It's already apparent that Baatin's legacy is bound to share the same path as J Dilla's: an artist who radically pushed the boundaries of his art, whose due only comes after it's too late. Indeed, it's more than just mere coincidence that the two started out in the same group.
To the mainstream music press, Baatin, a founding member of Slum Village, was little more than a footnote after his July 31st passing. Go to the hip-hop sites, though, and you'll find that it's impossible to miss tributes to his life and work. Instantly recognizable as the dude with the head-wrap and "what's up doc?" delivery, he was an emcee with deep love and reverence for hip-hop, convinced of its relevance and versatility.
He was born Titus Glover in 1974. The Detroit that he would come up in was quickly transitioning from "Motor City" to one of the most economically devastated areas in the country. It's easy to draw a connection between the hardship faced by the city and its offer of some of the most diverse and expansive acts in hip-hop today. In the late '90s and early 2000's, Slum Village's presence would prove essential to this dynamic array.
Khalid el-Hakim, who runs Detroit's Black History 101 Mobile Museum called Baatin "a very spiritual brother. He brought a spirituality to Detroit hip-hop that you didn't see with other artists. That's what he was known for."
This spirituality was an integral part of Slum Village from the beginning. Along with Dilla and T3, Baatin created a subtle combination of street swagger, introspection and flat-out fun. The early praise they would receive from artists like Q-Tip gained them a quick place among the hip-hop vanguard. And though their first album, 1997's Fan-Tas-Tic (Vol. 1), wouldn't be officially released until 2005 (thanks to the demise of A&M Records and the ensuing legal troubles), it would become one of the most sought after records in the underground scene.
Categorizing the feel of Vol. 1 is a futile pursuit. It simply doesn't fit neatly into any specific style or sub-genre. And damned if that isn't what makes it such a gem! The whole album is an experiment in minimalism that still somehow manages to stick to be rich and intricate. The beats, the rhymes--none of it is over-hyped here, and yet there's never a question that they're going for gold throughout the whole record.
There was a lot of blither-blather about "rap's new direction" by the time Fantastic Vol. 2 dropped in 2000, and though Vol. 1 was still locked in record company hell, the bubbling buzz about SV among folks in the know reveals that they had already contributed to this shift.
Testament to how far Slum's influence had spread can be seen in the story of "Raise It Up," the last single off Vol. 2, and perhaps the group's best-known song. Dilla had swiped the beats for the track from a bootleg of Daft Punk's "Extra Dry," simmering the sharply punctuated synth line to a vaguely faded chillness underneath the trio's flow. When word reached the French electro duo that their track had been ripped, they didn't demand payment. Instead, they simply asked for SV to remix Daft Punk's "Aerodynamic." The reason? They happened to be devoted fans of Slum Village!
Though it might be easy to hang Slum's influence on Dilla's beats alone, the group were always a cohesive unit, with no one element being complete without the rest. Baatin's distinctive voice was just as much a part of this.
UK hip-hop commentator Phillip Mlynar remembers the affect Baatin had on him upon listening to Vol. 2: "I remember buying the album and listening to is solidly for a couple of months (this being the days when you'd leave home with two or three carefully selected albums to see you through the day), and over that time lines from Baatin--the cat with the weirdly warped and textured vocal tone--became permanently ingrained in that part of the mind that catalogues rap lines."
Baatin's penchant for the left-field kept Slum Village strong even after Elzhi after Dilla left in 2002. By the time Trinity came out that year, SV had finally gotten some notes. Their hard-to-peg sound meant that they weren't rocketing to the top like some others, but that didn't stop some presses like the Phoenix New Times from declaring that "Slum Village is going to single-handedly save hip-hop."
Unfortunately, Dilla's departure was only the first in a series of setbacks for the group--and for Baatin in particular. Directly before the release of 2004's Detroit Deli, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and stepped out to seek treatment. With two out of three original elements now gone, T3 and Elzhi continued as a duo.
To call the timing of Baatin's death tragic would be a vast understatement. Four years after leaving the group, he re-joined Slum in the studio to record Villa Manifesto. Though it's unclear whether the album was finished at the time of Baatin's passing, it still promises a mind-boggling offering. Ever-conscious of stretching the parameters of their music, SV brought in just about everything they could get their hands on. On top of featuring guest producers like Black Milk, Wajeed and Pete Rock, Manifesto will also feature unused Dilla beats and even contributions from his little brother, Illa J.
In an unprecedented move, SV also posted a request for beats by unsigned producers on Okayplayer.com, planning to include a few lucky winners on the new album. In the end, over 400 artists submitted. This reverence for the fresh, the new, the undiscovered is what has always guided Slum's evolution.
And then, there was the promise of Baatin's well-humored return to the mic. Fans of the classic SV lineup were no doubt excited for Villa Manifesto. Now, with Baatin gone, a shadow is bound to be cast over what should have been a cause for celebration.
"With Baatin passing there is no doubt tribute sets with intensify," wrote Davey D on his blog. "I can only imagine what Baatin's passing means to a city like Detroit with is still mourning the deaths of J-Dilla and Proof, who was the unofficial mayor of Motorcity. How has it affected people's psyche?"
How has it affected all of our psyches? With hip-hop in yet another transition, with artists yet again tooling around and aching to break the boundaries, the presence of Baatin and Slum Village serve as a lightning rod. In these impending changes, Baatin will most likely be remembered as a crucial influence. It's just a shame that this is only recognized after his death. History has a funny way of remembering its trailblazers.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist and cultural critic living in Chicago, is a regular columnist for SleptOn.com and the Society of Cinema and Arts. He has also appeared at PopMatters.com, Socialist Worker, ZNet and CounterPunch.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.