Kanye West Mentor No I.D. Reflects on the Rapper's Hammer Pants-Wearing Days
For this week's issue of Billboard, we're following four music industry bigwigs for a 24-hour period to map out the multiple dimensions of working in music in 2015: pop star Ed Sheeran, manager Sarah Stennett, the power manager behind Ellie Goulding, Iggy Azalea and the newly solo Zayn Malik, Aussie DJ Tommy Trash, and No I.D., Def Jam vp No I.D., an early mentor of Kanye West.
During the early '90s, No I.D. was producing Common’s first three albums. West’s mom got a hold of No I.D.’s phone number and her teenage son popped up at his Chicago basement studio wearing M.C. Hammer pants and carrying a laptop with his song “Green Eggs & Ham.”
“The music wasn’t good and he was only 14 or 15," No I.D. recalls. "But [West] took the advice I gave him and it multiplied with a new perspective. That’s why I’m betting on the new generation -- I can teach them everything I know and they can expand on it.”
For a look at a day in the life of No I.D. as he collaborates with Jhene Aiko and more, read on...
No I.D. creates a “hashtag moment”
At Def Jam Recordings’ Santa Monica offices, a dozen young, stylish executives encircle a table in the John Coltrane conference room, tossing a basketball, cracking jokes about Empire and spitballing remix ideas. The mood is somewhere between after-hours barbershop and rap game show-and-tell.
Under a portrait of the room’s namesake, an A&R rep in a flannel shirt presses play for his boss, Dion “No I.D.” Wilson, the super-producer-turned-executive vp of Def Jam. It’s a new song tabbed for a potential album from protean singer-rapper Dej Loaf and her boyfriend, Def Jam drill artist Lil Durk. “Shawty my Beyoncé,” the Auto-Tuned hook bellows. This raises a red flag: Is it wise to name-check Beyoncé on your chorus, especially when Drake already did a song called “Girls Like Beyoncé”?
“What about if we change it to ‘My Yoncé’?” asks No I.D., 44. “Once you say Beyoncé’s name on a record, it gets into ... a whole other level of intrusion.” Someone counters with altering it to “fiancé,” but everyone agrees it would change the context of the record. “My Yoncé” has the opportunity to create what No I.D. calls a “hashtag moment”: Think what Ariana Grande did with “on fleek” earlier this year, or what Kanye West did with “cray.” “Hit records create slang, and if you create slang you get into a broader conversation level,” says No I.D. “People are going to use it, and if [others] don’t know the song, people are going to be like, ‘What? Did you not hear that record?’ ”
Let’s be clear: No I.D. (that’s “Dion” spelled backward) could silence the A&R meeting with a single eye roll. This is the alchemist who produced Jay Z’s “Run This Town,” West’s “Heartless” and Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” But that isn’t how the Chicago South Side native operates. He doesn’t give commands, just well-reasoned suggestions.
The other big news in today’s meeting is that mercurial lothario Jeremih has finally turned in his much-delayed album. Previously unheard collaborations from the Chicago R&B singer with Migos, Future and Big Sean win the approval of the chief, who bobs his head more like a fan than an executive calculating potential sales.
He’s not averse to a pop smash. After all, Justin Bieber’s comeback occurred under his aegis, and he mentored West. But No I.D. is here to represent the culture at its most street level -- to be a kind of Trojan horse of the underground. He just might become the new Quincy Jones. So when he tells you to change it to “My Yoncé,” that’s what you do.
No. I.D. has no worries
On a chalkboard in No I.D.’s corner office there’s a printed list of every artist on Def Jam’s roster, from label meal tickets (West, Bieber, Ocean) to legacy artists (The Roots, Q-Tip, Nas) to obscure aspiring stars. Beside each name is a best-case-scenario sales number. It’s something No I.D. confronts every day when he walks into this room, then immediately tries to forget.
“There’s this concept in urban music and lifestyle that money is everything, and I’m just not with it,” he says. “If it makes money, it doesn’t make it good. If it’s good, it’s good. I don’t care whether something makes one dollar or a trillion because guess what? I don’t know many happy rich people. And I know a lot of rich people.”
In the world of major-label urban music, this is about as radical as Martin Luther tacking a litany of complaints to the door of a medieval German church. No I.D. has made millions and lives in Beverly Hills, but you’d never know it. Still as no-frills as he was during his early days as a house music DJ, dressed in an olive T-shirt, jeans and boots, the only visible accoutrements from rap money are a 24-karat watch and a skinny gold chain.
Def Jam established its place in popular music by making “outlaw music” -- at least that’s what Rick Rubin told No I.D. when the latter joined the label’s executive team in 2011, not long after moving to Los Angeles from Hawaii. In 2014, the label split off from Island to become its own independent entity again. This places even more pressure on Def Jam to deliver results, which means more sales, more streams, more money.
But if No I.D. feels any pressure, he doesn’t show it. For the fourth quarter, the label has albums lined up from Bieber, Logic and Jeezy. A surprise record from either West or Ocean would inevitably trigger some nice Christmas bonuses, but the executive seems to be looking three years ahead, not three months.
You can see this in his investment in Vince Staples, whose brilliant double-album Summertime ’06 figures to place highly on most year-end critics’ polls. With first-week sales of 14,000, many sniped that it was too early for the 22-year-old -rapper from Long Beach, Calif., to be putting out a commercial album.
“A lot of my favorite artists didn’t sell much out the gate. I didn’t with Common at first. Neither did first albums from Outkast, Nas or Jay Z,” says No I.D. “It doesn’t scare me. Either you go out and release free albums to hide the numbers because you’re afraid -- or you go in the system and build from there.”
Team Def Jam hits the gym
For a team-building exercise, No I.D. gathers the A&R staff to play hoops at the local Equinox gym’s basketball courts. It’s an off shooting day for the leader, but you can see a veteran’s savviness in his play. He sets screens and moves off the ball. “If I were a basketball coach, I’d either be a college coach or like Phil Jackson,” he says.
Jackson is probably the more accurate analogy. No I.D. is usually the smartest person in the room, but you’d only know if you paid close attention. He’s a Zen-master type who never breaks a sweat or raises his voice. Of course, if anyone questions his taste, ear or ability to nurture talent, he can shut them down by reminding them that he mentored West -- perhaps the closest thing music has to a Michael Jordan right now.
This was during the early ’90s, while No I.D. was producing Common’s first three albums. West’s mom got No I.D.’s phone number, so her teenage son popped up at his Chicago basement studio wearing M.C. Hammer pants and carrying a laptop with his song “Green Eggs & Ham.”
“The music wasn’t good and he was only 14 or 15,” remembers No I.D. “But [West] took the advice I gave him and it multiplied with a new perspective. That’s why I’m betting on the new generation -- I can teach them everything I know and they can expand on it.”
No. I.D.’s second home: the studio
Jhene Aiko has a cold. Maybe it’s the dust that got into the singer’s lungs at a festival in September. Or maybe it’s just stress, the R&B incense goddess tells No I.D. and his frequent production partner DJ Dahi inside Hollywood’s United Recording Studio. “Who isn’t stressed out?” the wavy-haired singer says with a smile.
“Me?” counters No I.D., digging into his vegan tacos and salad from slow-food chain Tender Greens. Married with no children, he has been a vegetarian for the last half-decade -- he’s planning on having kids and wants to make sure he lives long for them. “Stress? I just smile at it, like, ‘Really? That’s a nice try.’ ”
Aiko is signed to No I.D.’s Artium imprint -- aligned with Def Jam through a joint-venture deal. He executive-produced her official debut, 2014’s Souled Out, which debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. She also is a frequent guest in his Cocaine 80s collective, a genre-mashing fusion of soul, pop, hip-hop and rock that he produces. It’s unclear whether what the trio will work on tonight will be part of that project or Aiko’s new release, which figures to be one of Def Jam’s biggest priorities in 2016.
The conversation pinballs from healthy eating to farmer’s markets (they’re good places to meet women) to the semantic differences of “slut,” “ho” and “whore.”
“Someone told me that I was slutty, but that I wasn’t a ho because I don’t have sex with a lot of people,” says Aiko. “I looked it up in the dictionary and a ‘slut’ is not the same thing as a ‘ho.’ A ‘slut’ doesn’t go by the rules.”
“Is that Webster’s or Urban Dictionary?” says Dahi, cracking up the room.
“If a whore is a whore, and no one knows she’s a whore, is she still a whore?” Aiko riddles.
No I.D. has a theory. “You can’t be a whore unless you’re actually accepting money for sex.”
After about an hour, the engineer queues a beat. Everyone who isn’t recording is asked to leave. It might be the end of most people’s days, but for No I.D., it’s time to work.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 7 issue of Billboard.