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.”