How NBA’s John Salley gave Detroit hip-hop producer J Dilla his first big break | Music function | Detroit

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  • Courtesy photo, Shutterstock
  • Detroit Pistons forward John Salley, right, started a label, Hoops, where J Dilla got his first break with Slum Village.

A new book – Dilla Time: the life and afterlife of J Dilla, the hip-hop producer who reinvented the beat, now available on MCD/Farrar, Straus, Giroux — chronicles the life and legacy of James DeWitt Yancey, the influential Detroit rapper and producer whose promising career was cut short when he died in 2006 at age 32 years old following a battle with a rare blood disease. In this excerpt, shared exclusively with Metro timetablesYancey and his partner T3, then two-thirds of Detroit hip-hop group Slum Village, teamed up with NBA player John Salley and producer RJ Rice to land a record deal with Slum Village.

Yesancey and T3 saw commercials on WGPR-TV new dance show in 1991, advertising Hoops, a recording studio founded by Detroit Pistons forward John Salley. Word has spread among aspiring Detroit musicians, singers, producers and rappers that the basketball star is starting a label of the same name and looking for artists.

Detroit loved Salley because Salley loved Detroit. Aside from playing “The Spider” in the Pistons’ recent championship streak, he calls the city, not the suburbs, home; and he invested in local businesses. Salley was convinced that even though Motown Records was long gone, the talent that made Motown possible was still here in Detroit. But Salley knew next to nothing about the music industry. For that expertise, he turned to a local producer named RJ Rice.

Almost everyone who came to Detroit in James’s generation had danced to “Shackles,” from Rice’s Latest Arrival, a group produced by Rice and featuring his wife, DeDe, on vocals. A progressive dance classic, “Shackles” was one of the few 1980s Detroit records to chart nationally, with the song peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1984. The road to that hit, and back, had been rocky. Ralph James Rice had been driving it since 1979, releasing a dozen different singles and three different albums – each titled RJ’s latest arrival – before “Shackles” exploded. A major deal with Atlantic Records fell through when his subsequent singles stalled just short of the top ten; and his subsequent relationship, with EMI Records, was plagued by corporate restructuring and the sharp shift in the market towards hip-hop from synthesized to sampled sounds. Rice had learned that a record deal was a slippery thing, the words on paper mattered less than the relationships behind them. Sometimes leaders made deals just to stand next to the people who made them look good. If you didn’t make them money or make them look good, your deal was done.

In 1990, RJ Rice was looking to stay closer to home. He and DeDe had a child now. He wanted to build a recording studio, but First Independence Bank loan officers told him the music business was far too risky for their liking. Rice pondered the implications: the largest black-owned bank in the birthplace of Motown Records, P-Funk and techno, saying Detroit music has no future. When Rice was introduced to John Salley soon after by their mutual accountant, everything turned around. First Independence was suddenly happy to give out over a quarter million dollars in loans. Sometimes money mattered less than who people wanted to stand next to. Salley looked at Rice’s utility Dodge Raider. If you want to stay next to me, Salley told him, you have to buy a new car.

Rice was unaccustomed to her partner’s extravagance. Salley remodeled a large old bank building in Oak Park and set up a recording studio in the vault. He bought custom-made desks and chairs. He bought TV and radio spots. He brought in his childhood friend Michael Christian to scout for talent. And Hoops opened its doors to a new generation of Detroit artists.

When Yancey and T3 arrived with a tape in their hands—the rooms lit purple and thick with the smell of air freshener—they encountered Christian, who called Salley to Hoops: You gotta hear those kids. Salley loved the Slum Village demo on first listen. Rice didn’t know what to make of them. After Salley escorted the two prospects to the vault where Rice was seated, Rice listened to James and T3, both stuttering with anxiety. Next, Rice listened to their tape. They also stuttered on the tape. Maybe, Rice thought, is that the style?

Rice showed James their equipment – including an E-mu SP-1200 drum machine – in a studio that far surpassed anything in Amp Fiddler’s basement. Before long, Slum Village became part of Salley and Rice’s Hoops roster, which came to include R&B singer-songwriter Tony Rich; local hip-hop group Dope-A-Delic; a rude quartet of kid rappers called Kid Je’ Not (pronounced “kid ya’ not”) that included Rice’s son, Young RJ; and Rhythm Cartel, a duo of white MCs from suburban Detroit – one lean, one heavy. The latter of the two, a towering teenager the size of a boulder, had acquired his own nickname, “Paul Bunyan”, due to his resemblance to this mythical Midwestern lumberjack, but his real name was Paul Rosenberg.

Click to enlarge Dilla Time: The life and afterlife of J Dilla, the hip-hop producer who reinvented the beat by Dan Charnas - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy picture
  • Dilla Time: the life and afterlife of J Dilla, the hip-hop producer who reinvented the beat by Dan Charnas

JOhn Salley used his stardom and RJ Rice his industry connections to pitch the Slum Village demo to New York record labels. Salley met with executives from Def Jam, Atlantic and MCA, touting James as “the next Pete Rock”. Within months, Slum Village was offered a contract by a new label, Pendulum, funded by Warner Music. When negotiating, John Salley asked Rice to stand down.

“Leave it to me,” he said. “No one will put me down.”

But Pendulum’s offer for the band came in too low for John Salley, and nothing he said could get him any higher. Salley didn’t just want to give Slum Village away, so he balked, and Pendulum ended up signing another offbeat rap group, Digable Planets. Rice broke the bad news to Yancey and T3. They were furious with Salley for rejecting the offer without consulting them, but now the whole Hoops situation was bad news.

The press praised Salley’s many business ventures: a sportswear boutique, Funkee Flava, and a sex shop, Condomart. TV host Robin Leach came to Hoops and Salley’s fifty-two room mansion to film an episode of Lifestyles of the rich and famous. But Salley had a full-time NBA job and couldn’t pay attention to detail. He discovered that the contractor they had hired to build the studio had ordered equipment twice and stuck Hoops with the invoice. Rice punched the contractor in the face, but the money disappeared anyway. The partners had different creative visions: Salley had no use for the old-school R&B that Rice loved, and Rice didn’t care much for all the little rap groups Salley signed. He respected Slum’s talent; but the talent didn’t sell records, the hooks did. Salley and his artists grew accustomed to hearing Rice’s skeptical retort to any music they played for him: But is it a hit, man?

It wasn’t a side hustle or hobby for Rice. He had a dependent wife and child. When Rice practically felt the creditors knocking on the door of their renovated bank, he began to quietly pull the equipment out of the vault. By the time the real bank, First Independence, sued Salley and Hoops for defaulting on $325,000 in loans in 1993, Salley had been traded to the Miami Heat and Rice was working from home. Salley had personally guaranteed the loans and had to foot the bill. He would later comment that it took him many years and a meditation retreat in Costa Rica to forgive his former accountant and former partner; but that he never regretted having defended Yancey. He just had a feeling the kid was going places.

Extract of Dilla Time: the life and afterlife of J Dilla, the hip-hop producer who reinvented the beat by Dan Charnas. Published by MCD an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux on February 1, 2022. Copyright © 2022 by Dan Charnas. All rights reserved.

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