As various celebrations paying tribute to Hip Hop legendary J Dilla kick off around the nation, there isn’t an artist letting the flag of the iconic producer fly as high as Illa J. And, why wouldn’t he? Besides being ushered into the rap game by the late great Detroit vanguard, the fraternal bond virtually demanded it. For a large portion of his career, John Yancey spent a large portion of his career split between work alongside a post-Dilla Slum Village and attempting shots at a solo career. Even his first full-length solo project Yancey Boys featured unreleased beats from the Hip Hop icon. Forming his own identity nearly became impossible.
Fast forward to now and Illa J has done an admirable job of balancing the legacy inherited responsibly and carving out his own lane. 2015 couldn’t have served as a better example of that. Slum Village’s YES! project showed his allegiance to the past. According to DX contributor Jesse Fairfax, “YES! manages to squash complaints that the Slum Village brand is no longer what it once was.” Around the same time, his sophomore self-titled album proved he could create captivating music sans anything directly related to his older brother through work with emerging Canadian production duo Potatohead People. Regardless, the soul of Dilla remains and isn’t leaving anytime soon if Illa J has anything to say about it.
During a morning conversation at Los Angeles’ popular Hip Hop inspired Delicious Pizza, DX speaks with Illa J about everything from positivity Dilla Day brings and moving to Montreal.
Illa J Appreciates The Annualization Of Dilla Day
DX: You’ve been a busy man early into the year.
Illa J: Man it’s about to be a busy, busy year. It’s starting off with the ten-year anniversary since my brother passed so there are a lot of tributes going on. I’m doing a tour in Europe. It’s going to be called the Never Left Tour. It’s kind of like showing tribute to my brother like he never left. In a sense, it’s the same thing about my career. I feel like there’s a new beginning for me too. It’s like, I never left. At the same time, my brother never left either. We’re doing Europe and some spots in Canada. I know Japan and Australia are coming so this year is going to be crazy man. We just finished up the new album. So, I’m just keeping it going man.
DX: Even out here in L.A. we’re having Dilla Day. How do you feel about Dilla Day turning into an anticipated holiday in Hip Hop?
Illa J: It’s good because it turned into a positive. Yeah, I still have moments when it’s that time or whatever, but it’s good to see all the tributes going on. It makes it a celebration instead of a sad thing. It’s unfortunate that it took this day for the world to get what he was doing. There were people already on it, but I feel like when he passed, this is when people really began to fully appreciate the legacy and music that Dilla put out. It’s good to have tributes, I think it’s awesome.
DX: Dilla is seen as one of the greatest producers in Hip Hop history, but he’s still your brother.
Illa J: For me, I only see the artist because I’m in the industry and have to directly deal with it. It’s like, at first, when I started to do press and stuff and talk about J Dilla, it was weird because I would never call my brother Dilla or anything like that. More than anything, I just miss having my brother around the most. Musically, it’s whatever because we all grew up doing music from my mom to pop. Music was just a natural thing. It was how we communicated. More than anything, I miss my brother.
DX: Last year you had your self-titled project along with the some work with Potatoe Head People and the Slum Village Yes project. Sounded like a turning point in your solo career.
Illa J: It was really big for me. I see it as a great year. It was the first time for me to put out my solo record that didn’t have any beats from my brother. Also, being able to showcase different things that I could do that people have never got to see from me. Tracks like “Universe” and “Sunflower,” I didn’t have that on previous albums singing like that except for “Timeless.” Even then, all the tracks after that on my first album Yancey Boys were geared more toward my rapping. In some kind of way, I misrepresented myself because yes, I do rap and been writing raps forever since I was eight or nine years old. But, I’ve always been a singer first. I feel like I didn’t do it enough. I sung on tracks but didn’t do it in a way to tell people that I was a singer that also raps. I feel like on this project, I defined the line a little bit to where people could see it. I feel like I’ve been put in a box where I have to make underground Hip Hop. To me, I don’t see myself making music that fits into categories. I just make music. Just so happens that Hip Hop is one of those things where I grew up in it makes it ingrained in me. Even if I do a rock track, it’ll have some type of Hip Hop in it.
DX: Even your solo project Illa J last year had a very soulful feel to it that seems in line with previous works. Where does that come from?
Illa J: For me it’s just a genuine love for music. For me, that’s what the soul is. If you listen to a track and hear the soul of it, it’s because the artist is doing it for the right reasons. You’ll hear a lot of songs on the radio. Like, I listen to all types of music. I like trap beats and all. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s dope. For me, though, the turn-off for me is when I hear it and you can tell the artist is in the studio is wanting to make a specific record like this. They sacrifice their originality and soul to get a record played on the radio. To me, as long as you’re having fun and making music that they can feel, it comes out genuine. For me, that’s the soul because it’s coming directly from that person.
Illa J Explains Balancing Expectations & Artistic Ambitions
DX: As you mentioned earlier, Illa J was the first project without beats from Dilla. How did you balance your own ambitions for originality while keeping the lessons you learned from him?
Illa J: I learned from my brother that no matter who I’m influenced by, make sure whatever I create comes out as me. It’s ok to be influenced by something, but you don’t want to do the same thing someone else did. I learned that from my brother. Now I’m like, I’ll like an idea but when I do it, it’s me. Yeah, you can say it was influenced by something, but you know it’s me. Another thing is the pocket. It’s a certain swing in his music whether it was one of his soul beats or electronic beats. He had all types of styles. What all of his beats had in common was that there was a certain swing in the pocket that makes you feel a certain way. It’s all funky, though. Like you never want to go to the studio because you feel like to, you have to want to be there to be better. That’s what I learned from my brother was work ethic. It’s natural when you do something that you love.
DX: You got a project in the works this year. What’s the plan?
Illa J: Right now, shout out to my homie Calvin Valentine, he produced my whole next project. He raps and sings too, but he does a lot of production work. He’s a super dope producer and this album is just nothing like the one I just dropped. It’s a different sound. However, for people I grew up listening to, it’s a natural progression. I find it weird when you listen to somebody and they sound the same. That’s weird to me. Even if one project is wack, you still appreciate it because they took a step out and tried something.
DX: That balance becomes a difficult dilemma for artists.
Illa J: Right, it’s a balance. I feel good about this project. With each project, it’s almost like a journey back to my heart. journey back to me. I feel like this album, especially the last one, really represents me and my eclectic music taste. Not in a sense that I wasn’t me before. When you start off, you’re still discovering your voice as an artist. You’re just excited just to be making music. You have people who have amazing first albums and that’s awesome. For me, I was still discovering my voice at the time and grieving my brother by wanting to pay tribute to him while trying to do my own thing. Now I’m at the point where I’m doing my own thing and Dilla’s like you spent ten years trying to hold up my name, you’re good, just do you. It’s definitely a good time and the Never Left tour is going to be a good tour. Now shows are more fun now because I have a band. When I initially first started and got my first deal, I was playing my keys and singing and rapping then. For some reason, I never fully incorporated that into my show until the last year and a half. Now, I stepped up my show because I want it to be an experience. Yeah, you can come and see someone do songs, but they can just listen to the album at home. I rather give people an experience. I want people to see the instrumentation and vibe on stage. It’s going to be a fun year.
Illa J Says That Move To Montreal Changed His Career Trajectory
DX: You’ve taken up residency in Montreal. Did the move do anything to your approach to music?
Illa J: First, it was one of those things where it was good for me to go to Montreal because I needed to step away from the musical nest that I came up in. Me coming up in the industry, I had the J Dilla nest and Slum Village nest. It was almost like me stepping out of the nest and doing things on my own outside of that. I’ve been living there going on two years now. I needed to step out because, it’s one of those things where to make it in my career, I have to go and do something on my own. Regardless, I’ll always be connected to certain things and if I hadn’t done that, then people would always just say that the only reason I was on was because of this. I’m way the fuck over here now. You can’t say that I’m using this or that. I did a whole album with two dope ass producers from Vancouver. It’s a different sound now. It still has the swing of my brother, though. Of course, I’m going to have that because it’s a certain pocket that I grew up singing and rapping to. I know where to find that sound. If I just hear it, I know. It’s just the way my brother guided me. It’s certain things I learned in terms of popular music. Naturally, I’m going to go toward music with the same pocket I understand. Not necessarily making the same beats, but it’s a certain approach. I think that’s one of those things that’s a duty of an artist. They look over that part. Picking beats is such an important part. It’s a lot of dope rappers that don’t go far because they don’t pick the right producers to work with. You can pick a super hot track, but maybe that track isn’t for you. I went to Montreal and still connected with people and the sound is still Detroit.
DX: Do you think you’ve officially grown out of Dilla’s shadow?
Illa J: I feel like I’ve gotten to that point. Will I always be J Dilla’s younger brother? Of course, I’ll always be Dilla’s younger brother. To me, it’s all about perspective. As long as I know what it is from my perspective. Someone is always going to have a different perspective. That was the problem when I started because I was so caught up in everyone’s perspective around me. People were like you should be doing this because you’re his brother. It’s a lot of pressure. I’m at the point now to where I realize I’ve been doing this all my life. I look at my niece and she sings. This is in my blood. Why am I tripping about what someone else has to say? I know that it’s there. When someone tells you, you’re in a box, you start to believe you’re in a box. Technically, the box doesn’t exist. It’s in your mind. Ironically, this album came out the same day as my first album. Yancey Boys came out November 4th, the same day Obama got elected.
DX: You’re starting to see the first generation of Detroit rappers finding success nearly removed from the Dilla era aesthetic.
Illa J: I think Detroit is always hot and full of talent. Especially in the music. Everybody had their time from New York and West Coast to The South. Now, it’s not one of those times where it’s a certain place. Everybody in different places are killing it. We definitely have a lot of artists killing it right now. There are a lot of people doing their thing. What’s crazy I that there are so many different sounds. Big Sean doesn’t sound like Angel Haze or Black Milk doesn’t sound like Guilty Simpson. The feel of the music is all the same, though. You’ll hear in Big Sean or Dej Loaf records how different they are, but driving through Detroit listening to both of them give you that same grime and energy. I think that grind made me who I am. Just from growing up in that. Shout out to all my Detroit niggas doing their thing.