Date: July 24, 2013

DJ, producer, composer, and arranger Robert “Waajeed” O’Bryant has four titles but speaks in triads. Things aren’t dope; they’re “dope, dope, dope.” Something isn’t heavy, but “really, really, really” heavy. It’s symbolic of his passion for just about everything in life, which is tempered only by the reality of growing up in the city of Detroit.

“If it weren’t for music, I’d be dead or in jail,” he says candidly from his current home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a long way from Arlington Street, between McNichols and Nevada on the Motor City’s east side. His brother was a gangster; their parents hustled weed and threw backyard parties with George Clinton and Juan Atkins records. “Even now, there are times when I want to handle a situation on some ghetto shit and I have to stop myself and think, ‘What am I doing? I’m leaving for Japan tomorrow.’”

Professionalism has taught Waajeed the importance of self-control, but it was a timely lack of restraint that ignited his career in 1998. He was an accomplished visual artist on scholarship at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, and a few childhood friends who had formed a hip-hop group, signed their first record deal and were embarking on a European tour. The crew was Slum Village, and Waajeed was instrumental in helping them turn local buzz into international acclaim. He was invited to tag along and faced with a decision that, in his eyes, wasn’t much of a decision at all. Most young men of his type tended to only travel overseas in service to the United States military, and based on statistics and standards of the streets—living in Detroit, growing up in the hood—neither Waajeed nor his Slum Village family were supposed to be alive. They had already lived a lifetime compared to most, and Waajeed was determined not to become another “could of” or “should of” story he had heard so many times before. “I vacated school,” he recalls, “and traveled Europe with my dogs.”

Upon returning to the States, Waajeed was mentored by late Slum Village rapper and producer James Yancey, better known to the world as J Dilla. Inheriting an MPC 2000 from Yancey, he began producing on his own, recording some of his first songs with fellow Detroiters Elzhi and Dwele, and contributing heavily to Slum Village’s Trinity album in wake of Yancey’s departure from the group. In 2001, he established his own imprint, the Bling47 Group, while a quest for Drum Crazy break LP distribution in Detroit led to a recording deal with Ubiquity Records and the formation of the Platinum Pied Pipers (PPP) with Darnell “Saadiq” Bolden.

In 2003, PPP released its debut “Ridin’ High”/“Open Your Eyes” single, and two years later, the full-length Triple P. Triple P, with production contributions from instrumentalists Mystro and Mark de Clive-Lowe, and features from Sa-Ra Creative Partners, Steve Spacek, and hometown MCs Ta’Raach (aka Lacks) and Invincible, earned the duo widespread industry acclaim as well as aided in launching the careers of Georgia Anne Muldrow and Tiombe Lockhart. On Abundance, the 2009 follow-up to Triple P, the talents of up-and-comers Coultrain, Karma Stewart, and Jamila Raegan were on display as Waajeed expanded the group’s sound in reflection of inspiration garnered from countless remix projects, world tours, and collaborations with artists such as Cee-Lo, Estelle, Jazmine Sullivan, Raheem DeVaughn, and Daniel Merriweather.

2010 and beyond finds Waajeed still in lofty collaborative company, musically (Diddy, Mayer Hawthorne), but also broadening expertise in videography and continuing his work on the lecture circuit, including a four-year relationship with the Red Bull Music Academy and an appearance at the 2010 Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival’s Bodega Education Initiative in support of his mentor and friend, J Dilla. The forthcoming PPP3 album and projects with “Mad” Mike Banks, Karizma, Ana Tijoux, and Invincible are certain to keep the still-emerging producer grounded and on the right path, no matter how much the business of music and its frustrations occasionally threaten to expose rugged, Hockeytown roots.

“I don’t think I really had a choice,” he says when asked why he chose music over art. “I think I’m a good producer, and an incredible artist, yet music definitely picked me. I didn’t pick it.” For Waajeed, it was a means of getting out of Detroit and to a place where he could live out his dreams; but first, he had to survive. Music was survival. Just getting to this point has been a hustle, and it’s a hustle with no end in sight.