FSD Chats with No I.D.

Andrew Barber

Out of all the interviews I’ve conducted on Fake Shore Drive, this one happens to be my favorite. What started out as a normal Q&A, turned into a long and informative conversation with legendary producer (and sometimes rapper) No I.D., who some refer to as the Godfather of Chicago Hip-Hop. He produced the bulk of Common’s early work and recently made headlines thanks to the Kanye West name-check on Graduation’s “Big Brother” – not to mention his recent work on Jay-Z’s American Gangster album. But the truth is, No I.D. is more than just Kanye’s mentor or the guy who produced “Success”. One would only need to glance at his body of work to see that his contributions to the game are priceless.

We spoke with the man born Dion Wilson, to discuss, among other things, his upcoming projects, working with Common, his aspirations to do country music and his love for the Police (the group, dummies!).

Let’s start with some of your upcoming projects. I’ve heard that you’re currently working on new music with Bump J, the Clipse and Killer Mike. Care to discuss what you have going on with these projects?

Well, the Bump J project is really just in the beginning stages of contact. He’s actually coming down to Atlanta to get in the studio with me next week. We’re trying to make some really good music because we’ve never worked with each other before. I’ve been sending him beats and what not., trying to get the feel. You may have heard the snippet of “Roofback” [from Bump’s Dinnertime Mixtape] that we’re going to put Rick Ross on, so when he comes down we’ll really get into it. I kind of understand where he’s going as an artist – I’ve always been a fan of his work, but there were some relationships in the past that held us back from working together, but after a while the politics got moved to the side and here we are.

As far as Killer [Mike], he’s a really good friend of mine and I also respect him a lot as an artist. So when he became a free agent we decided to start putting together a project and just working in general, because he felt like he never really had a producer that was experienced in putting together a sound or a project. We’re in the process of putting it together and deciding where we’re going to put it out and when we’re going to release it. We have a handful of people who are committed to helping with the project, so that will be coming….

When I last spoke with Bump he said the two of you were working on a certain sound, in particular, a Chicago sound. I’m guessing you’re doing something similar with [Killer] Mike.

Well, I feel like every artist should have a sound. So if Bump calls his sound “the Chicago sound”, I more look at it like “that’s Bump J’s sound” – but I know what he’s talking about when he says he wants that Chicago sound. There really hasn’t been one universal “Chicago hip hop sound” to fully represent the nature of the culture…And that’s kind of weird for me to say being that I worked on Common’s early projects

Come on…You’re the creator of the Chicago hip hop sound

Yeah but it’s weird because right now me and Traxster [The Legendary Traxster] are down in Atlanta working together. Traxster was also a pioneer of the Chicago sound – so what I didn’t pioneer, he pioneered. He was working with Twista and I was working with Common, so now we’re working together on a new sound, that will be more of a universal Chicago sound. A new sound that everybody can relate to and listen to – without having to feel like it’s a Westside style, or a Southside style.

Any other projects on the horizon?

Well, I worked on Jim Jones’ new album. Janet Jackson’s new album. Rhymefest’s new album. Bump J, the Clipse. What I’m trying to do is to really just bring certain elements back to music that I feel have been lost – like an artists sound. Nowadays the artists really don’t have the sound, the producers do. It’s the producer’s formula and it really doesn’t apply to the artists. I feel that all classic albums had a sound, something that defined it, something that made sense, and everybody bought into it for that reason. I mean you could go all the way back to the 70’s. Everything just seems so hodgepodge these days (laughs).

But I do have a lot of projects on the horizon, so I’ve just been busy elevating my sound. And I can’t leave this out – I WILL be working on Common’s next album.

Finally the world can rejoice! A lot of Hip-Hop enthusiasts claim Common’s best work was done with you, mainly citing the Resurrection album. However, One Day It Will All Make Sense, is my personal favorite. Which of the two albums do you prefer to listen to 10+ years after the fact?

I can’t say, because I don’t listen to either of them anymore – and it’s not because I don’t like them, but there’s something weird about working on an album and having to hear it over and over and over again. You get sick of it. But I like both of these albums for different reasons. I thought One Day was a little scattered in comparison to Resurrection, which was very focused. But I feel like on One Day, we were both maturing on a skill level – but like I said, there are certain things that I like and dislike about both.

I remember when your debut album, Accept Your Own and Be Yourself (The Black Album) and Common’s One Day It Will All Make Sense were coming out around the same time.  Relativity was dually running your promotions campaign – like your ads were on the same page in the Source and what not. How did that work out having to, and I use this term loosely, compete with Common’s project?

Honestly, that wasn’t a highlighted moment in my career and I feel that’s when we lost our collective synergy. The album [Accept Your Own…] didn’t really turn out the way I wanted – I set out to do more of a producer album, but it didn’t go that way and it kind of took the fun out of it. I really didn’t want to be an artist, per se, I just wanted to expand and put out some of the beats that Common may not have used at that time, or that I wanted the public to hear or I wanted to hear other people rapping on. So it was a bittersweet time. We were young and learning the business, not really knowing how to capitalize on the moment or execute correctly. It’s one thing to know and another thing to execute. Now we both know how to execute better, but at that time we were just young kids doing music. We weren’t really strong businessmen.

We never heard a major label follow up – you did release The Sampler with Dug Infinite back in ’02 – what happened with the Relativity deal?

Well, Relativity went a different direction and they kind of folded into Loud, then Common went to MCA. I would have to say, basically, it was a major frustration on everybody’s part. We really didn’t get the credibility we wanted or reach the sales that were expected, so we all regrouped and went out separate ways. Everyone followed their own personal ambitions so that was pretty much what happened at that point in my career.

Do you still work with Dug Infinite?

No, but we still speak, because he’s a good friend of mine. He lives out in the Bay Area now and has a family and everything, so he’s not as focused on music as he was at that moment in time. But yeah, I still talk to everybody that was around in those days.

Any plans for another solo album, or have you hung up the mic all together? What about a Chronic-style album where you have various artists over your production, like you wanted to put out back in ’97.

I have some ideas that are really unconventional that I might do, but it’s very, very artistic and definitely not major label material. I’ve always been an artist’s artist so I really don’t want to do it for the sales. I want to do it for the art. I felt like even when I did my debut album, I really didn’t promote it and go hard and do everything that I could – I kind of just put it out there. Since I made money from producing I always did my personal stuff from an artists perspective. So if I do it again, I want to do it from an artist’s perspective – I don’t want to be a celebrity or anything like that, I just want to do it for the art.

…And that’s one thing I’ve always respected about you because you’ve never really sought out the limelight, you’ve really just been about the music and the art.

Exactly. So if I do it again, well, I’m actually working on it now, but I’m not convinced that I’ll put it out until I actually do it. I have some really creative ideas if I do decide to put it out.

Can you elaborate on some of these ideas?

Well, I’m thinking about doing a character album and putting animation with it. Where it’s not really the artists, it would be more like animated characters. Like the artists that I’m working with on the project, you’ll know their voices, but their real names and likenesses will not be used. Just something creative that could start a cult following – but not a traditional album. No real videos or anything like that.

That’s a crazy idea – are you sure you want me to leak that information?

Yeah, it’s still under wraps, but you can print that. [He goes into further detail on the project, but swears me to secrecy. Sorry – this information is off the record people]

A lot of people kind of jumped on the No I.D. bandwagon after hearing your work on Jay-Z’s American Gangster album, but what a lot of people didn’t know, was that you produced “All Around The World” from his Blueprint 2 album.

Yeah, I know. “All Around the World” was during the whole Kanye era. It wasn’t like I went out trying to promote the fact that I worked with Jay-Z, but people definitely overlooked it. I think a lot of it [the recent notoriety] has to do with the “Big Brother” thing, the Kanye thing and then the Jay-Z work, you know? Now I think everyone is conscious of X,Y and Z, but I don’t really give it too much thought. That’s just people who aren’t fans, per se, catching on to what’s going on. But even if they don’t, that’s cool too, I’ll just keep doing my thing – I’m cool. I let my body of work speak for itself and expand over time. I’m proud of what I do, so that’s all I really need. People will catch on when they catch on.

I remember reading a few years ago that you signed some kind of production deal with Def Jam. Is that still going on, or have you scrapped that in-lieu of So So Def?

That deal has already been completed as the people I did the deal with are no longer with Def Jam. That was back in the days of Kevin Liles, Lyor Cohen and Tina Davis and I had an artist, from Chicago – a singer – and we were supposed to do her project over there, but the project kind of fizzled out after the restructuring of the company.

But as you know, I’m down in Atlanta working with Jermaine [Dupri]

You’re kind of the in-house guy at So So Def now, right? How did you initially hook up with Jermaine?

As far as Jermaine, I’ve always known him, but sometimes it takes a while for things to develop in a business sense. Basically, one day I was sitting around and I was thinking about how much success Jermaine had and how it was the exact opposite of the style of music that I do – so I called him up and said “Let’s work, I think we can do some major things together”. Because I knew things he didn’t know and vice versa. We knew each other because one of his old Vice President’s used to manage me and I’d been around him a lot, so when I called him it wasn’t like a cold call or anything (laughs). When I didn’t work with his Vice President anymore, I kind of stayed away from him, then after all while I asked myself “Why am I staying away from him, me and him can work together”. Jermaine is probably one of the coolest people I’ve met in the industry that’s an “industry guy”. So it’s beyond a business relationship – we go out, play videos games and what not – so it’s not just work and then goodbye.

You’ve worked with a wide variety of artists – everyone from Usher & Alicia Keys to Daz Dillinger to Janet Jackson to Ghostface Killah. A lot of people may not know this because your sound is so different from track to track. How are you able to transform you production so seamlessly?

Basically, there are some personal rules that I always follow, and the first is, treat everyday like i
t’s my first day doing beats. Meaning, I don’t care what I did yesterday – I came to do something new today. That keeps me from being stuck in one style, or feeling like I have to give people what I gave them before. Secondly, I believe in studying different sounds of music, so I can know what kind of sounds are being oversaturated, when to bring back an old sound, how to mix it with something new – just keeping it fresh and not relying on what I’ve done in the past. I’m always trying to learn new styles and I think that’s what kills a lot of talented producers. They get stuck on their style and once it starts working they don’t listen for anything else. People don’t want to hear the same thing over and over. I really feel like I can do any type of record, be it country music…

Wow, country music?

Yeah – I’ve been toying with the thought. I’m a perfectionist and if I feel like I can really do it, and make it work then I will. If I can be great at it, I’m going to do it.

Have any country artists approached you?

Well, I’ve met a few country artists who I really like. So I started thinking about it. I’ve also met some rock artists that I like, but I’m not going to just jump out there just to do it. It has to be right.

I’m studying the music right now. I want to know rock-n-roll the same way I know hip-hop, or soul music. So I go out and I get the box sets and I study.

What rock artists are you into?

My favorite is the Police, hands down. But I’m also studying Led Zeppelin and the Doors. I’m really trying to get to know all of the classic rock and get the musical vibes – the stuff that has a little soul in it. I’m going to just keep going down the line until I can fully grasp it.

But I really like the Police because I like how they mix the ska and the reggae with the rock. And that’s really where my mind is – making new forms of music and trying new things. I love the Police and Sting more than anything else though. I just let their music run all the way through.

Alright, this is something I’ve always wanted to ask you. If you had to pick five songs that you would consider your greatest pieces of work ever – could you?

I could try – but the hard thing is that some of my greatest work has never been released. Yeah, so I can go by what came out – but I’ll probably get stuck. “I Used to Love H.E.R.” [Common], “Soul By The Pound” [Common], “Invocation” [Common], “Hungry” [Common] – that’s just my Common stuff!

(laughs) You don’t have to stick to five….

Outside of the Common stuff, some of my favorites are “Man’s World” by Beanie Sigel, I really like “Success” from [Jay-Z’s] American Gangster, I really like the Toni Braxton record I did, “Let Me Show You The Way”, “State to State” – my song. I know I left a few out.

You mentioned that some of your greatest work has never seen the light of day? What are you sitting on that the world needs to hear?

There are quite a few records that I did with my old R&B artist from Chicago. These are greatly orchestrated pieces of work because I worked with a guy, who passed away, by the name of Coolidge Perkins who arranged the strings on Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album – learned a lot from him about music and orchestrating.

Then there’s a guy from Chicago named Mikkey, who used to be with Kanye and was signed to Cash Money a while back. He recently got out his deal with Virigin, and we pretty much did a whole album and we have some incredible records.

You’re talking about Mikkey’s The Photo Album LP, right?

Right, Chicago: The Photo Album. The reason Mikkey’s calling it that is because he paints such vivid pictures. I would tell him “Make each song like a photo, and we’ll put the photos in the album base every song on the photos”.

This album is all classic material – you’ll be shocked when you hear it and you’ll also get to hear a different side to my production, so I made this album as a personal score to his own movie. It will eventually see the light of day one way or another (laughs).

Big thanks to Shake.

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