Motor City Mellow Men

Welcome to Detroit.

Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. Stevie Wonder. The MC5. The Stooges. Ted Nugent. Eminem. Kid Rock. The White Stripes. It's all there -- the rich history, the promising future, the bands that push the limits of whatever type of music they play. And now, with all the hoopla surrounding Eminem and the Stripes, it seems that people are beginning to reacquaint themselves with the Motor City's musical possibilities. After all, if a bottle-blond, venom-spewing white rapper and a pair of frazzle-haired, garage-rock kids can come out of there, who's to say Detroit won't be the next "it" city on the music map? Again.

Slum Village is the latest in that long and growing line of Detroit progeny. With the release of its full-length debut, Fantastic, Volume 2, two years ago, the trio of dignity-heavy MCs established a revered reputation -- thanks in part to the heaps of praise lavished on them by the likes of D'Angelo, Common, Angie Stone and other card-carrying Soulquarians. "We've been embraced, and, I mean, those are our people," says T3. "Those are our folks. A lot of those people helped us get our start." In fact, Fantastic featured guest shots from D'Angelo and Common as well as Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes.

If you're wondering what happened to Fantastic, Volume 1, T3 has the answer ready. Turns out it was just a demo. "I tell 'em that was something we recorded on tape. And that's what helped us get our deal with Volume 2. And that's why, when we got our deal, we didn't wanna put out the same album."

The members of Slum Village say they've headed in a new direction with their latest, Trinity (Past, Present and Future). For starters, it officially introduces the Slum's new lineup: Original rappers T3 and Baatin have been joined by Elzhi. The Village also lost a member, sort of. Their former beat man Jay Dee has become a force to be reckoned with as a member of the Ummah production team, working for such artists as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Dee does go behind the boards for a few tunes on Trinity under the nom du knob Jay Dilla.

A slew of other producers, including acclaimed MC Hi-Tek, Karriem Riggins, Scott Storch and the Slum Village members themselves, give the album an incessantly fresh, determined sound. "I think it's one of our more diverse albums," says T3. "Our last album was all in one vibe."

Baatin, the cat with the Ming the Merciless goatee, adds that Slum Village means what it says with that parenthetical Past, Present and Future. "I bring in the past representation," says Baatin. "And T3's representing the present, what we are today. And Elzhi is stepping in the door right now, representing the future, where we're going."

The three have been bumping into each other since the mid-'90s. Back then, they were performing at Detroit open-mike shows with other future stars. "Me and Slum, we go way back, since '96, to this spot called the Hip-Hop Shop," says Elzhi, who now has been with the group officially for two years. "One of the guys from D-12 hosted the Hip-Hop Shop. Eminem was up there, Bizarre was there, Slum Village, Royce Da 5-9 -- everybody. And from that we all knew each other. You know, we'd see each other in passing and we'd give each other respect."

T3 wanted to manage Elzhi, but their professional relationship soon evolved into something more. "Over pea soup, we discussed some business about management, and he thought it was a cool idea to put me on this album, Trinity," Elzhi says. He was supposed to perform on just one song, but he ended up appearing on nearly all the tunes. Performing with such highly regarded company couldn't suit him more. "What Slum definitely has is a formula, and they definitely have a sound," he says. "They have an original, genuine sound that everybody can appreciate. When I come into play, I'm a new accessory to this whole thing. What I bring to the table is a more youthful, aggressive type of flow, which would bring the song to a more structured and conceptual way of production."

Slum Village certainly invited folks to sample something original and genuine when "Tainted," the first single off Trinity, was released earlier this year. Basically a boho-soulful valentine to integrity, the trio riffs on relationships not just between men and women but between artists and the record industry. ("People will smile at ya when they really wanna frown / Well that's just the way tainted folk get down," Baatin says in the tune.)

Fortunately, Slum has found a good match in Capitol, which is distributing the album for Barak, the group's hometown indie label. "We're just looking for love and support, man," says T3, still in Cupid mode. "Nowadays, labels aren't with their artists. It's not like the old days, when an artist developed on a label, and the label supported them. Nowadays, if you don't sell, they'll drop ya. So you want somebody that'll be supportive. This was the best situation for us."

Critics keep comparing the group to quirky hip-hoppers like De La, Tribe, the Jungle Brothers and even the Pharcyde, but Slum Village isn't looking to become hip-hop's newest savior-of-the-month. "I take it as a blessing, you know, just for them to compare us like that," says T3. "But we don't wanna be in that box, because there is so much more we wanna do, particularly just wanna keep pushing the limits and keeping up with different stuff."

Spoken like true Detroiters.

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey