In the end, it all comes down to the keeper of the beats. The tick of a stick on a cymbal, the single tap on a snare, the rimshot: J Dilla kept the sound clean and simple, or at least it seemed simple, and from that radical essentiality something amazing flowed. Here was the blueprint for neo-soul, by a young producer already making hits with Common, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest. With Slum Village, Dilla helped make hip-hop for folks full of—not larger than—life. As he himself put it on Fan-Tas-Tic, Vol. 2’s mission statement, “Raise It Up,” “I ain’t got none of that dough with none of them cars/ I ain’t f*cked none of them hos in none of them bars.”
Rappers T3 and Baatin and rapper-producer J Dilla met in their Detroit high school and put out a strong debut, Fan-Tas-Tic, Vol. 1, in 1997. Their city gave them a sense of both brokenness and community, and thus “Slum Village” was a perfect name. Their flow is influenced by Native Tongues’ loose wooliness, and the invited guests on Vol. 2 were off the hook: Pete Rock, Kurupt, Busta Rhymes, D’Angelo, Common all popping by. The dependable grooves Dilla crafted, with organs and samples filed down and dropped in a sliver off-center, were full of gravity and yet also odd as heck: They were like an auto assembly line that kept kicking out cool bicycles. This masterpiece was recorded in Dilla’s basement in the Detroit neighborhood the supple “Conant Garden” is named for, then sat on a shelf for over a year when industry business kept it on hold. And when it appeared in 2000, it still sounded like nothing else. By the time Dilla died six years later, he'd become a legend irreplaceable. But on Fan-tas-Tic, Vol. 2, he’s just a member of a Motor City trio, full of life, not sweating a legacy.