Illa J: The Mic And The Spotlight


The legacy J Dilla has left on Hip Hop is continually noted by consumers and creators of Hip Hop culture. However, beyond leaving a legacy with his passing, Dilla inspired his younger brother, 22 year old Illa J (born John Yancey) to dedicate himself to music while providing another vessel for Dilla’s productions to live on. With the release of The Yancey Boys, Illa J exhibits his vocal and lyrical agility over unreleased J Dilla beats. Whilst over in London last month, SoulCulture spoke to Illa J about being a new artist, adlibbing to Al Green and why he’s not trying to be another J Dilla.

SoulCulture: What brings you to London?

Illa J: Originally we were supposed to come out to see the Michael Jackson concert. Definitely sad news but you know, his music will always live on.

SoulCulture: What’s the scene like in Detroit at the moment?

Illa J:
Right now, it’s kinda rough, especially because of the economy and all but I think eventually things will turn around.

SoulCulture: Why did you decide to leave school to start making music?

Illa J: I always knew I’d eventually do music but I just didn’t know when… Definitely the passing of my brother played a big part in it and after that it just gave me a whole new perspective on life. I figured, “Why not start now?”

iljalbumSoulCulture: How would you describe the album, Yancey Boys?

Illa J: I would say, first of, it’s definitely not a single-driven album. It’s a mixture of Hip Hop, soul and jazz – one reason for the jazz is because of all the chord changes. That’s my brother growing up – because my dad was a jazz musician so jazz was the first music we ever listened to and what we were brought up on so we were in tune to what jazz was about from the jump. So listening to all the chords on the beats definitely made it easy for me to write some of the songs.

SoulCulture: ‘Struggling’ talking about being an artist coming up – what challenges have you faced so far?

Illa J: Like any artist coming up in this music industry, you talk to lots of people, they say they’re going to sign you, you talk to them one day then you don’t hear from them for weeks – and all the [other] struggles that an artist has to go through in trying to get your music out and being able to shine your light as an artist. But in this industry one thing you have to have is patience and I think as long as you have that patience and work on your craft and continue to stay strong, you should be alright.

SoulCulture: What makes Yancey Boys more than a tribute album?

Illa J: First off, the history behind it. Because, in a sense, my brother, at least in his production career, started off at Delicious Vinyl, with him producing tracks for The Pharcyde like “Runnin'” put his name out there as a producer and it’s fresh for me to start off my career in the same place where he started his off, so the history is there, definitely.

SoulCulture: Aside from Dilla, which artists have inspired you?IllaJ-01-big
Illa J: Right off the back, The Manhattan Transfer, Four Freshmen, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, MJ, Prince, Earth, Wind & Fire – so much soul music I listened to growing up. I’d always be singing Al Green songs around the house so [chuckles] definitely you can hear it through the album, my influences.

SoulCulture: You sing too! Is that something you’d take as seriously as rhyming?

Illa J: I’m actually venturing toward my singer-songwriting side. I was gonna sing even more on the Yancey Boys album at first but those tracks weren’t meant to be sung all over. And as far as my emceeing side; it’s always been there, so it was really natural for me. But singing and songwriting is something I’m passionate about and I want to move forward with, as you can hear in the songs like “Timeless,” which was actually the original title of the album.

SoulCulture: Where are you trying to get to musically in the long term?

Illa J: Well one thing which I’m working on back home is my performance – because you know, I got the concept and the music and lyrics and everything. Now I’m trying to take my performance to another level because that’s another important part of music that people tend to forget about – the performance and your shows and just learning from artists like Prince. The mic and spotlight – if you can handle the mic and the spotlight you should definitely have a long lasting career.

SoulCulture: Your brother has obviously left a huge legacy on the scene as one of the most influential producers ever. What did you learn from Dilla about the industry?

dillaIlla J: One thing: you gotta be focused because there’s a lot of distractions coming up as an artist. Especially when you’ve got some really good music there’s gonna be a lot of opinions so you just gotta get used to that and just do music from your heart. Because at the end of the day, regardless of how successful it is, when I look back 10, 20 years later, I want to say did music from my heart and from my soul. At the end of the day that’s all I do is be the best ME I can’t be. I can’t make Dilla’s music, I can only make the music that I can make. There will always be one Dilla. I just [want to] continue to work hard and be the best in my craft that I can be.

SoulCulture: Beyond his impact on the scene, what is your fondest memory of your brother?

Illa J: Right away I just thought of me and my brother, [when] we used to play this game where we would do adlibs, because we listened to a lot of Al Green and a lot of different soul singers and Al Green would always have like a minute long adlib near the end of the song or something and we would compete and see who could do the best adlibs.

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Tahirah Edwards Byfield