Dion "No I.D." Wilson is not a star, but he makes stars. It's in his name that he's not here to be the face of the music he makes. He wants the music to speak for itself, or to facilitate the growth of an artist. For a couple of years now, he's been the incubator for up-and-coming artists. He was the one who saw the raw talent of Big Sean and mentored him into a star rolling into his second album.
We got on the horn with the Chicago producer to talk about how Big Sean’s "Control" came together, who he's been working with, and what kind of role he likes to take in the industry. In the process we learned that "Control" was actually meant to go to Jay Z, that Sean in fact did not re-write his verse after hearing Kendrick's, and that No I.D. is pretty much tired of doing interviews.
Interview by Alexander Gleckman (@andfeedingyou)
What are some of the projects you're working on right now?
I’ve been working on Big Sean. I’ve been working my artists, with my label. Got a lot of new stuff with Jhene Aiko, Logic. I’m just trying to bring to some new energy in, a couple new names. And then my normal round of rap people that I work with.
How do you go about discovering new music or new artists?
Usually just word of mouth. I’m not an Internet searcher.
So one of your friends might tell you?
Yeah I usually listen to the real world. I’m not too fond of the matrix. Usually talented writers lead me to talented people. I try to keep it personal where I can meet people, share their energy, see what they’re like in person.
Are you listening to anything out of Chicago right now?
I wouldn’t say I’m listening to, but I would just say keep my eyes on it. I was actually just out here working with the kid, Lil Herb in L.A. right now. He’s actually in the studio right now with Da Internz. One of our artists Mikkey Halsted reps Lil Herb.
One of the big records you’ve had recently was Big Sean’s “Control.” What is the story behind that record?
I had a conversation with Sean towards the end of his album. I told him, I felt like he needed to do some straight, hardcore hip-hop records. Sometimes we focus so much on selling records that we leave some artistic points uncovered.
I had a conversation with Big Sean towards the end of his album. I told him, I felt like he needed to do some straight, hardcore hip-hop records. Sometimes we focus so much on selling records that we leave some artistic points uncovered.
I had this beat. I had actually done it for Jay, right before I let [Sean] hear it. I said, “You should take this beat, I think it would be great for you to show up on one of these beats, forget money, forget everything.”
For a while—I’d say, since Common’s “Ghetto Dreams”—I’ve been on a hip-hop crusade. To try and just bring that energy back that I felt was not present. I just wanted him to show up on one of those beats and then he did a freestyle to it.
He was like, “I’m gonna drop it as a freestyle.” I was like cool. Then he was like, “Yo, I’m gonna get Jay Electronica on it.” I was like, “Okay, cool.” Anyway, that’s where “No I.D. (Freestyle)” comes from, it was a No I.D. beat and he was freestyling. It didn’t have a chorus, it wasn’t intended to be a full song even.
There was some skepticism about whether or not Big Sean rewrote his verse after hearing Kendrick’s.
Yes. He didn’t. I can say one thing, he re-rapped it, he did not re-write it.
The idea of longevity seems important to you. How do you think Kanye West’s Yeezus and Jay Z’s Magna Carta...Holy Grail fit into the longevity of their respective artists?
I’ve never been a mega-star. I’m more of a tastemaker of hip-hop. I try to be more of an ambassador for the era of hip-hop that I came in. So sometimes the answer to that question is relative to what you’re representing. I think they represent a different place that I’ve never been.
There’s so many things that Kanye does that I agree with and disagree with at times. I just say, “You’re in a different place and what you’re doing is experimental. Nobody’s been there in hip-hop.” Jay as well. I’ve kind of taken my magnifying glass off and more so I just enjoy it or not. I just know what I like and don’t like.
That’s ultimately what matters right?
Yeah, ultimately how many people can you get to like it? We make music to be liked, enjoyed, danced to, recited, remembered, felt. I think time will tell on all those things.
You and Rick Rubin seem to take this similar function—in the middle of some project, an artist will call you up and ask your opinion on the whole thing. And based on what you think, they might change the whole direction of the project. Is that accurate?
Well, for years, I said Rick Rubin was one of my models that I base my career off of. So one thing I can say, is, some of the things, I didn’t carbon copy him, I was on my way and I was like, “Wait a minute, he did this. There’s a good road map over there.” I definitely shared a lot of the same thoughts and by default played that role in a lot of situations.
You’ve played many roles, DJ, rapper, producer, A&R. Do you self-identify with one role first and foremost?
There was a time period when I felt when I wasn’t growing. Maybe I was growing creatively, but not business-wise. I went down to Atlanta, me and Jermaine Dupri started to work together. I used to wonder what was his secret to success.
One thing I saw was that he had a radio show, he was a DJ, he liked to dance in the clubs, he had his own label, he worked at a label, he wrote songs, he rapped. He did every aspect of music so he kind of knew the perspective of each place. He knew what he could and couldn’t dance to, what he would play as a DJ. He understood what the goal was at each checkpoint. They all play hand in hand.
You seem like a busy guy. It took a little while to get a hold of you.
Well, let me clarify that, actually. I think I’m at a place right now where I’ve done too many interviews. You know, the artists are supposed to be the stars. I don’t want to be that guy. I want to be a producer. I was kind of shy in a way.
I just want to do music and live life and let the songs have the life. I like the fact that “Control” got out there and we talked to the artists and I didn’t jump out there and say “Yeah! You know I did the beat!” It’s getting old for me to see and do it, I just want to do music.
You want it to speak for itself.
Yeah, I just want to work on new music and make some new stars. I’m not interested in being a star. I’m not interested in anything besides making some good music, helping some artists, being an executive. I’m pretty happy with that. I’m anti-what’s going on. I think it’s too much about everything except the artist and songs.
There’s so many things that Kanye does that I agree with and disagree with at times. I just say, “You’re in a different place and what you’re doing is experimental. Nobody’s been there in hip-hop.” Jay as well.
When you're speaking with a producer, you really get a sense of the process.
I agree with what you’re saying. But like, how far do we go in this business? I feel like it’s genuine to me when it’s genuine. Sometimes, you know, it gets a little, extra-marketing level. But I agree with you that, when you’re talking to a creator, it’s a great thing. But sometimes, that’s not what everybody’s intention is. It’s to make more noise and make more money. But actually, I did this interview with you because I like to be specific here and there, for a few things things to talk about, rather than trendy things or self-promotion.
What can you say to up-and-coming producers who have this choice between staying behind the scenes and making a brand of themselves?
That’s a good one. First I would say, make sure you’re really good at what you do. Study the history of the people that are who you want to be like. Just remember that being popular doesn’t mean you’re good. If you want to make money, that’s great, but if you make great music, you’re going to make money anyway. Keep your eyes on making a great product. You don’t even have to promote it.
We’re seeing Rick Rubin in front of the camera a lot this year. He’s been here. He doesn’t go out of style. He shows up when he wants to, it actually works to his advantage. I want to be like that. For those who want to be like that, don’t be afraid. Don’t feel like you have to be the loudest person in the room to be effective. Just be the best to you can be, at what you’re doing. You make some good music, people are gonna find you.