Capitol Records’ Dion ‘No I.D.’ Wilson on Producing Jay-Z’s ‘4:44’ and Finding Diamonds in the Rough

Capitol Records No ID Portrait
Shayan Asgharnia for Variety

Walking into Dion “No I.D.” Wilson’s office in the Capitol Records Tower, you might think he’s new to his job as you take in the bare walls, a mound of unopened boxes with “Dion” scrawled in black marker sitting near the door, a desk but no computer in sight.

In truth, the producer was named executive vice president of Capitol Music Group last May, tasked with shoring up the Universal Music Group company’s urban roster during a time when hip-hop is dominating the explosive streaming sector.

Wilson is certainly up for the task, and it’s not surprising he hasn’t had much spare time for interior decorating. After two decades as one of hip-hop’s preeminent stealth tastemakers — best known as an early producer of Common and a longtime mentor of Kanye West — multiple strands of Wilson’s professional life seemed to dramatically crest in 2017. He produced every song of Jay-Z’s June album “4:44,” which accrued eight Grammy nominations, including record, song and album of the year, as well as a producer of the year nom for himself. In addition, two artists he helped develop at his previous gig as a top A&R executive at Def Jam came into their own: Alessia Cara and rapper Logic will go up against Jay-Z for song of the year, with Cara also nominated for best new artist.

Indeed, No I.D. is having a moment, even at a juncture in life when, the 46-year-old says, his career should be fading. “At my age, it’s supposed to be over for me,” he says. “So I had to treat it as though it were over, and then approach it as though that were an advantage. ‘If I didn’t have a career, what would I do?’ I would try to learn.”

For guidance, he looked to one of the most decorated music men of the last century: Quincy Jones. In fact, as sparse as Wilson’s office may be, the 2010 tome “Q on Producing” is prominently displayed, almost as a reminder to remain a student. “I started studying his career,” Wilson says of Jones. “I was trying to figure out how, at that age, he made the best albums of his [life]. And he wrote that, in his mid-40s, he decided he wanted to get better, so he went and took piano lessons. He did all these things, and his only goal was to get better as a musician.”

For Wilson, that meant reevaluating his approach in two key ways. The first: reapplying himself to his primary musical tool, the sampler. “I tried to embrace the concept of the sampler as an instrument, looking at how to take it artistically to another place where it can be appreciated, more than just taking someone’s song and doing a 4-bar loop,” he says. Over the course of four months, Wilson created 500 pieces of music — he calls the exercise “performance based” and likens it to that of a rock band jamming and experimenting, rather than a hip-hop producer aiming for a hot track to shop around.

Second, he looked beyond the model of modern hip-hop and pop producing, trying to better understand the position producers — particularly Jones but also Tom Dowd, Rick Rubin and Bob Ezrin — played in classic rock and even country, where the roles of creator and executor were more clearly defined.

“Part of it was learning that a producer needs to get out of the way and let the artist have the spotlight,” he says. “There’s the way modern music is produced, which is ‘Here’s a piece of music, and I’m the producer, so pay me and make sure my credit is right and get me my splits.’ But I’m trying to go backward. Now, it’s more like ‘What’s the texture? What’s the over-arching story?’ There are more things to pay attention to than ‘Is this the right snare?’”

Wilson notes that “4:44” was the first project he made with this ideal in mind: “I didn’t want you to hear it and think ‘No I.D.,’ I wanted you to hear it and think ‘4:44.’” He says he and Jay never actually discussed the idea that he would produce the entire album — “we didn’t talk about credit, didn’t talk about money.” Instead, he simply kept sending the rapper a daily stream of musical ideas. What developed was what Wilson describes as an almost telepathic partnership, with Wilson aiming to alternately inspire and provoke.

For the album’s purgative title track, in which Jay addresses and apologizes for the marital transgressions that fueled wife Beyoncé’s shaken-and-spurned “Lemonade,” Wilson didn’t directly ask the artist to tackle the delicate topic. Instead, he assembled the track to serve as a guidepost, building a beat out of British singer Hannah Williams’ tearjerker “Late Nights & Heartbreak,” sampling her mournful voice in the intro as she sings, “I’m letting you down every day.”

No I.D., who produced Jay-Z’s multiple-Grammy-nominated album “4:44,” surveys Hollywood from the roof of the Capitol Records Tower.

“When I made the song, I knew what I wanted him to say, and I knew we’d purposefully avoided it on every other record,” Wilson remembers. “So I just put [the sample] there and said, ‘Whatchu gonna do now?’ and looked at him. He looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘You know what I mean. Whatchu gonna do?’ I put that intro there on purpose, to box him in. And he said, ‘All right, I’m going home.’ And there was a song after that.”

Long-lasting relationships, whether corporate or musical, are something of a constant in Wilson’s career, his burgeoning partnership with Jay-Z being only the most recent. Born and raised in Chicago, the 9-year-old Wilson met a neighborhood kid named Lonnie Lynn Jr. in a grade school basketball league, and would later produce the lion’s share of his first three records as he took on the name Common Sense, later shortened to Common. (The soft-spoken, low-key Wilson initially pictured himself rapping alongside his childhood friend, “but I don’t think I ever had that rapper personality,” he says. “A few times on the stage, and I went, ‘Yeah … not me.’”) Later, Wilson’s mother helped introduce him to an ambitious local high schooler named Kanye West; Wilson took him under his wing and taught him how to make music.

It wasn’t until after West became a superstar in the early 2000s that Wilson, then in his mid-30s, began to see the “Produced by No I.D.” credit attached to monster tracks by the likes of Drake, Rihanna, Big Sean and Kanye. And of course, Jay-Z. The two men first met back in the late 1990s — at the time, Jay was just setting up the headquarters of his Roc-A-Fella Records imprint, and he and Wilson conversed while sitting on boxes in the empty office space. They ran in similar circles for years, periodically collaborating. But it still took a while for their personal relationship to fully gel.

“I have a Chicago personality, which means that just because I’m friends with one person I don’t assume I’m friends with his friends,” Wilson says with a laugh. “So for years Jay and I would pass each other, and I would just think about trying not to intrude on his space. Which made him think I was just this mean, rude guy who didn’t talk to him. So when we worked on this album and finally spent a lot of time together, one day he turns to me and says: ‘You know, you’re actually, like, a really nice person. I had no idea.’”

Wilson’s relationship with Jay wasn’t the only thing that changed for the producer over the past year. A free agent after his half-decade run at Def Jam, Wilson was soon courted by Capitol chairman Steve Barnett as the person who could revive the historic hip-hop imprint Priority Records. “No I.D. coming in was a big move for us,” says Barnett. “It underlined our commitment to urban music, and I needed someone legendary in that category.”

Today, CMG is home to au courant hip-hop acts like Migos and Lil Yachty, via an alliance between Motown and Quality Control, but silos are not the way of the future, and Wilson hopes to help “modernize” the label’s distribution apparatus. Before he tackles the machinations of a major label, however, he’s focused on “breaking that first artist and then thinking about the second,” says Wilson, looking to his record of elevating raw talent — from Jhené Aiko and Vince Staples to Cara and Logic — as he strives to keep finding diamonds in the rough.

“I take a lot of pride in helping people become great,” he says. “I think that’s an element of being a producer that people don’t always take in: They want to be great for themselves, whereas I’d like to be recognized as having helped the most people get over the hump.”

Speaking of Logic and Cara’s Grammy-nominated song “1-800-273-8255” in particular, he says: “To see them two come together and do something amazing, that’s a trophy to me. I’m glad I could help those people have the freedom to do what they do, because that’s a bigger fight in a corporate business; we’re so research and numbers driven, but what about that special person over there who has nothing? Can we arm them? Can we give them their space? That’s more fun to me than making big records.”