It takes a village 

Slum Village, the mysterious crew of rappers who last summer put out an intriguing "basement" tape of beats and rhymes called Fan-tas-tic, has steadily prepared to put Detroit's hip-hop scene on the national map. The group has created a sizable buzz largely through word-of-mouth.

The recording arena has gotten sweeter for the Villagers in recent months too. The innovating trio recently inked a "help out" deal with a local promotional company to complete a follow-up to Fan-tas-tic. Presently, major labels Geffen Records and MCA are both interested in the group, according to SV's manager, Tim Maynor. And with SV's producer Jay Dee currently doing production work for industry giants Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, Slum Village's credentials certainly seem in order.

Yep, things are looking pretty good for this bohemian crew &emdash;consisting of rappers Baatin (Titus Glover), T3 (R.L. Altman) and producer-rapper Jay Dee (James Yancey). Reposed around a small office of the promotion company R.J. Rice Studios Inc. and drinking fruit juices, the Villagers voice their issues with the rap industry in the nine-eight. Says the dreadlocked T3, "A lot of rappers now, they imitatin'. ... It ain't like the old school, when everybody used to come with a new sound each time they did a tape. (Now) everybody got the muffled, two-word style. ... Everybody can't do that. It was cool when Mase did it; Mase did his thing. But you can't have another Mase. We don't need another Lil' Kim. Somebody gotta come with somethin'."

Slum Village has done just that. The trio holds a unique position in hip hop as musical masters of the oblique reference. While many of the crew's lines, quotes, allusions and vocal styles come off willfully abstract and even obscure, the best element of Fan-tas-tic is that the rapping sounds so insular. For heads willing to wax nostalgic for a moment, it recalls the tonic rawness of rappers like Just-Ice, Spoonie Gee or KRS-One in his stint with DJ Scott LaRock (with the requisite '90s flavor, of course). Fan-tas-tic subtly recalls classic recordings of rappers courting the beats of drum machines as if nothing else mattered.

SV's magic, though, would not exist without Jay Dee's inspired musical guidance. The producer's sonic palette is finely tuned on "Players," the minimalist "Fat Cat Song," the crypto-soul lounge cut "Things U Do" and even the radio lite "Rock Music." On these cuts, Jay Dee's huge, vibrating bass lines actually subsume the beats. Now triple that with the melodies under those thick, modular grooves and we have what rapper Will Smith termed "a brand new funk." At its most indulgent, this mix of live jamming and expert production forms soundscapes for the rappers to play in, as well as for listeners to delight to. Melodic and dreamlike, especially on Fan-tas-tic's second half, the music is like a self-enclosed world, amenable to hip-hop purists and almost anyone else, for that matter.

Wordsmiths T3 and Baatin, each a musician in his own right, are more than happy to run wild on their recordings. As musically different from Detroit's entire rap world as can be, they, as well as Jay Dee, pepper their rhymes with enough expletives to satisfy any Ice Cube or Lil' Kim fan. From known staples like Esham to one-hit flashes such as Def Jam expatriate Boss, the Detroit sound has always relied heavily on tough-as-nails lyrics and deliveries, often with ample profanity. So it may be SV's attitude that glues it to the city's hip-hop continuum. But T3 says, "If you listen to (SV cut) 'Look of Love,' that's a really pretty guitar beat. But we're not talking about lovemaking on the beat. It's not about that. You know what I'm saying? It's straight hard lyrics on there."

Slum Village is probably more excited about the coming album than its fans are. Says Jay Dee, "We're gonna take elements from everything, basically. Some shit you won't even be able to notice, but it's gonna be the ultimate. I don't want nobody to ever say, 'I coulda done that beat' or 'I know where you got that from.' I got a goal, I'll tell you &emdash; it's people jealous now. No one will ever be able to come against me on the beats. Or SV on the rhymes."

"That's our goal!" Baatin and T3 chime in. "That's our goal!"

"And I can say this," Baatin adds. "We can do five albums if we want. I don't know if Slum Village will do five albums &emdash; but we can and I guarantee it."

It sounds like SV has its major aspirations sewed, as the parlance goes. According to the group, cameos by Busta Rhymes, D'Angelo, Common and the Roots are already in planning for the upcoming record, SV's next big thing. If the Villagers can manifest their greatness without yielding to rap's many present defects -- including chronic trendiness -- it may be just that. Forrest Green III writes about music and film for the Metro Times. He dedicates this piece to Dr. Nabeel Zuberi, "the academic propmaster." E-mail

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