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Ex-Slum Village Rapper Elzhi Comes To Pagoda

In Clubs, Music
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Anyone whose knowledge of Detroit hip-hop begins and ends with Eminem would do well to study up on Slum Village. The story of this crew is one of the strangest in modern hip-hop, a sprawling saga that begins in the same world of Motor City battle rap that 8 Mile made famous, and winds up in a bizarre implosion of schizophrenia, mysterious death and one man left to carry on the legacy.

Spoiler alert: that last rapper standing is Elzhi, who performs at Pagoda Lounge in San Jose this week. He had maybe the hardest job ever in Slum Village—replacing J Dilla, arguably the greatest beatmaker of his generation. Some might have thought he was set up to fail, but what Elzhi did with that double-edged opportunity took the group to whole new level.

Born Jason Powers, Elzhi was only 12 when Slum Village was formed in 1991, but as a teenager he saw the trio of rappers behind the group—Dilla, Baatin and T3—battling at open mics like the one hosted by Proof at the Hip Hop Shop on Seven Mile Road (dramatized in 8 Mile and immortalized on Proof’s debut album, I Miss the Hip Hop Shop).

Over the course 1996 and 1997, Slum Village recorded Fantastic, Vol. 1, which was as underground as underground gets. Officially, it never even saw the light of day for eight more years, but with bootlegs everywhere, the Detroit scene went crazy for it. This was almost entirely due to the production from Dilla, who recorded the album in his home studio. It also put the group in the odd position of releasing volume two of Fantastic before they had officially released volume one.

To make things even weirder, they used an alias (J-88) to release Best Kept Secret. Both Fantastic Vol. 2 and Best Kept Secret featured re-workings of songs from their unreleased debut.

Maybe they would have stayed Detroit’s best kept secret if it wasn’t for Dilla’s breakout success as a producer. He was on A Tribe Called Quest’s production team and the group opened on Tribe’s farewell tour, linking them in fans’ minds with the De La Soul/Tribe alt-hop movement.

This was a fair enough assessment sonically, as they had a similarly soulful sound with completely unique beats. But as MCs, they couldn’t touch the depth of Tribe or De La—they just didn’t seem to have much to say.

That’s where Elzhi came in. In 2002, Dilla was focused on his solo career, and Elzhi was brought in to more or less take his place. His lines and rhymes were more complex and interesting, a better match for the always-impeccable production. This single “Tainted” became an underground hit.

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