Chicago-born beatsmith Dion ”No I.D.” Wilson played an instrumental role in alternative hip-hop’s development in the 1990s, producing the majority of the three albums that got Common’s career started and showing the ropes to an unknown Chi-Town teenager named Kanye West. But what has he done for us lately? No I.D. kept a low profile for a while after splitting with Common in the late ’90s. He eventually moved to Atlanta and joined forces with So So Def mogul Jermaine Dupri, co-producing hit singles including Bow Wow’s ”Let Me Hold You” (2005). This year, his name’s been back on the airwaves thanks to a prominent mention in West’s ”Big Brother” (”No I.D., my mentor, let the story begin”), and he’s getting even more shine thanks to early leaks of ”Success,” the historic Jay-Z/Nas collab he produced for Jay’s upcoming American Gangster CD. EW.com rang up No I.D. to catch up on his unique path through the industry, find out how he feels about West’s meteoric rise, and learn why he might be reuniting with Common sooner than we thought.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved with Jay-Z’s album?
NO I.D.: Jermaine Dupri contacts me and says, ”Let’s work on Jay.” Jermaine was trying to get Jay to come down to Atlanta, and Jay kept telling him, ”Nah, you come up here.” So we ended up going up there [to Jay’s Manhattan studio]. When we got in there, he said, ”Okay, I have nine or 10 songs. I only need two more songs. And I mean specific songs.” So it was at the end. But as a producer, I like working at the end anyway. You can see what’s going on. You get a feel of the sonic direction, what’s missing.
What was the feel you got when you heard the tracks Jay had been working on?
Hip-hop in the traditional sense, so to speak — early ’90s hip-hop, maybe mid-’90s — soulful. So that’s up my alley. The song that ended up being ”Success” with Nas, it was the second day, and [Jay-Z] was saying, ”Look, I need this type of record. I’m telling you to throw a bulls-eye from 50 feet. But I need specifically a hard record that girls can like, that’s danceable, that’s not too radio, that still could get radio play.” He gave a lot of stipulations, but I really knew what he meant. When I found the idea on my computer, I stood up and started walking around the room, stretching out. Everybody looked at me like, ”What are you doing?” I was like, ”I got it. I got the song.” It was just a raw organ melody sample. An old 45 — I can’t even remember the name of the group. I have like 30,000 songs on my iTunes.
Did you talk to Jay about where in the storyline of the album he wanted the song to fit in?
When I did that beat, he was asking me what did I think. I kept telling him, ”I feel like this beat feels triumphant and arrogant. This energy gotta be boastful.” He was like, ”Yeah — successful.” That’s how the ”Success” concept came up. At that point, it wasn’t really planned for Nas to be on there. And I’m a big Nas fan, so when I heard that Nas heard the album and wanted to get on that one, it was exciting for me.
It’s only the second track Jay and Nas have done together. How did it feel to be part of that?
I always felt like it’s a difference between Shawn Carter and Jiggaman. And it’s a difference between Esco and Nasty Nas. And even it’s a difference between late No I.D. and early No I.D. But I felt like it was a good moment, because I caught Jigga and Nasty Nas on a true No I.D. beat. So it made me happy, even though it’s not a single or whatever. I felt like it was a classic song for all of us. What messes up a lot of albums is every producer’s trying to make the single, the hit, the record that makes them famous as a producer. And sometimes people don’t just do the records that make an album classic. I really just wanted to make what I wanted to hear Jay do nowadays, and then it just happened to be that he put Nas on it also.
You produced a track for Jay in 2002, on The Blueprint 2. How would you compare working with him then to working with him now?
We weren’t really working together before. His A&R at the time [Kyambo ”Hip Hop” Joshua] was a good friend of mine; Hip Hop would give him beats from me. [American Gangster] was the first time that we were in there and actually did something. What happened with this song [was] the process that established me as a producer when I worked with Common — being able to really dialogue about what’s going on and come up with a purpose and direction for a song. The concept of just making beat CDs and giving them to people is really why albums aren’t good anymore. If Michael Jackson was doing Thriller and was like, ”I’ma get the top 12 producers to send me joints,” it just wouldn’t have been Thriller. So this song was a great experience in my mind, because I didn’t have the ideas that I gave him when I walked in the door. It was really a result of the conversation.
NEXT PAGE: ”I don’t believe [Kanye]’s peaked yet.”
It feels like Jay is really inspired on this album, in a way that maybe he hasn’t been in a while. Would you agree with that?
Yeah. I’m even inspired. I’m a hip-hop purist at heart, and I’m learning to appreciate things that I never appreciated before; I don’t say what’s real hip-hop and not real hip-hop. [But] I didn’t expect him to be going in the direction he was going, so when I came and heard it, I was pleasantly surprised, and it really inspired me to want to work on hip-hop again. It really made me say I want to get in with Nas now, I want to get in with Common on his next album. I want to get in with hip-hop artists and take a lot of the things that I’ve learned doing commercial music to enhance the hip-hop that I grew up on.
Tell me more about that. What have you learned?
When [Common and I] were doing our first two albums, [1992’s] Can I Borrow a Dollar? and [1994’s] Resurrection, we weren’t thinking about commercial singles. It was really a creative battle to prove that we were good. We made an album that we felt was a really good album and picked the best song to be a single. Maybe doing the third album [1997’s One Day It’ll All Make Sense] we started thinking ”single,” and then, ”Okay, let’s put Lauryn Hill on this.” But it was still from a pure place, in my eyes. After a while, when we were both frustrated with not having the success we felt like we should have, that’s maybe even the true reason we went our separate ways. From that point, we both made our personal journeys to find success. I ended up in Atlanta, working with Jermaine Dupri. From a hip-hop purist’s standpoint, I never really understood his success. And I just was like, ”Man, I really gotta humble myself and quit acting like he doesn’t know what he knows.”
When did you link up with Jermaine Dupri?
That was a couple years ago, but it took us a while to really comfortably get in and work. He’s one of the coolest people I know in the business, period. I began to get a lot of respect for what he does, and it made me a better producer. It made me learn how to make a Bow Wow record, or hone in on an R&B or pop record. A lot of people are giving the hip-hop market what they already had, but they’re not taking what we already had and going up with it. One person who does [broaden hip-hop’s horizons] the most right now is Kanye — he might be elevating it to a whole ‘nother thing now.
Do you still talk often with Kanye?
Oh yeah, definitely. We never really changed our relationship. When he was absolutely nobody and I was No I.D., it wasn’t a different relationship from when he’s Kanye West and I’m No I.D. When we talk, we talk like we’ve been talking every single day. A lot of our conversation has been either life issues or music. He’s younger than me, so it was never like he was my peer. Maybe he was 14 and I was 20, so he was the kid to me. I helped him out. And now he’s not the kid, but it still kind of feels like it when we talk. But I definitely respect everything he’s accomplished. I’m proud of him.
How did you feel when you heard him say your name on the ”Big Brother” hook?
I didn’t get a real moment of reaction, because an engineer who was working on it when he was cutting it called someone I knew and he said, ”He’s saying your name on the song!” I said, ”Okay. He said my name on [2004’s] ‘Last Call’!” When he finished the song finally, [West] was like, ”Yo, you gon’ be famous!” Come on, man, what does that mean? He was like, ”Man, I said your name all through the song, and this is my moment.” He did the Kanye thing, where he explains to me how important the song is to his career. I’m like, ”I’m no more famous than I was on your VH1 special.” A lot of that stuff don’t matter to me. Thanks for the shoutout. We’re still just living life. I didn’t realize how much it meant to other people — I literally got a call every day from when that song first came out. I get approached every day with the ”mentor” word. Man, that’s big! If you know a person half your life, you don’t see it that way. You just see the person you’ve always known.
You said you wanted to work on Common’s next album. Have you talked to him about that at all?
I’m not going to discuss it with him, because I know due to our history, it’s not a discussion — it’s an action. I want to bring him the music. Maybe in my more prideful moments, I was like, ”He ain’t asked me; I never went anywhere.” But I really, deep down, wanted to see him and Kanye achieve what they were going to achieve. Music needed that, and I needed to do other things. But I’m at a moment where I know he’s going to appreciate what I have to offer. I don’t believe he’s peaked yet…. [Certain] combinations of people create certain things. I did the Jay song, it made me realize that I want to get back to the people that I can create certain things with. I took a breather, and I’m back with all this energy.