Sounding it out

As a kid, singing along with a WWF Land of a Thousand Wrestlers compilation tape into my Fisher-Price microphone and “Mock Rock” double-cassette player was high-tech recording. I didn’t know about 72-input Harrison boards or 24-track tape machines. I still don’t. I do know that modern studios have a lot of wires and blinking red lights, and every once in a while you have to shift levels if one of the lights shines too brightly. And while my duet with Junkyard Dog holds a certain charm (there’s probably a ton of expensive equipment you can buy to “re-create” that “unique sound”), it wouldn’t fly in RJ Rice’s Southfield studio.

The studio is located unassumingly on the first floor of a tall, windowed office building behind a door with a “Do not disturb. Session in progress” note tacked to it; you’d never expect artists like Baatin or T3 of Detroit’s Slum Village walking through the same rotating doors you use to get to the dentist’s office just down the hall.

Rice is one of the production gurus behind last year’s huge Poe record (Haunted), and he has worked with artists such as Michael Jackson, Kurupt and Common. Right now, he’s recording Slum Village’s next CD, the highly anticipated full-length follow-up to last year’s critically acclaimed Fantastic Vol. 2. That album was crucial in the soul-infused, jazzy hip-hop revival that also saw the release of Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and De La Soul’s Art Official Intelligence. This latest work is scheduled for a July 24 release on Rice’s Barak Records. (Interscope has distribution duties.)

I sat in the studio for a few days with Rice, Baatin and T3 to talk about their recording style and to hear a taste of their new material, which is still in the “rough ideas” stage.

“We’re just formulating different sounds and experimenting ’cause we tryin’ to go somewhere else on this next joint,” T3 explained as he set up a tape for me to hear. While I listened, Rice talked about his many projects for the upcoming year as he gently adjusted knobs and levels. Outside in the reception area, Baatin and T3 sang along and talked with Phat Kat, another label artist who’ll be dropping an album this year.

Missing was Jay Dee, the ubiquitous third member of Slum Village, who has been busy working with artists from Erykah Badu to Busta Rhymes to Frank-n-Dank, not to mention dropping his solo album, Welcome to Detroit, on Tuesday. He’ll be producing about half the tracks on the yet-to-be-named Slum Village record, which Baatin and T3 say will be “a lot harder, totally different and not Fantastic Vol. 3.” They’re even going so far as to bounce around ideas such as asking Stereolab or Jamiroquai to guest on it.

“We don’t even want to use the same drums, the same bass,” T3 says. “The way I speak or rap won’t even be the same. The way I want to come across is just totally different. We want you to sit there and think, ‘I don’t know about this joint.’ That’s why it’s taking us a little time to really … change. It’s hard to just strip what you used to be about and create a whole new person.”

A harder vibe is apparent on the rough tracks they were willing to share, though T3 says they’ll craft one or two songs in the old vibe, “just so we won’t hurt everybody’s feelings.”

He continues, “We’ve just got so much to say on this album … to people who think they’ve got their thumb on somethin’, who think they know what we about. I guess what I’d like to say to those people is they don’t even really understand a glimpse of what we about. And some people who do know may have forgotten. So we gotta remind those people.”

Baatin chimes in: “This is a remindas album.”

And we probably shouldn’t expect any less.

Experiencing the success they’ve had over the last two years — after working up to it for eight — has got to be a bit overwhelming. A week after sharing the stage with Getaway Cruiser at the Blind Pig, they were shopping record deals in New York. Then came their enthusiastic reception at the DEMF, then European festivals and then tours, including the OK Player tour with D’Angelo and others.

When they get to the crux of recording, Slum Village plans on moving into a house/studio Barak Records will provide. But for the time being, Baatin and T3 are tinkering in RJ’s studio.

How does the group finally dive into the crux?

“It’s mainly the music,” T3 explains. “It drives us to record. It was hard for us to get into it since we got off tour. We had to get back in the mode because we were just used to doing shows. That’s a whole other mode.”

Baatin adds, “It’s totally different. Out there, 5 o’clock is sound check. You ain’t really thinking about recording, but on your spare time. Here, I get to chill at home, think of some rough ideas, maybe tape ’em or drop ’em down or record ’em. Then we come up [to the studio] and put it together. It’s a job both ways, but this job here is more in my own comfort zone. When we on the road, it’s just gotta be energy.”

The most magical studio experience Baatin remembers is laying down “Climax (Girl Shit),” the free-flowing second single off Fantastic Vol. 2. It’s a complete mystery how they came up with it.

“Nobody knows. I don’t remember. It just kind of happened. Somebody else asked us, ‘How did you all come up with that song?’ It was like, I don’t know. I only recall little bits of it.” When moments like that occur, T3 knows that those songs are gonna stick around.

For one thing, he adds, those songs fill “the void” that Slum Village hears in the music already out there: “It feels good to hear something nice and different. It gives us a boost to make even more music. I mean, we say, ‘We did this. Come on, let’s do another.’”

Baatin admits, “Man, I know this sounds selfish, but we don’t make music for the world. We make music for us first. … A lot of musicians would be a little bit more astute to what new sound is if they’re not thinking about this new single that they’ve got to put out and how it gotta sound. It gotta match this song I did last month that went platinum.”

Most important is that it continues to be fun. “Because there ain’t even no sense in doing it if you can’t have fun with it,” T3 says. “You might as well have a regular job.”

More info on RJ Rice’s studio and his artists is at Or call 248-552-9242.

Melissa Giannini is the Metro Times music writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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