To say that the late, great, James Yancey, better known as J-Dilla was part of music royalty (if there ever existed one) is probably not the most appropriate analogy for a man of such unearthly talents. That said, since his untimely passing, and given the nature, or rather structure, of the abovementioned royalty; it’s without saying that Illa-J, his younger brother would ultimately take his place as his likely successor.
Twenty-one year old Illa J understands the scrutiny that comes with his brother opening the doors for him- naysayers are quick to suggest that he entered the game with a silver spoon in his mouth. Still it is no fault of his that he happens to be a Yancey. A songwriter, rapper, singer and producer all in one, Illa-J has come full circle- never could he imagine adding his own touches to tracks that were made around the same time he knew his brother had made the big time (Labcabincalifornia anyone?). I recently caught up with Illa-J, who now calls Los Angles home; although, Detroit is where the heart is.
Eldorado Red: First things first how are you enjoying that Cali weather? I’m out in New York and it’s raining out here.
Illa-J: I definitely love it out here… like as far as the weather youknow coming from the D where the weather is always unpredictable it could be snowing today and raining tomorrow… so I am definitely loving it (Laughs).
Eldorado Red: Now since we are on the topic of Cali, it’s kind of interesting that you reside out there, why did you opt to relocate?
Illa-J: I feel I’m closer to my brother out here because this was where he was last and and when I seen him out here he was happy so I definitely wanted to come this way.
Eldorado Red: Iight, now yesterday was a big day what are your feelings about Barack winning yesterday’s election.
Illa-J: That was definitely… that was probably one of those most amazing things ever I’ve ever experienced. Like just to be here and see it with your own eyes it’s crazy cause’ there was a time… like there are people that didn’t make it to see this day and they were there when Dr. King was speaking and I’m sure they’re smiling down now. I don’t know it’s just good to be a part of history, I voted early and it was a good feeling. It’s definitely a big event in history but now is the time to move forward with progress.
Eldorado Red: I am an avid basketball fan, I don’t know what your feelings are about the sport but what do you think about the addition of Iverson to the Pistons, is it an upgrade or downgrade? If you don’t follow basketball you can skip that question.
Illa-J: Well basketball is my favorite sport, but music has always been in me … but as far as my first love it’s basketball. Some people are skeptical about it but I definitely think he’ll be able to work with the system. And coming into the Detroit locker room you have no choice but to be a part of that whole team atmosphere. I know it’ll work well and I’m quite interested in seeing what happens.
Eldorado Red: Is your adopted moniker a sort of tribute if you will, to your brother? I mean there is a lot of semblance with J-Dilla.
Illa-J: I mean yeah pretty much when I was coming up with a name…at the time I was trying to get into music academy. At the time I didn’t have a name I was just making music and they had a long application to fill out to get into it youknow it’s like a music workshop or whatever. When it got to the artist part like artist name I didn’t have a name at the time so I called up my friends sister and we made up a bunch of names for like 20 minutes then [we] hung up. She later called back with, “Illa J.” I thought it sounded nice. I wanted to pay tribute to my brother I mean that’s my brother youknowhatimean I can pay tribute whenever youknowhatimean I rep Dilla for life so I don’t care If I change my name to J-Dilla 2 youknowhatimean that’s my brother.
Eldorado Red: (Laughs)
Illa-J: And I’ll rep that forever cause’ he opened the doors for me. I know a lot of people are like “oh his name is too much like his brother’s.” I don’t care that’s my brother youknow that’s my hero so it’s whatever youknowhatimean. I’ll rep my brother for life so anybody with anything to say about that, “It’s Dilla for life Yancey Boys let’s go.”
Eldorado Red: Now what comes easier to you singing, spitting, or making beats?
Illa-J: Well as an artist I see myself as… I’m a singer, song writer first that’s what I was going to do first. I was just going to sing and have my brother produce for me and as far as writing I’ve been writing all my life I’ve been writing poetry like since I was 8 and then eventually I started just youknow… at some point you make a transition and then you start writing songs. And once I got a sense of the song structure that’s when I really started to hone my craft and as far as the spitting part that pretty much came from like… I’ve always been writing stuff I just didn’t necessarily know how to deliver it and once I found my voice in it that’s when that came into play. But I definitely see myself as a singer, songwriter first.
Eldorado Red: Okay. Now you mentioned people smiling down when we were talking about elections. I am sure somewhere in the heavens your brother is smiling at you. Did you feel any added pressure recording over his unheard beats for this albums’ entirety?
Illa-J: No not really cause’ honestly even if my brother was here he would be like, “What’s pressure? Just do your thing.” I definitely didn’t feel any pressure or anything. When I’m in the studio I’m in my own world. I honestly don’t even like anybody really to be in the studio with me; it’s just me and the engineer.
Eldorado Red: From the Alien Family skit I assume you play instruments; which do you play?
Illa-J: I play bass guitar and the piano. Technically my first instrument was the piano but that’s when I was younger and at that time I didn’t finish through with it maybe I felt like I was forcing it youknowhatimean. And it’s like even books and stuff… I’m reading stuff now that I would not have been interested when I was in school cause’ I felt more forced and now I’m just reading through it and I feel more youknowhatimean I’m in control of what I’m doing The bass is the first instrument I picked up. I always wanted to play bass but I never got a chance to play it and after my brother passed I hit up my mom like, “Yo! I need a bass.” The piano came back on September 13th 07, I remember that date cause’ that was the first time I saw Stevie Wonder perform and when I came back from that I started teaching myself piano; that’s how much it inspired me
Eldorado Red: That’s whats up, now what was the first song you heard on the radio or saw on TV that Dilla was involved with?
Illa-J: The Drop video back in 1995…All the tracks on this album [Yancey Boys] were made around 95, 98 so it’s crazy I’m sitting on the couch watching the Drop video not realizing that some of the tracks he’s [Dilla] is making during this time I would be recording for my album 13 years later. It’s kind of overwhelming when I think about how everything came full circle but definitely the Drop video the Running video… I remember when Woo Hah!! came out, I know he did a couple of remixes. And then of course The Light and the Janet Jackson track that’s when I realized he was really doing it for real
Eldorado Red: What prompted you and when did you start taking music seriously? I guess I can’t really say what prompted you since you’ve always been surrounded by music but when did you start taking it seriously?
Illa-J: Well like you were saying I pretty much always knew I would do music at a young age. I knew at some point whether it was the business side or I’d be an artist myself I knew music would take over. While at college studying athletic training I started seeing music start to take over. I was in class and stuff and I’d be writing songs in the back of class and then like the music would just start to take over day by day and at a point I would skip class and go to the music building to write songs and stuff.
Eldorado Red: When you were in class did your mates know who you were?
Illa-J: I’ve always been a real quiet kid so I never really talk, honestly I didn’t want to be the dude like, “Hey my brother did that track” youknowhatimean.
Eldorado Red: (Laughs)
Illa-J: I would hear kids talk about tracks like when Vivrant Thing came out, my and I would hear people talking about the song and they’d be like, “His lyrics is cool ,but the beat is crazy.”
Eldorado Red: (Laughs)
Illa-J: …and they would be beating the beat on the desk but I wouldn’t say nothing. I would kind of shy away from that stuff.
Eldorado Red: Apart from the obvious (Dilla) who else has helped influence your sound?
Illa-J: I got to say Al Green, Marvin Gaye, like those are two of my favorite song writers of all time. Later on, I got into Prince. I liked Prince early, but I didn’t understand his music at that time. Prince is on another level the more I got an understanding of music the more respect I gained for prince. You can probably say that’s my favorite artist right now. I listen to a lot of song writers and producer and bands cause’ I like to listen to how the music is orchestrated and how song writers mess with the different sound chords and put it together. Right now I’m just reading books on songwriting and just bettering my craft. As a producer and songwriter, Pharrell from the Neptunes is actually… he’s probably one of my favorite producers.
Eldorado Red: When it’s all said and done how do you want to remembered musically? I’m sure you don’t want to be remembered as J Dilla’s little brother, younger brother?
Illa-J: Well no in all honesty at the end of my career I want to be known Illa-J. As far as a connection with J Dilla youknowhatimean like I mean of course he opened the doors for me. Honestly it started back with my pops opening the door for us to do our thing. But he [Dilla] opened a lot for me … that’s my brother we represent each other youknow that’s my brother at the end of the day when I sing I reps for him when he do something it represents me cause’ that’s my blood. As long as I continue to stay with my craft and keep the right mind set and stay focused then eventually people will respect me for that. At the end of my career if anything I just want people to know that that when I do my music I do it from the heart and it all comes from my heart and I put my all into it.
Eldorado Red: Spoken like a true musician now you got any shows lined up for the east coast like in New York.
Illa-J: I am gonna start touring next year; I’m not sure exactly when but definitely …of course I got to hit up New York go to Brooklyn get some Junior’s cheesecake youknow (laughs)
Eldorado Red: Don’t believe the hype …
Illa-J: Don’t believe the hype? (Laughs).
TURN OFF THE RADIO!