Interview by Simon Glickman

Super-producer, songwriter and sometime exec No I.D. (aka Dion Wilson) earned the sobriquet “Godfather of Chicago Hip-Hop” due to his early work with—and mentorship of—Kanye West and other Windy City icons. But he's also helmed Grammy-winning work by Jay-Z and Nas and collaborated with the likes of Drake, Rihanna, John Mayer, Ed Sheeran, J. Cole, Big Sean, Common and Bow Wow. He ran West’s G.O.O.D. Music label and was EVP & Head of A&R at Def Jam while running his own imprint, ARTium Recordings (which has since gone indie). That label served as home for breakout Jhené Aiko, who recently earned an Album of the Year Grammy nomination for her 2020 set, Chilombo. Wilson has cultivated another rising R&B star, Snoh Aalegra. In the summer of 2020, he inked a hefty catalog deal with Merck MercuriadisHipgnosis Songs. Why did he agree to answer a bunch of dumb questions from HITS? We have No ID-ea.

Jhené Aiko’s Album of the Year nom was a major affirmation of an artist you’ve fostered from the very beginning.
Yes. Congrats to Jhené and her team, especially [Ketrina] Taz [Askew] and Noah [Preston], on a great job. She was actually my first ARTium signing when I came to Def Jam; to watch her flourish over time has been so fulfilling.

How would you characterize her approach, sonically and as a writer?
I’ve always had a fondness for R&B, and I knew it needed to be redefined, or re-approached, for a new generation because of the way hip-hop is kind of melodic. Maybe this generation doesn't have an affinity for the kind of R&B that leans a little gospel. So Jhené was one of the first people who had the sensibility of a rapper with warm melodies and a non-aggressive approach. She kind of led the way with sophisticated, witty lyrics and fewer runs as a singer.

It seems there’s more of singer/songwriter sensibility to a lot of the new-school R&B—it’s not so much about being an “entertainer.”
Yes. It's a little more about storytelling. Sonically, it’s a little less gospel singing and a little more of a blues approach, where you just sink into really good, hypnotic melodies and voice tones and information, versus looking for the perfect beat. You’re scoring a human as a storyteller versus scoring them more as as a dynamic singer.

What's on your plate now?
I’m just working, always looking for something new. I’ve worked with a lot of my heroes already, so I’m just trying to help generate new heroes. I spend a lot of time now that I'm not in an executive role at a company going as far down in the dirt as possible—looking for things that don't have research, teammates or guidance and trying to help bring them up.

I have pieces of music [I’ve made] that inspire me, maybe to give to bigger artists, but there’s less and less of that. Now it’s more about teaching, grooming and training. I just want to see other types of artists emerge. I’ve always enjoyed that more than just making records.

What are you seeing on the horizon that you think is particularly noteworthy?
There is a ton of talent. But with technology, a kid can just start making music in their room and never have to speak to anyone, and they can come out to the world, which is great. But on the other hand, this separates new people from the information the older generation has that can help bridge the gap between what the new generation is into versus their parents.

True. Sometimes these kids make records in their bedrooms that blow up, but we’ve now seen several instances where an act like that is “one and done.”
Right. It’s almost like if Michael Jackson told Quincy Jones, “Hey, I got this; don't worry about it.” I think it takes a village, and some in the new generation have a disconnect from key people who can really help the village.

Do you think the perfectionism we saw with Michael and Quincy or on Prince’s or Whitney’s records, that scrupulous attention to detail, is going to come back?
Definitely, because so many songs are uploaded every week. Before, you had to beg to get through the gatekeepers to get your music heard. Pretty soon people will think they just need to learn the algorithms, but once that gets overloaded, it’ll come back to who can make the most distinctive product, not just the catchiest product. How can you stand out? How can a person hear you and tell you apart from anyone else within the first five seconds? And that’s where it’s going to take not just great producers but great engineers. Great engineers kind of left the building with rock & roll.

This new crop of R&B acts—Jhené, Snoh, SZA, Summer Walker—brings the kind of sensibilities that really cut through the clutter.
Yes, and that comes with answering questions: Who are you? Who are you talking to? What's the sound that matches that narrative, bringing out the idiosyncrasies and storytelling?

In the industry right now, we lack "record men." I just had this conversation with Puff yesterday, this idea of, where can you go to get a record—not a beat or a topline, a record that will really help you find yourself, develop and move forward.

Yes, there’s so much specialization in record-making now, with people focused on beats or toplines. Who has the view from the mountaintop?
Absolutely. Who’s there to say, “I've been there; these are the roads you can take to get there.”

Let’s talk about your deal with Hipgnosis and how you see that part of the marketplace evolving.
Well, I'll give you my personal viewpoint. For 50 years we’ve operated on this information: You’ve got to keep your publishing; you’ve got to pass it down to the next generation. But the more I know about business and assets, the clearer it becomes that publishing is just one asset. It can go up and down in value. And I looked at the industry and saw the multiples and also what I project the masters to be worth, and I decided it might be time to move my assets around and create more diversity in my catalog, whether that's in real estate, record masters or other things that bring value.

I’ve never viewed songwriting as something I’ll ever stop doing. I just started a couple of new publishing companies, to not only help move people forward in that space but to create new assets and be able to share opportunity with new writers. So I did the Hipgnosis deal because I want the freedom to keep building forward.

You seem to be enjoying your relationship to the creative process in a new way.
Yes. Despite my 10,000 hours as an executive, I'm a creative at heart.

Given what you’ve come to understand about this moment, what are you telling new artists on day one about their careers?
Just that you're always going to be making some type of deal, no matter what you tell yourself. Even putting music through a DSP is a deal; there's money taken out for that service. So it's about evolving your mindset and learning how to build your village to be sustainable over time. So many of our heroes lack sustainability from a life standpoint. Some people just peak so quickly and it's over, and it's generally due to a lack of education.

I talk about making sure you're doing things with passion and a purpose. I'm not really a dollar-driven guy. I do handle my business, but I also believe that you work hard and with the right spirit, and that's the purpose. I'm preparing myself and the people around me to be part of the future of the music industry, and the arts in general, by creating environments where people can learn, be supported and build their village. We're in a hard time right now; people can't just go tour and do the things they used to do. But if you're smart, build a great brand, tell a great story and have a business, you can flourish.

Before I let you go, what new obsessions or interests have you discovered in quarantine?
Oddly enough, it’s been a way for me to get back to something like normal life. I've found myself taking a break and taking the pressure off the hustle and bustle of what we chase every day. Sometimes I look at all the books I've bought and think, 'Well, what am I going to read next?' Or I’ll take a walk—really simple things that I haven't given myself time to do. You can get so caught up in this chase. I always use Prince as an example. He was so ahead of the curve and fighting for ownership and making the right business choices and maintaining control of the music. And then, when we lost him, I began to wonder: Is that the way he wanted his life to go? For the family and the team he passed all this on to—after so much hard work to get it—does it mean the same thing to them?

It makes you ask: What do you want to do with your time and your life? What’s going to make you feel fulfilled and happy? And sometimes you’ve got to pause on the things you don’t need, the distractions. This pause we're taking has given me a chance to live again and do the things generations before me did. It’s balanced me out. I think I'm a happier, more focused person now. And I'll even take it a step further and say that I haven't missed the rat race. You may think the things you acquire will make you happy, but it's not always true.