On Slum Village’s “Hold Tight”, Q-Tip passed the mic into “the hands of the Slum”, prompting both head scratches and itchin’ anticipation. Nearly half a decade later, the statement has wavered in favor of near prophecy as former SV producer Jay Dee has produced, rhymed, and helped pave the bridge between underground credibility and commercial success. As if Dilla’s rising star were not enough to sate the supporters, those within one or two degrees of separation have enjoyed a certain amount of leverage themselves. The Platinum Pied Pipers are the latest extension of this Detroit fam—one half of the duo, Waajeed, both ghost and in-the-flesh produced for SV—but have skirted the nepotism charge by producing tracks that proudly trumpet its hometown’s love of beats and musicianship—the other half, Saadiq, is a musical protégé of Motown’s first star Barrett Strong. With only a notable pair of contributions to Ubiquity’s Rewind series, and another pair of 12"s, the group has already garnered critical praise such as, “Honest-to-God real soul music” (XLR8R), and “PPP is my fucking shit!” (King Britt) Bold statements for a band whose first album, Triple P is still on the docket, but PPP takes it in stride. An assured one, though.
In keeping with the progress of their career, the platinum pair recently relocated to Brooklyn, New York to introduce their music to a new audience. Producer Waajeed spoke with PopMatters regarding the change of scenery and what it entails.
PopMatters: How was the move?
Waajeed: One of the toughest transitions of my life ... I was born and raised in Detroit. But now that I am here, the doors are open ... almost overwhelmingly.
PM: Has the move had an impact on your music?
W: It has made it more random. Being in Detroit, you kinda have your goggles on, because you’re a native and you’re kinda expected to be ... the typical Detroit sound, or something techno ... You’re kinda backed in. Coming to Brooklyn, you’re kinda expected to be like a Brooklynite ... It’s led to something more expansive for me. In my opinion there are a lot of similarities between Brooklyn and Detroi t… the style and the spirit of the community. It’s like Brooklyn, USA. Brooklyn, or Die. Detroit, or Die.
Being situated in such fiercely independent communities has certainly played a great role in fostering PPP’s own sense of direction. The focus has been useful in staving off clumsy comparisons and categorizations. While hardly a strict rappers-n-beats collective, writers and fans have lumped the group with Slum Village and A Tribe Called Quest, based on lineage alone. PPP also resists constant references to beat magicians and labelmates SA-RA Creative Partners (who also appear on Triple P). Waajeed connects emotions and maturity with his past works, but he is quick to emphasize the uniqueness of PPP’s sound (small irony that the group is on a label called Ubiquity?). PM: As you mentioned, coming from Detroit there are expectations. Even people who are familiar with your work know you through Slum and Jay Dee. But explain how PPP is different.
W: Being around and in Slum played a really important part of my life. Some of my greatest success stories have involved Slum, and some of my worst stories are surrounded by Slum ... but being in the midst of that taught me how to have a group. Slum kinda is like the Destiny’s Child of hip-hop, and it really is, but with that comes so many great and important lessons ... I kinda have that knowledge through experience ... [With PPP] I particularly focused on making this a variety album, as opposed to just a boom bap, hip-hop joint, because I don’t want to be boxed in. I don’t want people to be able to say, “Oh, he just produces soul,” or, “He just does this.” This album is so random ... you can’t technically say it’s so and so album.”
Indeed, one of the finest points of Triple P is its ability to balance eclectic references in a steady and consistent sound. The poise is a product of professional work; musicians who not only write and perform music at a high production level, but also clearly drive the album in their desired direction. With guests ranging from singers and MCs, such as Tiombe Lockhart, Georgia Ann Muldrow, and MCs Lacks and Invincible, in addition to name talent like Steve Spacek, Mark de Clive-Lowe, and the aforementioned SA-RA, PPP demonstrate a complete commitment to production, crafting tracks and providing clear guidance. However, Waajeed also reveals that such vision is also tempered with trust and intuition.
PM: What is your approach to collaboration?
W: That was the biggest focus of the album. Cos, I know how I am with the randomness, and that’s how we recorded it. Like, with Tiombe, we just hooked up and said, “Let’s do what feels good.” We weren’t trying to A&R the album, or nothin’. But the biggest spirit was, “Let’s just do what feels right.” I think because we did that, we followed the flow, it worked out the way it did. The biggest job wasn’t producing the album, but finding the common thread between the songs: feel, transition points, bpm, singing styles, voices; whether it was a vocal song, or a hip hop-track, or Afro feel ... It was the toughest part and the most important part for me. It’s more important to tell the whole story, than to remember one line.
PM: Beyond being a producer, how would you describe your role in PPP?
W: I’m like the Quincy Jones of the outfit. I knew that the track would need a certain treatment, or had a certain vision ... I would basically hire musicians to do things that I couldn’t do ... For example, I knew what I wanted for the “50 Ways” joint [a cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”], and I couldn’t do it, and nobody in New York I knew could do it, so I went to London and got with Mark de Clive-Lowe. It’s all for the music, I’m willing to take the backseat ... for the bigger vision of the track sounding like what I want to get out of my head ... Being a Quincy Jones [means] not always being the person manually touching or producing a track. It could be going in and telling someone else to play this keyboard line or vocal part. That was the strange part of production for me, cos I was one of those people that heard like, “Oh, Dre didn’t produce that, or he had somebody else touch that,” but really, man, it don’t really matter. They wouldn’t have played the same thing if Dre hadn’t told ‘em to play it. So, I’m learning by the moment of what a producer does. I’m happy with cats like Kanye West who really shine, because I know he’s a control freak, and that he’s making sure that every one of those snares is real tight and the vocals get in there ... We’re the ones in there working; the stars are out there being stars! (laughs) We in the studio 13 hours a day, having our significant other getting pissed off at us. (laughs)
PM: There is tremendous attention to detail. What is your philosophy to making music?
W: Maybe I got ADD, or I don’t know, man. I get bored really really fast (laughs). I could hear a killer track ... but if there’s no progression, or something that provides interest in the second verse, I cut it off. I make music for producers, for cats who talk shit like me. When the record come on, they got their arms folded and listenin’ like, “What the fuck is this shit?” It’s always important for me to make [music that is] not so loop-oriented ... That does not mean it should not be live. Even a track like “I Got You”, I play the bass line and all those drums and parts straight through. It’s important to do that, because I don’t want it to feel like a loop, I don’t want it to be monotonous. So, those little vocoder parts on the left hand side, or a bell hit on the right hand side, those are things to keep my interest, and people who listen like me ... Maybe it’s me and my guilt, but I feel like I’m cheatin’ somebody by giving them this track and charging them all this money and it’s just this five minute thing. I want to put some effort into it, I want to make it grow and expand, I want it to be produced. I’m past the point in my career where I’m just making beats; that shit is boring. I’m thinking of myself as a producer and musician, as opposed to somebody that just make beats.
PM: The cover songs [the aforementioned “50 Ways” and Lenny Kravitz’s “Flowers for Zoë”] are great examples of your eclectic tastes. Where do you get the ideas for picking these songs? Why did you pick “Flowers?”
W: Honestly, I felt that was one of the better tracks off that album [Mama Said]. I felt like it was slept on ... I really loved that song. It was on an album surrounded by so many other great tracks, you kinda forgot about it. Saadiq’s daughter is named Zoë, so we thought that would be an appropriate song for him to do the lead writing on before I came in later ... A second reason, I know most hip-hop cats wouldn’t fuck with that track. It’s a joint they wouldn’t even pay attention to. And, more importantly… why not do a cover of Paul Simon or Lenny Kravitz; place myself further outside of the box ... What better way to do it, to really show that [we] really aren’t [one thing ]... They say, “You are soulful,” or, “You are a hip hop group.” They can’t say we are x, y, and z. Be everything. Fuck it.
While much of Waajeed’s concern over image and perception may be premature, given the group’s relative amount of success, he expresses it with an air of pride more than of defense. Be who you are, not who you are told to be. It is with such confidence then that PPP opens another chapter in its career. While the move to a major metropolitan center offers obvious benefits to the aspiring artist, Waajeed asserts PPP’s foundation in reality.
PM: The Midwest continues to garner recognition, but artists continue to move to LA or NYC to step up. How do you feel about this? Where does Detroit stand in all this?
W: I think that Detroit, to some degree, is in a better position than LA or New York. To some degree. It’s so far removed from the politics and the stuff that doesn’t contribute to the striving and grinding. I know my music would be different if I made it all out here in New York. And I think part of that is the plant mentality: get up, go to work, go to sleep. It’s somehow a contributing factor to Detroit, and Detroit artists. Everyone I know in Detroit works religiously on what they do: they get up, they dedicate their lives to it, they go to sleep. It’s like a plant, or a machine. You don’t have the option of going to APT [Manhattan hotspot for DJs] on a Tuesday night and staying up until four in the morning. You gon’ be at the crib working or sleeping! In that sense, there are huge advantages to being in Detroit. I’m spending more time on the streets than on my music lately, because I am in New York. It doesn’t contribute to my being a better artist, or refining my craft. Because I’m out drinkin’ a Capt. Morgan and Coke! Who the fuck is that helping? (laughs) My living, yes, but with that in mind, Detroit has certain advantages. The problem is once you have a product, what do you do? Do you continue to press it upon dead ears, the same people that work at the plant? Or do you take it to people who indulge themselves in the arts and music and culture and everything you do while you’re not at work. But, you can’t have the best of the both worlds. A good working and social environment, they don’t add up most of the time, at least for me.
PM: In five years, who would you like to see listening to PPP?
W: My vision is the world ... Of course, aim for the stars, but, y’know. But I know that only a certain amount of people will get this record. With that being said, I would love for everyone to enjoy Kraftwerk and Madonna and De La as much as I do. I enjoy them equally. And that’s just not gonna happen, cos not everyone gets into everything. But that’s what makes the world a better place; that everyone doesn’t get into everything. The people that we can pied pipe, so be it, that’s good enough for me.
PM: Any closing thoughts?
W: I wanna give a big shout out to Brooklyn. For opening its arms to me, and allowing me to be a part of it. I feel really good to be a Brooklynite. Coming from a place like Detroit, that means so much to me, to move to a place like Brooklyn and to be a part of it, I feel privileged to be here. Period.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.