As the sun begins its slow descent on a Detroit summer Saturday, a slight breeze passes through the open windows. Smoke trails of Nag Champa hang on the air, and heads bob and sway to the beat from the studio monitors. It’s a moment that could only be captured in music, and producer Waajeed knows just how to do it.
Waajeed’s living space/studio/Bling47 headquarters boasts a lofty downtown view of the MGM Grand Casino, the Book-Cadillac Building, the RenCen — and blocks of abandonment. There are Mark Rothko paintings on one wall and photographs of prominent African-Americans on another. The bookcase contains works by Chang Tsu and pieces on photography. There are countless records, including the “A-1” shelf Waajeed keeps hidden, only accessible by ladder across from his bed. Every morning he wakes to the sights and smells of vinyl.
With firm intentions to “redefine and shine” the Detroit hip-hop community, Waajeed and his Bling47 label are setting a benchmark with a sound and style that captures the essence of this forsaken town. Bling47 is witness to the past, present and future of Detroit hip hop.
It’s a foundation to complement the music Waajeed makes from his makeshift command center. This is what Waajeed spends every single day admiring — the “beautiful-ugly” of Detroit.
Waajeed (born in 1975 as Robert O’Bryant IV) grew up in Detroit’s Conant Gardens, which was then a middle-class neighborhood rich in familial and community respect. Down the street lurked Cleveland Middle School boys with whom Waajeed formed an everlasting bond through music, politics and friendship. From a number of rap groups in their social circle, the crew formed Senepod (“dopeness” backward, almost), with Waajeed as DJ.
“Our intent was always to do something that was unique, that could stick out,” Waajeed says.
Around 1991, life in Conant Gardens took a foul turn. “Crack Fever” hit epic proportions, and one Senepod member decided to hustle drugs. The remaining four figured it was time for a new direction. The name suggested was “Slum Village.”
Two years later parental pressure forced Waajeed to quit Slum Village. He attended Detroit’s Center for Creative Studies on a scholarship and immersed himself in fine art, graphic design, photography and jewelry-making. Still, Waajeed never lost touch with music or his friends.
“I used to live downtown in Cadillac Square, and my place was a central meeting spot for all of our friends,” he explains. “It was early ‘96, and every time somebody would come by my place, they would tell me they got a new SV [Slum Village] song. There had to be at least 16 different people that came to me within the course of a couple weeks.”
The young men decided to put an album together. With only $20 to his name, Waajeed spent $7 on a disposable camera and shot the album cover for Fantastic Vol. 1. Consider him the art director and co-executive producer of Slum’s debut. “That album put our ‘Detroit Soul Sound’ on the map,” he says. “That was the defining moment.”
In 1997, Slum did a European tour. They asked Waajeed to join them. He did, and paid his own expenses solely for the chance to spend time with his pals.
“I came out just to be able to see the world with my boys ... and through that, hanging out with them, having a great time ... I was like, damn! This ain’t so bad.”
Waajeed returned from Europe with a newfound desire in musical production. He began joining Slum’s J. Dilla (Jay Dee) on weekly beat-digging excursions to record stores. After building up a respectable vinyl collection, combined with his experience as a DJ and the used drum machine Dilla handed down, Waajeed had the proper arsenal.
By 1999 Waajeed was cutting his own beats. After a thumbs-up from Dilla, Waajeed put himself through a self-imposed beat boot camp. “So, literally, I locked myself in the house for a whole year. No girls, nothing; making track, after track, after track. I barely ate that year.”
Those who heard the first samples of Waajeed’s beats were quick to liken his sound to Dilla, a comparison that leaves him with mixed feelings. Dilla’s been making beats for nearly 10 years and has found success co-producing the likes of Common, A Tribe Called Quest, and Q-Tip, among others. Dilla and Waajeed grew up together in the same neighborhood with almost the same musical background. So of course there might be similar elements.
What makes Waajeed’s music exemplary, and what makes Dilla so successful is because both have the “Detroit Soul Sound.” That is, hip hop hard on the surface but with an infectious, sexual groove.
“It’s almost gritty, and kind of warm at the same time,” Waajeed explains. “It’s dirty mixed with the melodic, like taking a dirty drumbeat and mixing it with a sweet melody. I do this [Detroit] sound because I love it, man, and I feel it’s almost like a birthright that I’m carrying on. ...”
Waajeed immersed himself in all facets of musical production. He learned to operate studio mixing desks, even earning a couple co-production credits on Jay Dee’s 2001 album Welcome 2 Detroit. He created beats and shopped them to other artists. By 2002, Waajeed was ready for the world. All he needed was the right project.
In a coincidental twist, as Waajeed was looking for artists to work with, Slum Village, the group he helped form, was looking for additional production work. Waajeed wound up producing a handful of tracks on Slum’s 2002 Dirty District mixtape and that year’s Capitol album Trinity. After heavy word-of-mouth and a growing recognition in the hip-hop community, Waajeed gathered up all his skills, and started Bling47 last fall.
Don’t confuse Bling47 with the “bling bling” (now an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary) lifestyle associated with faux affluence and gilded scenes of MTV hip hop. This is a completely different “bling,” a redefining of the term. “It has several meanings,” Wajeed explains. “The name basically encompasses what we are and what we want to do. Bling symbolizes something big and outstanding, 4 is the number of power, and 7 is the number for spirituality.”
Waajeed envisions Bling47 as a co-op community of artists and musicians who live and work with one another. Instead of manufacturing the talent, Bling47 wants its members to contribute as a whole, but produce independently. The focus is on the artists as opposed to the business. Think of it as a version of Motown, nouveau.
“I wanted a company that was bigger than the music, because I knew people like myself that produced, painted, designed graphics, etc.,” he continues.
Wajeed’s first Bling47 projects have earned respect in the hip-hop underground. He began by releasing two albums of nothing but Dilla beats. The first, The Jay Dee Instrumental Series “Unreleased” Vol.1, was a collection of recent work with tracks chosen by Dilla. Vintage, also an instrumental album, showcased older work from Dilla’s “Ummah” (his old production outfit he shared with members of A Tribe Called Quest) days, with cuts selected by Waajeed.
Currently, Waajeed is working with production partner Saadiq (Darnell Bolden). Together, the duo formed Bling47’s first musical offshoot, PPP (Platinum Pied Pipers) along with vocalist Elleuud. Set up as a means to collaborate with many different artists, PPP wants to give credit where it’s due. Already having two singles on Ubiquity’s Rewind! 2 compilation, PPP is preparing their debut full-length.
“The reason why we set it up that way is because some of the music that people make doesn’t get the amount of attention it deserves,” Waajeed says. “Producers are finally being recognized as artists. We want to make people aware that the music comes first. Just because you in front, don’t mean you have to be out front.”
Waajeed also spent part of 2002 serving as executive producer for local group Wasted Youth’s debut release 2 Blocks, 1 Mind. Bling47 has also gone international, with Waajeed handling production work for the German rap duo ASD (Afrob & Samy Deluxe). There is also a mix CD, Best Kept Secret, a platform for Bling47’s musical family, near and far.
Waajeed continues to make beats. In fact, he’s just released his first official collection, BPM Instrumentals. is, by the way, a stellar example of the beautiful-ugly “Detroit Soul Sound.”
While Waajeed’s hopes are larger than life, he still appears as grounded as any realist. All he wants is for the music to speak for itself, nothing more.
“The people at the forefront, that look like the biggest, most popular people; they’re always the first to fizzle away, and there’s always somebody waiting to take their place. I’d just rather lay low ... and keep my music honest. I won’t let a $100,000 check influence me to do something I’m not comfortable with.”
Waajeed doesn’t make music to be on MTV or drive a Bentley, to sip Cristal or objectify women. He says he’s fine where he is, making what he calls “damn good music.”
“I’ll be totally honest. I run an independent label, and I sell my own records. I mean, I don’t sell 10 million records, but I’ve sold over 15,000 just through my Web site (www.bling47.com). To major record labels, that’s pennies in a bucket; but for me, to own my masters and own my product, that’s a big deal. I’m happy if somebody likes anything that I do.”David Valk is a Metro Times editorial intern. E-mail [email protected]