J Dilla’s beats are like ancient pottery—handspun, imperfect, each a vessel of history that demands preservation. It’s true—when most people hear the name Slum Village, an underground hip-hop group formed in Detroit in the mid-90’s, they think of the late, great J Dilla—founding member and eminent producer who tragically passed away in 2006 from lupus. Dilla’s jazzy, intentionally off-beat brand of instrumentals influenced countless hip-hop artists, from De La Soul to Common to Kanye West. Only a few years after his passing, Slum Village lost another founding member—Baatin.

Yet the Slum Village family continues to push forward, celebrating the life and work of J Dilla and Baatin while forging a path of their own, often collaborating with Dilla’s younger brother, rapper Illa J.

On their first stop touring with legendary hip-hop producer Pete Rock (presented by Leedz Edutainment), I caught up with the third Slum Village founding member, T3, as well as Young RJ backstage at The Middle East – Downstairs to talk about the legacy that J Dilla left, hip hop in Boston, their upcoming album, and more.

Jon: Over Slum Village’s time as a group there have been many member changes. To what do you attribute the resilience of the group to keep making music?

T3: Number one, people don’t know the history of [Young] RJ. They don’t know the history of Illa [J]. So, anybody that is part of Slum Village has put in numerous, numerous, numerous years. There is never a new guy out of nowhere. You know what I’m saying? People don’t know J’s been affiliated with Slum since he was about 14. It’s just all family—that’s what keeps it going. And we know the formula of how to do the music, being that Dilla mentored J, and me, and I was there since the beginning. So yeah, it’s just easy to do for us. We feel like we need to keep the legacy going. Because we’re one of the Detroit pioneers. That’s why we do it.

Jon: What does T3 stand for?

T3: My real name is RL Altman III, so that’s the three. And my nickname is Uno, Dos, Tres. So it’s T “Tres” 3.

Jon: How’d you get that nickname?

T3: I don’t know, because I’m the third, I guess.

Young RJ: He was trying to be different.

T3: I guess so. Even though my family’s not Spanish (laughs). I was trying to be different. A little bit.

Young RJ: It was reaching!

T3: Man, yeah it was reaching. A little bit. Yeah, a little bit. Okay.

Jon: Since you guys are performing with Pete Rock tonight, I want to ask. Last year the documentary Time Is Illmatic came out, which commemorates Nas’ classic album Illmatic. Pete Rock produced the “The World Is Yours” off of Illmatic. With that in mind, what seminal hip-hop album deserves a documentary about its making that doesn’t currently exist?

T3: The second Mobb Deep album [The Infamous – 1995], A Tribe Called Quest’s second album [The Low End Theory – 1991]. That deserves a documentary.

Young RJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah but they came out with [the documentary] Beats, Rhymes, and Life.

T3: But, just an album. I want to be in the studio…I want to be there. The Roots. The third album…the second, third album of The Roots—Things Fall Apart. What’s that, the fourth? The fifth?

Young RJ: Yeah I think that was like the fourth.

T3: R&B—the big D’Angelo Voodoo album. All those deserve a documentary. Slum Village, our album, Fantastic, Vol. 2—I would say that, too. And Volume 1. Or even the first Gang Starr album [No More Mr. Nice Guy – 1989]. The first and second Gang Starr album.

Jon: Gang Starr—that’s a Boston connection right there. When you think of hip hop in Boston, what or who comes to mind?

T3: I just recently figured out that there are a lot of people from Boston that don’t play in Boston like they should. With Guru in mind…a lot of people move to New York, and New York just takes them in. Just like people move to the west coast and people take them in. So, a lot doesn’t come to mind with Boston and hip hop.

Jon: I asked Deacon from CunninLynguists the same question, and he said Benzino from Love & Hip Hop Atlanta. He’s from Boston.

T3: Oh, he’s from Boston!

Jon: For better or worse.

T3: At least he represents. But he’s in New York, too, so…

Young RJ: Who’s from Boston that we might know?

Jon: Slaine, Statik Selektah…

T3: Okay! He’s from Boston? Did not know that.

Jon: Termanology.

T3: I do know Termanology. Yes, yes.

Jon: I recently watched one of your interviews on YouTube, and you mentioned YES, your upcoming album—

T3: That’s coming June the 16th.

Jon: You mentioned some of the songs will have Dilla features on it. Do you have any idea how much of his material hasn’t been released, versus how much has?

T3: It’s about…roughly 150 beats? Which is still a lot of beats! It’s about 30 full songs. Roughly. What do you think? Are my numbers off?

Young RJ: It’s a lot of stuff, man. It’s still stuff we’re sifting through. We just found some new stuff before we left, and we did a song to it. We just turned the album in. It’s a lot of music out there. A lot of good stuff, too. He’s got some dope songs that nobody has heard.

T3: He’s got basically a whole album that nobody’s heard. I don’t know what they’re going to do with it, so don’t ask me! I don’t know what’s going to happen with it. It’s just in the Dilla vault of music!

Jon: Where is the Dilla vault of music? Do you have to request access from his family to use the music?

T3: We are gatekeepers of some of his stuff, along with [Dilla’s mom] Miss Yancey of course, Ma Dukes. We’re definitely gatekeepers and make sure the right stuff comes out at the right time. You know what I’m saying? And we want it to be set up right. Like the box set—the Dilla box set. We want it to be a special occasion.

Jon: I don’t know if you know, but in Boston at Berklee College of Music there’s a class called The J Dilla Ensemble.

T3: Oh! Dope, dope, dope.

Jon: With that in mind, what’s the best way to celebrate Dilla’s legacy?

T3: He just wanted you to enjoy the music, bottom line. It’s really just about enjoying the music. What do you think, RJ?

Young RJ: Unique stuff. Like the box set. Not just put a CD out and gouge the people for it. If you’re going to do something, make it unique, where it’s like “Okay, this is one of a kind.” Like, if you listen to the box set, the first idea on the box set he’s talking about what he wanted, which was the album to look like the SP-1200. So basically what we did was brought what he wanted to fruition. Anything we feel like he wouldn’t want, we don’t do it. No matter what it is. People have come with money and checks, and we’ve been like, “That ain’t what he wants.”

Jon: I don’t know if you can speak to this since it’s their relationship, but when Illa J and J Dilla were growing up, did they get along?

T3: Yeah, they got along. He [Dilla] just treated him like you would treat a little brother. It wasn’t fighting, it was more like, “Get out of here, I’m working!” from what I saw (laughs). I didn’t see everything, so I don’t know. But, he had to sneak to be a part of Slum Village. It wasn’t like, “C’mon down here and kick it.” Naw.

Young RJ: You’ve gotta remember the age difference, too. And, Illa was into hooping.

T3: He was really into playing basketball.

Young RJ: He was a baby Michael Jordan.

T3: So while we were in the basement a lot of times, when he wasn’t listening to us, he would be outside hooping and dribbling. He thought he was going to be a hoop star at that time, before he got into music later on. But he was around. I saw him there. I used to come to the house almost every day. I used to come late at night, and then in the morning, upstairs they had like a daycare center. So it was a studio at a daycare center, and I’d leave at 5am and see his mom, and when the kids started to come I knew I had to leave. Yeah, because Dilla used to just leave me in the basement. He would work and leave me in the basement so I could get my beats up because he wanted me to produce. So yeah, I used to stay there for nights and do that.

Jon: T3, Young RJ, thanks for taking the time.

Young RJ: We appreciate you, bro.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.