Slum Village 2024
Photo: Frankie Fultz / The Elixir Media Group

Slum Village Boldly Take Hip-Hop to the Disco

Nearly a decade since their last album, T3 and Young RJ continue Slum Village’s legacy as a duo, bringing the group’s sound into a mature yet danceable space.

Slum Village
Ne'Astra Music
26 April 2024

“I think everything we need is in the past,” says T3, who, alongside producer Young RJ, makes up the Detroit hip-hop duo Slum Village.

“If you really want to do something new, do research of the old and then think about what’s missing.” T3 is talking about the group’s first album in almost a decade, F.U.N., which makes good on its name by taking the sounds of disco and funk and repurposing them for a raw but sonically decadent boom-bap showcase.

For those who’ve followed Slum Village since the early years with Baatin and J Dilla, the blueprint will feel familiar. F.U.N.packs the bass-heavy bounce that’s been the group’s backbone from their DAT-recorded debut Fan-Tas-Tic, Vol. 1 to their self-titled album on through 2015’s Yes! (which featured posthumous contributions from Dilla and Baatin). In 2010, David Amidon wrote in his PopMatters review of Villa Manifesto that Slum Village’s “techniques and verses were refined and in pocket” and declared that “You won’t find many more cared-for hip-hop efforts this year.” The same can be said in 2024.

The difference is in the details.

“Most of the time when we start, our albums are more of a midtempo kind of vibe,” says Young RJ. “We did a couple songs, and T was like, ‘You know what, man? We need to change the direction. I’m thinking we should go with more of a disco hip-hop influence. We need to be more upbeat and more fun.’

“Once he said that it was really a process of us going and finding our record guy that we have who goes and record shops for us, and then we started picking things that we liked.”

“We tried to find the funkiest disco records we could possibly find,” T3 adds.

When asked about his favorite disco records, T3 mentions Roger Troutman’s “Do It Roger”, five minutes of squelchy synthesizer slosh punctuated by some of the punchiest handclaps ever pressed to a Warner Bros. record. Whether the track should be considered disco is a debate best defended by Troutman’s outfit on the cover of The Many Facets of Roger: a sky-blue jumpsuit adorned across the arms and shoulders with gold sequins and unzipped down to the abdomen, revealing a chest patch of curly black hair that seems to change thickness with each snapshot, as if every new pose for the camera required a trimming.

Also disco: that messy afro. Also disco: the song’s dense cloud of female vocal harmonies and a rhythm guitar so sheeny and bright it sounds hyperreal, not resembling an instrument strummed by human fingers so much as a technicolor cartoon fashioned from some Moroderish touch of studio sorcery. T3 champions “Do It Roger” as prime freestyle fodder, “the kind of record that you can just loop up at the beginning and straight flow on.”

With a straight face, Young RJ offers the Bee Gees‘ “Stayin’ Alive”.

That makes sense. The disco influence on F.U.N. is Studio 54 chic hooked up to the burnt-rubber funk of Dayton, Ohio, circa the late 1970s and early 1980s. “Just Like You” combines the sunroof boogie of the Whispers with a D Train bassline, slows it to a shuffle, and bolsters the low-end for the Jeep beat junkies. “F.U.N.” swings to the rhythm of “Genius of Love”. “All Live” is pumped full of the same juice that gave Zapp his filthiest thumps. “To the Disco” combines electric guitar licks in the right channel, trumpet fanfare in the left, and string melodies that could have been lifted from a Double Exposure anthem. The liquid pulse of the bass guitar loop might have backed a classic 12-inch released on West End.

The trick was to inject a little disco fluid into their beats without having to pay licensing fees or lose sleep over the rapidly developing capacity for artificial intelligence to identify samples. The workaround: T3 and Young RJ brought in musicians to record interpolations of their favorite sections from their disco records, then loaded these recordings into the sampler and laced them into the beats.

“There are no samples on the album,” Young RJ says. “We had one of Dr. Dre’s producers, our brother Focus…, change everything on the album because we didn’t want to go through the hassle of what comes along with clearing samples or how they come after you for every little voice or stab or anything you are doing in a record. We said, ‘We like this song.’ He said, ‘Okay, I see what you are doing, but we changing all these chords up’ … Then we started bringing musicians in to craft the sound.”

“Give me something with this same feel,” T3 explains. “Find those sounds that are similar to it and change up the melodies. Give me something similar to it, but not it. Because if you have three notes together, you already know that’s a sample.” 

That isn’t a totally novel approach. Marley Marl started scratching snippets from his productions into his tracks in the mid-1980s. In the late 2000s, Mayer Hawthorne recorded the soul songs for his debut record, A Strange Arrangement, to use as sample material for his hip-hop productions. Whereas Hawthorne just released his unsampled originals, Slum Village took the process to its conclusion. The result: mutant shreds of disco slowed to head-nod BPMs and chopped and spliced within the contours of sequenced music.

Take the title track for example. Listeners might discern the ghost of an electric guitar, but it’s been detuned, fed through an array of effects, and regurgitated as auditory moisture that blows through the track before tapering to a tail of discordant echo. It’s hard to believe, but at one time, this sound came from an instrument. What remains is the late-stage byproduct of rigorous processing, a sound with no equivalent in the physical world.

On “Keep Dreaming”, the percussion is compressed until the bass drum pops. A horn stab is drained of its low end and trimmed tight upfront so that the sample activates well after the trumpet player blows into the mouthpiece. The track is chopped into sharp-edged blocks of sound. This production style is quintessential hip-hop, an inorganic arrangement that doesn’t bring to mind instruments being played so much as noise being activated with the push of a button. A horn stab drops slightly offbeat, then cuts out abruptly. That causes listeners to note a break in a sequence, guiding their focus toward a crack in the grid the track is built from. The foundation is showing. “Keep Dreaming” is the most extreme example of a motif running throughout the album: though the songs were originally recorded by musicians live in a studio environment, they’ve been edited to sound like rigidly sequenced hip-hop beats. That is clearly a stylistic decision, though its dopeness is rooted in the distinctive limitations of primitive samplers.

“There is a version of the record that sounds like a disco band is going crazy in the studio,” Young RJ says.

The album is technically sample-free if one defines a sample as a piece of music that the person doing the sampling does not own. However, if one defines a sample as any piece of music subjected to the transformative processes of a sampler, then F.U.N. is an exercise in sampling.

Slum Village are firm believers in the creative possibilities of sampling in hip-hop music.

“It’s so much music in the past,” T3 says. “You could be digging for vinyl forever and still find new stuff that you’ve never heard, never seen. The reason we go back to the past is because it has so many layers. You talking about 30 motherfuckers in a room playing [instruments]. That doesn’t happen today. It’s rare. The equipment, the sounds, and all the stuff they had to put together can be duplicated with plugins, but not really. We want layers in our music. That’s why we always pull from the past.”

“Even the studios they recorded in,” adds Young RJ. “The musicians. You can get two different drummers and put them in a room, and they can play the same beat, but it will not feel the same. It’s all about the musicians from the era, the micing techniques, and how they did things. All these different things you can get ideas from to make something new.”

The raps are fluid and on-point, a showcase of verbal dexterity in the tradition of golden-age MCing. “To the Disco” merges battle raps with a chorus demanding the listener put their hands in the air, conflating a carefree party pose with the tension of an armed stick-up. “So Superb” features a Young RJ verse that references Master P, Quincy Jones, Damian Lillard, and Talladega Nights in just a few tightly-honed lines. “Since 92” reiterates the group’s longstanding tenure and dedication to a style of hip-hop that hasn’t changed in design since Bill Clinton was elected.

“When you was 12, literally, I was a real G,” T3 raps on “F.U.N.”. The line isn’t delivered with so much as an inkling of nostalgia but instead reeks of battle-rap braggadocio, as if he’s announcing to a young challenger, “You’re getting shown up by an old guy.” The raps on this record are so polished they add another shade of meaning to the lyric: “You’re getting shown up because I’m an old guy.” By now, Slum Village are consummate craftsmen, with little left to prove and a whole lot of practice. F.U.N. wasn’t made in response to current trends or to prove the group had more tricks up their sleeve but simply because two hip-hop heads wanted to have some fun.

“We try to make stuff that we want to hear,” T3 says.

“Rap can get so rap, you know what I’m saying? It doesn’t necessarily always have to be that way. Sometimes, I miss those days of Rob Base. You know, just having fun. ‘It Takes Two’ is just a feel-good record. Classic. He ain’t really over-rapping. It got tons of energy at a party. It’s just classic for what it is. That’s really the spark behind [F.U.N.].”