“I’m just the little engine that could,” said veteran Chicago producer No I.D. of a long and winding career that’s seen him work with and shape the sonic palette of some of hip-hop’s most iconic names, from Common to Kanye West and JAY-Z before entering the boardroom where he now sits as the executive vice president of Capitol Music Group.
On Tuesday night in Chicago, as part of the Red Bull Music Festival taking place all month in the city, the 47-year-old producer born Dion Lewis sat down for an intimate, career-spanning conversation at the Chicago History Museum with journalist and Fake Shore Drive founder Andrew Barber. Speaking like an insightful professor, albeit one quick with a deadpan wisecrack, No I.D. — who revealed he’s executive-producing J.I.D.’s new album — reflected on his hip-hop journey, from helping his childhood friend Common launch his rap career to mentoring a young Kanye West, producing his legendary 808s & Heartbreak album and, most recently, capping off a long-simmering relationship with JAY-Z by executive producing his acclaimed 4:44 LP.
Below are the 17 most fascinating things we learned from No I.D.’s momentous conversation.
1. During their teenage years, Common first introduced No I.D. to hip-hop. But house music dominated the local scene at the time.
“I’ve known Common since we were nine or 10 years old. A childhood friend,” No I.D. said. “He was the one who would bring the hip-hop around. He had a cousin from Cincinnati who used to influence us to get these tapes. That led us to listening to WHBQ which was the premier hip-hop radio station for us back then. But was a house music city back then. Period. All we went to were house parties where they played hose music. And in comes this thing called hip-hop. There was no scene. There was no industry. There was no thought of a deal. There was no money. It was just like “Hmm. let’s try that.” And that turned into break dancing and making beats and rapping and making these little tapes and performing.
2. When he left to attend college at Southern Illinois University, No I.D. gave up on his hip-hop dream.
“I quit music at some point and went to college,” No I.D. said “I didn’t even have a thought anymore about it being the scene. I was making house music and I think the business went so bad that I didn’t have faith in the business anymore. It was more like “I don’t know what I wanna do with my life.” So went away to SIU, which is a party school, and I lost my mind [laughs]. I remember calling my mother a year and a half in and said, “I don’t want to waste your money. I need to come home.” I saw that Common was still going with the music. And now I could see the seeds of a scene.”
No I.D. wanted to find a way back into the hip-hop scene. “So I started making beats for me. Cause I rapped.” He decided to drive down to Tallahassee, Florida where Common was attending college at the time. “I said “I’m on the way. Make some space.” And that was the first time I was really producing for him. Most of the beats on [Commons debut album, 1992’s] Can I Borrow A Dollar? were beats for me. He’d be like “Lemme get that one!”
3. Despite him and Common soon popping up in videos on Yo! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City, the path to success was a long and arduous one.
“It looks different than it is. But we knew we were going out and touching the people,” No I.D. explained. “People respected it. It was baby steps though. It wasn’t until [Common’s breakout album, 1994’s] Resurrection when things really turned around. But when I look back I can see the growth between Common’s demo, Can I Borrow a Dollar?, and Resurrection. We educated ourselves. We met people. We learned.” No. I.D. said he took his father’s twin loves of jazz and house music, as well as his own experience DJ’ing and understanding tempo, edits, and remixes to eventually form his production style.
4. When Common’s Resurrection dropped, it was met with critical acclaim but virtually zero sales.
But it wasting other rap artists at the time with major financial windfalls, he said, that inspired him and Common to begin reaching out to other artists for collaboration for what later became Common’s 1997 LP One Day It’ll All Make Sense.
“Seeing that success made us think, ‘Oh wow, that’s possible.’ It made us want to expand. ‘Let’s work with Erykah Badu, let’s work with Lauryn Hill, let’s work with Cee-Lo, let’s work with The Roots.’ It was no longer about ‘Let’s just go in the basement and make some music. Let’s not just try to be credible. Let’s try and win.’ It was pitbull mentality.”
5. Circa 1996, No I.D. was signed to a deal with Common’s label, the independent Relativity Records, to make his own debut LP as a rapper. But he quit before it was released.
When he signed his deal with Relativity, No I.D. received a sizable budget to record his debut album. “So I took my budget, bought a house, built a studio in the house, bought the equipment, put it in there, got with Dug Infinite and made a record in the basement,” he explained. “Engineered it, mixed it, recorded it. I remember going into the company one day and talking to the higher-ups and they’re like “Man, Diddy is killing it right now.” So now the pressure is on. I’m like “You know what? I quit.” I said “I’ll shoot one video, do two shows and that’s it.”” You’re not going to make me be something I’m not. Anybody who knows me knows my personality wasn’t built for that era. I shut the door fast.”
6. He began getting contacted to produce for other big-time hip-hop artists like The Notorious B.I.G., but he turned them all down.
“People would be like, ‘Man, Big wants a beat.’ I’d be like, ‘Nah, I’m Common’s guy.’ ‘Ghostface wants a beat.’ ‘Nah.’ And then later after I stopped working with Common I’m like, what?! Nobody did that back then. Pre-Illmatic was doing that. It was one producer or one team. It wasn’t a concept. It’s like ‘Tribe Called Quest is working on an album. Let’s submit beats.’ ‘Submit to Pete Rock and CL Smooth’? No. It wasn’t until my relationship with Common changed where I was like, ‘Man, I blew it.’”
7. No I.D. pitched Common on them forming a label that would foster young Chicago hip-hop talent and it led to a temporary falling out between the longtime friends.
“That started our first tension, which all lifetime friends go through,” No I.D. said. “That was when I started having different thoughts and ambitions. ‘Let’s have a label together. We can sign these two girls over here, Tiffa and Shawna, this kid Kanye over here. Man, we can be like the new Death Row.’ He’s like, ‘Nah.’ Next thing I know he’s like, ‘Oh, you kept that beat for you, huh?’ It was bad. He was like, ‘Oh, I’m not the golden one. You gonna help others?’ Knowing him this many years I think it was more a level of insecurity like ‘Man, my brother is not 100 percent behind me now. What am I gonna do?’”
8. No I.D. was almost in a Roc-A-Fella production crew with Kanye and Just Blaze called Roc the World.
“Around Resurrection I had developed a relationship with Roc-A-Fella, which was around JAY-Z’s first album,” No I.D. said. Later, after working some Blueprint 2 tracks, a production deal came into the equation. “I just didn’t like the paperwork,” he explained. “I had worked all these years so I wanted my money now. It was me, Bink, Just Blaze and Kanye, And me and Bink were like, we don’t like this business.” If you look at the back of Beanie [Sigel]’s The Reason album it says it was produced by all of us for Roc the World.” That was what the team was gonna be. But we all looked at the paperwork and Just Blaze and Ye were like “Alright. I don’t care. Whatever. We’re down.” And me and Bink were like “Nah.” It was funny because there were certain people after that happened that we’re like “You blew it. It’s over. you’re a dummy.” Because Roc-A-Fella explodes. But I had put much blood sweat and tears in before that to just be cool and accepted.”
9. Having known Kanye since he was a young kid, No I.D. was shocked when he became a rap superstar following 2004’s The College Dropout.
Did No I.D. expect Kanye to blow up? “Of course not,” he said with a laugh. “I would be a liar if I said I did. Anybody that ever says that is a liar. I was there. I saw it. I know. Even if you thought he was gonna win, nobody could have predicted that. Come on.” With his mom and Kanye’s mom being friends, No I.D. was asked to help a young West get into the production game. West used to come to his house and No I.D. would say, “Just take these records and sample them please. This is how you do beats. Go home. Get out of my door. I have grown folks stuff to deal with.” After he saw Kanye’s success, “Now I’m going, ‘Anything’s possible. We could fly to the moon.’”
10. No I.D. was originally Kanye’s manager but couldn’t handle the rapper’s polarizing personality.
“People don’t know this but I was his manager early,” No I.D said. “I took him to meetings at labels and all kinds of stuff. But I wasn’t trying to be a mentor. That wasn’t a concept. I remember a meeting with Columbia Records. He told [then-label chairman] Donnie Ienner “I’m going to be the next Michael Jackson.” And they were like “OK then. Have a good day.” We came in a limo and left in a taxi. I remember I got home and I was playing a video game with Peter King, cause we were co-managing him at the time, and I was like “I don’t think I could manage Kanye. I just don’t think it will work.” I’m a realist. It wasn’t what I could make off him. I just couldn’t handle him. I’d go crazy. I figured I’d just help him and get nothing. And that’s what preserved our relationship over those years. I never really asked for anything. I just helped.”
11. No I.D. turned to Jermaine Dupri in a sort of hip-hop trade to benefit both producers.
Right after Usher’s platinum-selling Confessions, No I.D. called up Dupri, “Because I wanted to educate myself,” he recalled. “He obviously knows something I don’t know. He’s killing it. He’s got the sauce. He’s doing Nelly, Mariah, Usher, Bow Wow,” It’s like “Y’all just killing it!” I know I’m good. I should be there with them. But I knew that I had more respect and he more money and success. I felt it was a trade. “I got some sauce, you got some. Let’s see what happens.”
No I.D. headed down to Atlanta, cooked up records for Bow Wow, Plies and more. “That’s when I learned how to make big records. I was humbling myself,” he said. ““Forget everything you know. Empty your cup.” It’s also when he first got introduced to the Atlanta strip-club culture. “I’d never been a strip club in my life. Why would I go to a strip club? We’re trying to make music. And then I go in there and it’s like a club with a few naked people. I’m like “This is different. Oh, I get ya’ll records now. OK, I get what you’re saying in these records now. Ah, throw some dollars at you. Got it. That’s the dance ya’ll do at the club. Got it.””
13. 808s & Heartbreaks began with No I.D. comforting Kanye in the wake of his mother’s death.
When Kanye’s mom died suddenly following complications from plastic surgery, No I.D. and Kanye’s mutual friend, the spoken-word poet Malik Yusef, called up No I.D. and said, “’Dion, you gotta be there for him.’ I go ‘Do I? Our relationship isn’t bad, but he’s a superstar and I’ve got a different personality. I don’t wanna hang out. I’m just different. I’m studying, I’m learning, I’m growing. That environment is just not me.’ He’s like, ‘No, he needs you, Dion. And he trusts you.’ So I literally reconnected our relationship non-musically and we just started talking more. One day we saw each other and he’s like, ‘I’m about to go to Hawaii and do some beats with Jay. Want to come work together?’ So we fly to Hawaii and we’re really there to work for Jay for Blueprint 3, but it wasn’t until we made ‘Heartless’ that Kanye’s like, ‘Nah, I’m doing my album now.’ And that was how 808s & Heartbreak came into play.” No I.D. recalls at one point him suggesting they give some of the beats they were working on to Jay seeing as that’s why they were in Hawaii to begin with. “I was like, ‘Let’s just give it to him.’ And Kanye was like, ‘Hell no!’”
14. No I.D.’s relationship with JAY-Z developed slowly over nearly two decades and included palpable tension between the pair.
“As a Chicago person at heart it’s hard for us to become friends with people when I don’t really know them,” No I.D. said. “So I know Jay for many years, but we’re not good friends. Eventually he comes back and we finish the Blueprint 3, I do ‘D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune).’ And one day I see him and he walks past me and I don’t really say nothing and he look back at me and says, ‘Man, you ain’t gonna speak?!’ I was like, ‘Man, this your space. I don’t know you like that to just be walking up to you speaking.’ We would talk but he’s an introvert too. It’s all in his raps. He give you fake hugs and fake wassups. He’s not opening up and I’m not opening up.”
15. No I.D. executive-producing JAY-Z’s critically acclaimed 2017 album 4:44 began with an email from Jay about working on a Vic Mensa project.
“[JAY-Z] saw me at this Tidal thing and he was like, ‘Man, where are the butters at?’ I’m like, ‘Huh?’ He’s like, ‘The beats, the butters, man, where are the beats?’ I’m like, ‘Man, you know I got this job.’ He’s like, ‘Job? Did you just say job?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ because at the time I had this Def Jam thing. He’s like, ‘God didn’t make you to work no job. God made you to make music. You can’t never tell me you’re not making music because of a job.’ And every time we would see each other, fast-forward to next time, he asked me what I’m working on. I was like, ‘Getting better.’ He was like, ‘What you mean?’ I said, ‘I’m working on getting better, that’s what I’m working on.’ He was like, ‘You don’t got no beats?’ and I said, ‘No I’m working on getting better, man. At beats and at life.’ I didn’t bring the job up ever again.
“All that led to one day, I made 100 beats. Then I made 500 beats. And I’m like eureka! I’ve got a new style. He hits me like, ‘Hey, man, I need you to help me with this Vic Mensa.’ And I go, ‘And I got some beats now.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah? OK.’ And I’m like, ‘Naw man, I’ve got some beats this time.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah for sure.’ I’m like, ‘Stop playing. I’ve really got your next Blueprint-esque thing. I know that’s a lot to say. But I think I got it.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah that’s a lot to say.’ So we meet up and I tear his ears off with beats. He was like, ‘Man, don’t disappear, I’m ready.’ And I was like, ‘You don’t understand.’ So I start emailing him beats every day. Three to five beats every day. Until the ‘Kill Jay-Z’ beat and he then was like, ‘Come over right now. My house right now. That was the one.’”
During 4:44 one day, he comes in and was like, ‘Man, you’re a good guy.’ I was like, ‘You are too, man. I had no idea.’ He’s like, ‘I thought you was rude ’cause you would never speak. You would just come in my studio and never say nothing.’ I was like, ‘I was just being respectful.’ That’s how we became friends. Now we’re friends and it’s not like I got a lot of friends in the business. We knew how to deal with each other that brought out the best in each other. Not just musically, but just enjoying it. It was really fun and therapeutic.”
16. No I.D. becoming a major-label executive was largely due to him producing the majority of Big Sean’s debut album, 2011’s Finally Famous.
“At one point me and Jay had discussed me being at Roc Nation, but I think we both had bigger views and goals we wanted to accomplish. One day around My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy time, Kanye was like, ‘G.O.O.D. Music is over. If you don’t become president, I’m distancing myself from this.’ So I gotta say yes, right? So I start to plan it out in my mind. Malik Yusef tells me, ‘Yo, this guy Big Sean is good.’ So I go grab him. I take him to LA. He was about to be done. I grabbed him and we put together the project and I turned it in.” Once it was a smash success, “Everybody at the label was like, ‘What the hell just happened?’ So Def Jam then was like, ‘Man, if we hire you can you just keep doing that?’ I was like, ‘Yeah. I can do that.’
“I started off when it was all indies and then I watched the majors kill it and then I saw the youth demand independence again. I’m like, ‘We had it in the first place and no one wanted it. And now we want it.’ But be careful what you ask for. I liken it to having your own treehouse in the forest. It’s yours, but there’s ants and rain and no toilets, so be prepared. But these majors are like mansions that maybe there’s a little mold on the wall, maybe the pipes ain’t right, but somebody gotta go in there and fix it. I don’t want to be in the forest. I ain’t falling for that. I want to control something and make it so it can serve us better.”
17. No I.D. is a firm believer in learning from your elders.
“Today I go and seek out mentorship from people like Quincy [Jones] and Stevie [Wonder] because I feel like we have all this information with these giants and our generation does not take those jewels. We don’t pass those jewels on and they get lost. We see our greats pass on and we treat them bad until they die and then we celebrate them. And we play all their records. And we cry. And they’re right here. And they’ll gladly tell us three-fourths of what we don’t know and are trying to figure out. A certain level of humility can allow you to access that information and prolong your stay no matter what you do.”