Illa J Interview

February 18, 2009

illaj Since J Dilla’s death in 2006, everyone has done their part in making sure his legacy continues: artists have recorded tributes and performed in benefit shows, DJs have played his music during their sets, and fans have copped everything from music to T-shirts to show their allegiance to the Detroit superproducer. But who’s better to keep the spirit of J Dilla alive than his own flesh and blood?

Illa J has already shined through cameos on The Boondocks’ Hip-Hop Docktrine Two mixtape and Black Milk’s Caltroit compilation, but his debut album sees him putting family first. On Yancey Boys, the 22-year-old sings and rhymes self-written material over 14 Dilla beats that had been locked down for more than a decade.

Illa J, I can’t help but notice the similarity between your name and your brother’s. How’d that happen?
When I first got out of Central Michigan University and moved back to Detroit, that was the beginning of the whole musical journey as far as physically recording. I always knew I would do it; I just hadn’t done it yet. That was around the time that my brother passed and I realized that life is too short. When you lose something so big you get a whole new meaning. That’s when I started making music.

I was trying to get into the Red Bull music workshop. They had a long pamphlet to fill out and when I got to the end they asked for a name and I didn’t have one. I wanted to pay tribute to my brother because he opened so many doors for me. But I didn’t want to use “Dilla,” and “Little Dilla” sounded so corny. Me and my friend went over a whole bunch of names and came up with Illa J.

Are you a producer also?
I’m more of a songwriter with a vision of a producer. I listen to a lot of musicians; how they orchestrate the instruments, the drums and guitars… It’s weird; I can have a track in my head and work with a producer to get out the sound I want.

Yancey Boys, titled after the last name of you and Dilla, is a compilation of your brother’s beats and your vocals—singing and rapping. Did you make this album to carry the torch for him?
How [Yancey Boys] came about is I met with Mike Ross, the owner/founder of Delicious Vinyl, early 2006 or spring 2007 and he gave me a CD of like 13 tracks on it and he told me to pick a track. At that time he didn’t even know what I could do musically. He just wanted to hear what I had and maybe he would put it on an album because he was working on a compilation album with the various artists who had worked with my brother. The next time I talked to him, in January 2008, I was just recording and I hit him up and he liked the song. He was like, “Why don’t you come play at the club a couple of days from now?” It just happened to be on my brother’s birthday. In a way it was just divine, just seeing things come full circle. He asked, “Why don’t you just do the whole album?”

How many of these classic beats do you have locked away in the vault?
I have a catalog of a lot of his beats. If there’s a special track that I knew he’d want me to use then I’ll use it. For example, this album was almost like it was meant for me to do it. I had never heard these tracks before. All of the stuff is from 1995-98 when he was working with Pharcyde and Delicious Vinyl when he was submitting tracks for remixes. They had just been sitting around because they didn’t know what to do with them.

Would you sell them to other artists?
Right now I’m just letting them stay where they are. If the right person comes along and the situation is right I would.

How do you plan on distinguishing yourself from your brother?
My main thing is to stay true to me. When people listen to the album they’ll hear a lot of similarities, but it’s my brother, so of course our voices are going to sound alike. We’re like clones of our dad. Our dad’s genes are so strong we all look and sound like him. As far as me coming out as a solo artist, some people will like it some may not. Some hardcore Dilla fans, before they even listen to it, are going to be like, “Oh, is it going to be like Dilla?” Some people will understand it but at the end of the day my thing is to focus on my craft.

How did you choose which songs and beats would be put on the album?
That was a hard process because there was like 38 Dilla tracks that were all bangers. [Me and Mike Ross] made a list and broke it down day by day. When we broke it down to about 15 or 16 we were on the same page as far as which ones we liked and which fit my way of writing. When I was listening to the beats it reminded me of 1995, sitting on the stairs listening to my brother make tracks. It also took me back to sitting on the couch watching Pharcyde videos. When I listened to it put me in a whole other zone. I had a natural feel for what I wanted to do.

How has your music changed in the last five years?
I started off writing poetry and I didn’t necessarily have a good understanding of song structure. But with this album I got a good sense of it and I still read different books and listen to different artists like Joni Mitchell. I’m studying the craft of songwriting so I can take my writing to another level for my next album.

Many of the songs on the album are very laid-back. Is this your signature style?
In a sense, yeah. When I came out to California I became a lot more relaxed. I’m freer. When I was in the D there was so much going on I felt like I was in a box. So my earlier songs were a lot more aggressive because I was trying to get out. Now I can do what I really wanted to do with my music.

I really wanted to be a singer and my brother was going to do my tracks. I never got a chance to do that, but I was always into writing. When I was recording I didn’t know how to deliver it right and how to find my voice. You have to have a unique voice and the laidback thing is just me. I’m super laidback. That’s just my style.

Why did you make the move to Cali?
I feel like I’m a lot closer to my brother out here because this was where he was living. I know he was really happy when he got out this way and had space to do his music. When I first came out to visit him we had a fun shopping and hanging out. I love the palm trees. It’s nice out here. Even though Detroit will always be my home, this is like my second home. And when I came out here it wasn’t like I didn’t know anybody because my brother had already established a family out here with all the musicians.

How do you plan to stay connected to Detroit?
My family is there so I visit and get updated on stuff, like when all the Kilpatrick stuff was going on. Even though I’m out here, I’m just a Detroit dude who lives in Cali.

On Yancey Boys, you have a skit called “Alien Family”. Who is the narrator on this track and what is the meaning of it?
Frank from Frank N Dank, a group my brother produced for. They are like brothers to me. Frank is introducing me because some people think that when my brother died I just appeared.

Frank is talking about Dilla collecting alien paraphernalia and having a fascination for them. What is that all about?
[laughs] My brother is on some weird stuff. He’s a genius in his own right. It’s hard to even explain. He’d have the pendulum thing that represents Newton’s Law– It was a physics thing. It’s hard to explain… Frank used to always joke around and say we were aliens. Dilla might be an alien.

Oh, so you’re just going to put it on him? What about you? I think you’re an alien too and you’re trying to cover it up.
[laughs] Honestly, I think all my family is geniuses and I’m just the laidback one.

Your debut single is “R U Listenin” featuring Guilty Simpson, but you have another single from the album called “We Here”. Why did you choose to debut “We Here” as well?
Actually my girl picked out that track. I had accidentally skipped over it while listening to the CD. She went back to the ones she liked and that was the first track. I was like “Whoa, how did I miss that?” It put a little more life into the album and it moved it forward a little bit.

Your album was released on Nov. 4th, which was Election Day—the day that Barack Obama was elected the first black man to become president. Was this album release planned to coincide with this day?
The album was supposed to come out in the summer, but we needed more time for promotion. I didn’t think about it at the time. It’s just crazy for the album to come out on such a historical day. It’s a day I could never forget because of Obama, so it’s definitely special that it came out on November 4th.

I think it’s funny that it’s coincidence that your album comes out on that day and you have a single saying “We Here”. “We Here” could actually be on the Obama Election Day soundtrack.

What are your views on the political climate change?
One thing I like about Obama is that he brought in people who don’t usually care about politics or pay attention to it. There are people who voted who had never voted before. In a sense, I believe it will help our reputation as a country all around the world. I think it will start to bring people together. We made history with the first black president on Nov. 4th, but the day after is the time for people to make change in their own lives. Just like the change we’re about to make all around the world. It’s time for people to start at home and say, “It’s time for me to step my game up now.” We have to work together now because times are hard we have to work together to get out of it.

How can hip-hop change America even more than it already has?
One thing that I tried to do in my album: I was truly an artist with it and put my heart and soul into it. When I went over to Europe last year it gave me a whole new meaning for what this music thing is all about. I was in Paris and there were people who were speaking French and all different languages but they knew all the words to my brother’s songs. They don’t even know the language, but they know the words. I’m like, “Wow! My brother is inspiring people all around the world and he’s all the way in Detroit.” In a sense, I know what my mission is now. Like I said on my song “Strugglin,” I’ve been given a gift, but I’ve got a responsibility with that gift and my job is to inspire. That’s what it’s about to me.

Are there any issues that you are trying to change or topics you want to spotlight through your music?
One thing is originality. Just being you. You can only be the best you that you can be. People get caught up into the whole [mainstream music] thing where you follow one formula and try to make money while you can while it’s in style. Then after that it’s like, “Okay, let me drop you and get some more gimmicks.” I want to get back to where people have respect for the music that they’re doing, and all the music in the past, and all the artists before them that opened up the door for them to do what they’re doing today. Have that love and passion for the music, and at least respect. Just like J Dilla is going to be the only J Dilla, I’m going to be the best Illa J that I can be. I’m just trying to inspire people not to be afraid to be themselves. And also be more open-minded.

What is one lesson that J Dilla taught you that will always stick with you?
Do you. Be yourself. Another thing, I was trying to DJ at one point and I asked him to teach me. He hooked up the mixer and two turntables to the speakers and said, “Okay, now practice it.” That’s how I learned.

Yancey Boys can be purchased at all chain and local stores, iTunes, and

1 Comment »

  1. Joe Hooligan says:

    February 18th, 2009 at 4:24 pm

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