown, 1971), a Tribe Called Quest's Midnight Marauders (Jive, 1993), Ice Cube's Death Certificate (Priority, 1991) and Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (La Face, 2003) as inspirations.
“When we're determining an album's concept, we try to figure out the direction of where we're trying to take the music,” Elzhi says. “If we have five songs but we like the direction of two, we'll build off the concept of them two. Let's say we did a rock album; we might have started off with five songs and added two that are rock songs. We'll stretch that vibe out to make a rock album so it's emotional and still has that rock sound. We can have a battle rap and talk about the girls — stretching that vibe in different directions — but have that one vibe.
“I've been vibing off of music for a long time. With the colors and vocal tones, it can mesh perfectly. [But] you might have someone coming off a track that doesn't sound like he fit because he didn't fit the track right. He wasn't aggressive; he didn't do what the beat said.”
PUT YOUR SONGS TOGETHER
For those who can't wait for Slum Village to come out, the group released a midsummer collection modestly titled Prequel to a Classic (Barak, 2005), exposing fans to an even wider range of the group's distinctively ambitious approach to hip-hop songwriting. “Prequel to a Classic is a mixtape,” Elzhi explains. “There's songs from the middle of that era when we did the Trinity album, where we did the Vol. 2 album and songs that didn't make Detroit Deli or songs that we just experimented on. We put those songs together, and believe it or not, we still got more songs to choose from.” On Prequel, the halting beats and haunting minimalism of tracks like “Get Ya Paper” and the thick, furry rhythms and wide spaces of “Can I Be Me” offer a tantalizing look at another side of Slum Village's output, all of it tied to a songwriting process in which words are expected to obediently follow in the footsteps of sounds.
“Slum Village has always been known for making vocals sound like instruments,” Elzhi says, “and we might plant words in between the hi-hat or end our words hitting directly on the snare, pretty much dancing on the beats.
“There's many ways to write verse,” he continues. “I've written verses where I'm just beating on my chest. I've written in the studio or just on the spot, and most of the time, I write in my head without a pen. What I put to music is whatever the music is saying. If the music is saying, ‘I'm expressing an emotion,’ then that's what I gotta write. If it's a sexy beat and I'm thinking I should talk about a girl on there, then that's what I'm going to write. As an artist, we have a responsibility to take what the music is saying and translate it into English for the people who are listening. You never want to go against the grain with what the music is saying.”
RJ Rice Studios is the birthplace of Slum Village, residing on the same stretch of Detroit-suburb border road that Eminem made famous with the movie 8 Mile. For Elzhi, not surprisingly, it's not the DAWs, mic pres or monitors of a recording environment that matter so much as the nontechnical atmospherics. “The studio has to be a comfortable place where you can stretch out and feel good,” he points out. “RJ has a unique sound as far as a studio goes, which allows you to feel the music more, and that's what makes it a creative place. After you feel the music more, a ton of creative ideas drop in your head — how to put this drop here, add horns there — if you're in a comfortable place.”
Still, the good vibes were certainly fed by some good equipment. A Digidesign Control|24 console and 192 I/O, an Apple Mac G5 running Pro Tools and Reason, an Akai MPC3000 and 2000XL, Neve EQs, a Korg MS-2000, a Fender Rhodes, a Moog Minimoog and much more helped in making for a comfortable, creative setting.
But nice studio or not, with Slum Village constantly moving two steps forward, one step back, the band will always have challenges. For fellow rhythm combatants who may be getting discouraged about their own lives in the trenches, Elzhi offers up his soft-spoken strategy. “Man, just keep your head up,” he says. “Music is first. We've been doing music forever, and you just can't let anything hold you back. If you're suffering, put that into the music. Don't let the music suffer, though. Just stay on top of your game. At Slum Village, we've had a lot of trials and tribulations, and the story is like a broken record now. We've got a connection, we've got a drive, and we won't stop until we make it there.”
PRODUCING A PREQUEL
Young RJ and Black Milk of BR Gunna are on Slum Village's short list of favorite producers, and the feeling is mutual. “Slum Village is like family to me, but they're very creative guys,” RJ says. “We've just got a chemistry and vibe. We don't have to bring in any beats. Most of the time, it comes quick. If it doesn't come quick, we might go get something to eat, and Elzhi rides around in his car, and he writes in his head. He can freestyle it and get the verse done that way.” Here, RJ reveals some behind-the-scenes action of making Prequel to a Classic.
The organ sound on the song “Get Ya Paper” has an interesting backward-vocal quality.
“Get Ya Paper” is one of them records that come from just listening to stuff and having fun in the studio. That sound is a mixture: an organ and a vocal. Someone came and sang on top of the organ — I think it was a Hammond B-5. We cued it and sampled it back together in the MPC.
The snare sound cuts through nicely. How did you create it?
We EQ'd it kind of high and sharp and stacked it on top of quick snippets of about 10 other sounds that slap and snap to get that kind of punchy sound.
How did you get that kind of dulled sound to the loop collage in the background of “Can I Be Me”?
We got the idea for that from a live rock record. We had voices stacked on top of the drums. Lot of cats did vocals. We're right down the hall from a church, so we had some people — three guys and three ladies — come on down the hall and sing. Then, we took it and loaded it up into Logic 5 and toned it up to make it sound like a sample. It's a basic function that comes in Logic so you can speed it up and tune it also to add a real edge to it. The loop was created in an MPC2000XL, playing the pads.
Where did the bass line come from in “EZ Up”?
When we made “EZ Up,” we were just getting back from Jamaica. We went record shopping while we were there; we fell into a groove and created the track. That was a custom bass sound we made with three or four bass sounds stacked to create it, triggering with the Roland V-Synth. That synth is pretty nice. In terms of keyboards, we've got pretty much everything — ASR-10, Triton, Motifs, Fantoms — but if we could have only one, it would be the V-Synth because you can sample in and make your own sounds.
The halting melodic rhythmic part in “It's Your World” has a really interesting motion to it.
It's an older song, and at the time, the [Korg] Triton was just coming out. We made some sounds in the Triton with the piano and a little airy sound in the beat. There's a lot of things you can't hear but you can feel. When it comes to textures, you can add a bunch of stuff to a record, but it might not be necessary. You might try and put an organ on the beat, and you might not need an organ; you might need a pad sound.
I like the blunt feel of the kick on “In the Lab.” How did you construct that sound?
That track was made on the [E-mu] SP-1200. On the SP, if you know how to make your drums right, a harder sound gives you more punch in your drums. Also, producers should be sure to tune their drums to the track. When they do that, it brings more solidity and definition to their beats. A lot of people think they need to go to the studios to make their sounds up to industry standards. A lot of guys are making these beats from the MPC, but if they tune their drums, they've got half of the battle.