No I.D. has spent the last two decades producing classics alongside Common (“I Used to Love H.E.R.”), Jay-Z (“D.O.A.”), and Kanye West (“Heartless”), but you wouldn’t recognize him even if he was sitting in your studio session.
Maybe that’s because he doesn’t have a publicist and he doesn’t chase fame. Born Dion Wilson (No I.D. is an inversion of his first name), the former president of G.O.O.D. Music has been called the “Godfather of Chicago Hip-Hop” and “Kanye’s mentor”—but he never claimed those handles.
However, there is one title that he did covet: Executive Vice President of A&R at Def Jam, and last year the 40-year-old Chicago native landed his dream job at the house that Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin built.
Complex got with No I.D. to discuss what advice Jay-Z gave him about running things at Def Jam, his role in the making of Watch the Throne, and the negative impact of Nas' Illmatic.
As told to Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
This feature appears in Complex's February/March 2012 issue.
On His Job At Def Jam
How did you end up as the Executive Vice President of A&R at Def Jam?
I’ve done music for a while, but I was always an introvert doing music. I never had a PR person, ever. I never really did a lot of interviews. When I started working with G.O.O.D. Music, I was the president for a while.
That led me to meet Big Sean, and I developed a relationship with [Island Def Jam head of A&R] Karen Kwak and [Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Island Def Jam Music Group] L.A. Reid at the time. They got to know me and that led to them offering me a job.
What were some of those accomplishments that that made Def Jam want to hire you?
It was simple things, like being able to grab Big Sean and take him from scratch. I’m really good at taking things from scratch and helping develop them, versus chasing after the hottest thing going.
I came in when Watch The Throne was happening. It wasn’t like I was actively working on the project, but I came in with some insight that helped bring records like “Otis,” “Made In America,” and “No Church In The Wild.”
I come from an era where you just build something. Me and Common built what we built from Chicago from scratch. Then helping Kanye get to where he’s gotten. Being involved with helping extend the success of Jay-Z.
When people get to see me interact with the creative giants, they see the perspective and the respect. A lot of times, people don’t have that respect, from a music perspective, with the music people.
For example, I came in when Watch The Throne was happening. It wasn’t like I was actively working on the project, but I came in with some insight that helped bring records like “Otis,” “Made In America,” and “No Church In The Wild.”
Those were our creative discussions. Behind the scenes, you don’t see them, but when you can, it’s like, “Hey, it would be a good idea if we do this with a lot of artists. Let him have this position.”
Was that in the plan for you to be at Def Jam?
Absolutely. Once I was starting the Big Sean album last year, I did make the statement, like, “You know what? I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna go in here and talk to L.A. [Reid] and I’m gonna work for them.” It was a short-term plan.
But then L.A. Reid left. That kind of led to me being torn between going where he was going and going to Def Jam with Karen Kwak, who kind of was the person standing by my side during that process.
Long story short, I had a meaning with L.A., and I told him ‘I want to learn from you because I feel like I’m you. You’re a producer who worked with Babyface. I’m a producer and worked with Kanye. I’m trying to transfer into this executive place. You’ve done what I’m trying to do.’
This is what I mean about finding ways to not be satisfied with the simple things that our generation acts like is the pinnacle of success. I’m looking at people who have real success and longevity. They’re gonna have something for their children when they’re gone. They’re gonna have enough time to spend with their children.
It’s so hard to get everything, but I want it all. I know it’s a 40-year process, not a four-year process. You can make $100 million in four years, and don’t have it in 10 years. We’ve seen it.
What did L.A. tell you?
I asked Jay-Z one day what he thought I should do, and he told me, “Bet on yourself. Don’t bet on someone else.” Those words were the words that made me know I’m gonna do what I’m supposed to do and build my legacy.
What it led to was a situation where I was actually gonna go work with him at Epic. It ended up that Karen and [Island Def Jam CEO] Barry Weiss believed in and invested more into me. It kind of outweighed that relationship that I was trying to build with L.A.
I asked Jay-Z one day what he thought I should do, and he told me, “Bet on yourself. Don’t bet on someone else.” Those words were the words that made me know I’m gonna do what I’m supposed to do and build my legacy, whatever that is—be it big or small. I got this far not depending on anyone. I got to go further depending on myself.
What did you learn in your tenure as the president of G.O.O.D. Music?
Sometimes those titles are glorified. I can’t even say that things were set up so that it could really be constructive in that sense. I think it was more-so Kanye needed a break, and I was a competent guy that everybody could talk to and respect. I said, “Okay, cool. Take a break. Let me see what I can do.”
I tried to bring a business structure. The first thing I did was figure out who’s actually signed. I said, “Who’s signed? Okay, Big Sean is signed. Who’s what?” It led to me putting a lot of effort into Sean and Common, which as a producer, is something I would have done anyway. Working there gave me the authority to exercise those relationships without feeling like I’m stepping on toes.
You worked with Common on The Dreamer, The Believer. As a VP at Def Jam, is it a conflict for you to work with a non-Def Jam artist like Common?
No. I’ve got car routes in my deal, so there’s certain things I can work on that’s not in the system, due to long-standing relationships. Common is one of them. People that I’ve had long working relationships with that are at a certain level, [I can work with them]. I can work with gold and platinum artists outside, plus people that I’ve had those long relationships with. It’s not a conflict in that sense.
Is there pressure for you to produce on Def Jam albums now?
It is, but it’s not a pressure in all of the things that I was already working on. The situation worked well, because I was already working on Nas, I was already working on Sean, I could have worked with Pusha T. So that’s just me doing my job anyway. Now I can follow through a little better from an executive place.
Through your career, you didn’t always sell a ton of records. Is there more pressure for you to sell records now?
I never had a publicist and never tried to do anything to make myself get the credit. Rick Rubin was my inspiration. He did a lot for hip-hop and went off in other genres. He’s still doing humongous records, yet you don’t see him in the forefront. You don’t say, “Hey, Rick Rubin got the new Adele” —but he right there doing it.
It’s not like I’m trying to guess or figure it out. I’m humble enough to ask when I don’t know. I know how to work with people and get help. It’s not about me proving anything. When you’re young, you’re still trying to prove you’re good. I’m not trying to prove anything, I’m just trying to get good results. That’s how you have a career. Keep getting good results. It’s less pressure now. It’s actually fun and easy now.
You’ve been around for a long time, but weren’t truly appreciated until the last few years, when Kanye gave you the shoutout on “Big Brother” and then Jay did the same on “D.O.A.” You’re one of the few people who got appreciated late in their career as opposed to early in their career.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that I never had a publicist and never tried to do anything to make myself get the credit. I really was just trying to grow as a human being and as a producer. I always had it mapped out in my head that it would go like that, but I never really knew that it would fully end up going that way. It was kind of amazing to see it happen.
I really mapped it out after [producer and Def Jam co-founder] Rick Rubin. He was my inspiration. I used to study who I wanted to be like, and it was [the late Atlantic Records producer] Tom Dowd and Rick Rubin. They had these really long careers, but they really did a lot for people and music that was not seen.
I like how Rick Rubin did a lot for hip-hop and then went off in other genres. He’s still doing humongous records, yet you don’t see him in the forefront. You don’t say, “Hey, Rick Rubin got the new Adele”—but he right there doing it.
Do you see yourself becoming the President of Def Jam one day?
I’ve heard some of that. That would be me looking ahead. I’m not looking ahead. I’m looking at where my feet are now. I’m gonna be a really good Executive Vice President. If I do this good, then I do this good. [Laughs.] Again, there’s no hustle in my actions. Let me do what I have, and be the best at what I do. If I do this really good, does it even matter who’s the president?
We talking about titles, but what do they even mean? You got more control to do what? You’re getting a little more money? Okay, well I got access to make money. I’m a producer. I have access to sell, grow, and develop artists. I have a label here also. I got everything that I need. I’m not worried about whether I am that or not.
How He Affected Watch The Throne
You mentioned bringing insight into Watch The Throne. In what way did you affect songs like “Otis?”
It was just conversation between me, Jay, Kanye, and a few other people. I think Q-Tip was there. It just came out because they were like, “What do you have for the album?” They played what they had, and I was like, “I don’t know if I have anything with this direction. It’s just not what I do. If I do it I’ve got to really think it out and make it creative—and I don’t have that right now. I don’t even know if I wantto have that right now.”
I was like, 'The sample record that Kanye does with no co-producer, where is that? The record that’s not based on anything else that has that personality that he does.' We challenge each other, so I was like, ''You’re just going to do an album, and you’re not going to do one of those? What’s up?' Kanye was like, 'Okay. I got that,' and they did it a couple days later.
In all fairness though, it wasn’t like I was better than this or that, or that what they were doing wasn’t good. It was just that, at that moment, that wasn’t a path that any of us had done musically, and I didn’t understand why we were going there. I still do records like “I Do It,” so it’s not like an “I’m better than thou” attitude. But at that point, I just felt like, “That’s not what I thought we were going to do.”
A lot of times I’m very outspoken with my opinion, respectfully. At that time, I felt like the album was missing those records—there’s a Kanye element that people want. We can’t get a Kanye/Jay-Z album without that.
Specifically “Otis,” that was the record. I was like, “The sample record that Kanye does with no co-producer, where is that? The record that’s not based on anything else that has that personality that he does.” We challenge each other, so I was like, “You’re just going to do an album, and you’re not going to do one of those? What’s up?”
Kanye was like, “Okay. I got that,” and they did it a couple days later. So I’m not taking credit for it, I’m just saying that from a business perspective, I heard a comment where Barry Weiss was like, “That’s real A&Ring.”
You’re still an outspoken guy...
Well, when necessary. I don’t speak out of place, but if you ask me, I will definitely speak the truth. Also, my opinion is my opinion. I don’t feel the need to force anybody to agree or disagree with me. But if you ask me, I do feel it’s important to speak with confidence about my feelings about whatever the questions are. That’s just being comfortable in your skin and being honest, no matter the outcome of your honesty. It just worked for me in life, not even just music.
Is there a specific instance you remember where you were very outspoken about something?
Yeah, I did it a little on Watch The Throne. Early on, I felt like Jay and Kanye were icons and I told them I didn’t agree, as a fan, with the direction they were going. Everybody’s looking at me like, “Who are you?”
I’m like, “I’m just me, but I want my feelings on the record that I want more from you guys. It’s not even about who does it. I just want more from you icons. I want you guys to push it forward. You’re going to sell, because you’re already big. But you guys are important to push this forward. Push intelligence and decadence and all of the above forward in a creative manner.”
What was their reaction to that?
With people like Jay and Kanye, the people around them have opinions, but their security is being around them. They saw me say, 'I’ll just go do Big Sean while you do that,' and it was more credible at that point, even though we had known each other and worked together.
Sometimes it was, “Yeah, whatever.” Sometimes it was, “You know what? You’re right.” Again, all these things aren’t to act like I made something. I just wanted to be a voice, and sometimes that voice was heard, and sometimes it was ignored.
I had been working with both of them a lot up to the point of making those statements, and then after I made those statements, I just kind of didn’t come around much any more. They were like, “Man, what’s up?”
I was like, “I told you, that’s not where I want to go, and I don’t think y’all should go there.” And I was like, “Yeah. I’ll pass up the money and everything, and I’ll go do something else, because I believe in what I believe in—right or wrong.”
A lot of times with people like that, the people around them have opinions, but their security is being around them. They saw me say, “I’ll just go do Big Sean while you do that,” and it was more credible at that point, even though we had known each other and worked together. It was like, “Wow, you’ll really just go work on that and make that really good? You know what, your points have been earned here.”
That’s interesting that for you it was more about the quality than the look.
I’m past the look. You know why? Because history is the look. The moment is not the look. There’s certain records I did that were really good, but no one talks about them. But I can still get a handshake off of “I Used To Love H.E.R.” I can still get a comment or smile from someone that says, “Man, I appreciate that.” It’s heartfelt and it means something. So those other things help pass the time and make a dollar here and there, but that’s not what I’m here for now.
Is that something you bring as an A&R, challenging artists to be better?
Absolutely. For a lot of these artists, that’s what it’s all about; bringing the fun and the challenge in the workplace, versus making it so calculated about sales and airplay. What about the pursuit of excellence amongst our peers? I like to challenge whoever I’m working with.
Jay-Z even challenges me. He’ll walk in and be like, “What you got? You ain’t got nothing.” I’ll be like, “Oh yeah? I really don’t? What about this right here? What you got for this?” So that’s just an energy and a spirit that really is part of the producing that we don’t get to do in this era, because there’s so many beat tapes. It’s like, “Send me the beat. I’ll just lay something.”
In your new life as an A&R you have to work with artists who might have big egos as their fame grows? How do you manage the egos that you have to deal with?
Jay-Z challenges me. He’ll walk in and be like, 'What you got? You ain’t got nothing.' I’ll be like, 'Oh yeah? I don’t? What about this? What you got for this?' So that’s just an energy and a spirit that really is part of the producing that we don’t get to do in this era, because there’s so many beat tapes.
To really do this you’ve got to have people skills. You’ve got to deal with human beings. That’s just a part of that job and task. It’s no different than if you have to work at any job. It’s still people skills that let you advance. If you’re working where you are, and somebody in your office or system has an ego, how do you deal with it? If you deal with it well, it’s going to lead to success.
I don’t really make much of myself. I don’t have enough ego to care about somebody else’s ego. It really doesn’t matter to me. I’ll come in the room, and I won’t even say who I am, much less say what I did. I’m just Dion. I’m in the room, “Hey, how’s it going?”
If you’re bigger than me, great. If you feel the need to let me know, that’s fine too. When it comes to doing the work or the job, I know what I’m doing, and I’m humble enough to not be the biggest guy in the room all the time. I’m just cool, and I’m comfortable in myself.