Illa J Interview (Originally Posted On UKHH.Com Oct 9th 2007) Interviewed by Ryan Proctor
The loss of a loved one can impact those left behind in many different ways. In the case of 20-year-old John ‘Illa J’ Yancey, the tragic death last year of his older brother, producer J Dilla, motivated the aspiring beat master to start chasing his dreams.
Born into a musical Detroit family, the youngest of the Yancey clan watched as his big bro climbed the hip-hop career ladder one dope track at a time, ascending from underground Motor City talent to being considered one of the greatest producers of all-time by the global rap audience. When Dilla lost his lengthy battle with the lupus disease last February, Illa J decided to turn personal tragedy into triumph, making moves towards his own music career while honouring his talented sibling every step of the way. In April 2006 Illa was asked by live band Guerrilla Funk Mob to perform Dilla’s rhymes at a Detroit tribute show, a concept which was taken on the road soon after for a European tour. The young Yancey was also seen appearing as his brother’s likeness in the video to ‘Won’t Do’, a track lifted from Dilla’s posthumously released BBE album ‘The Shining’.
Having dropped out of university and relocated to Los Angeles in order to further his plans, it’s clear that Illa J is serious about leaving his mark on the hip-hop landscape. Currently putting the finishing touches to a debut album that will see Illa both producing and rhyming, he’s also working on projects with former Dilla-associates such as Guilty Simpson and Phat Kat, as well as filling the void left by his brother in the Cake Boys collective, which also counts Frank-N-Dank as members.
In London for a few days recently, UKHH met up with a humble but determined Illa J at his Camden hotel to talk about Dilla’s legacy, musical influences, and the need to be original.
Turn it up!
Considering you were substantially younger than Dilla, at what point did you actually realise that your brother was a producer?
There wasn’t really a particular point when I realised that my brother was a producer because music was something he’d always been doing while I was growing up. I’d go to bed at night and he’d be working on something and then I’d wake up in the morning to go to school and his music would still be playing (laughs). My parents were musicians as well so music was just something I was used to being around and it was a natural thing to me.
Was there a moment though when you realised that the music your brother had been working on in your family home was actually having an impact across the world?
The first time I saw the video to The Pharcyde’s ‘Drop’ on TV I was like, ‘Oh damn! My brother did that.’ Then the ‘Runnin’ song blew-up for them as well. But at that point I was still so used to Dilla being involved in music that it really didn’t register with me how many people were actually out there hearing what he was doing. It was until after Dilla passed and I did a tour in Europe that I really saw the impact of what he did. It was just amazing to me that I was all the way out in another country and yet my brother had touched so many people in these different places with his music. That’s when I really felt the impact of what he’d achieved. It was crazy to see that but it also gave me a sense of closure and comfort knowing that so many other people had love for my brother and that his memory will always stay alive because of that.
When did you decide to get involved in making music yourself?
I always wanted to do music from when I was younger, but at that point in my life I was worrying too much about what other people would think. Beings as my brother was so exceptional at what he did, I didn’t want to get into it because of all the pressure that would come from being Dilla’s brother. But after he passed I realised that life is short and that I should just do what I love to do, which is make music. Plus, I felt it was my responsibility to help keep my brother’s legacy alive and try to take it to the next level where it deserves to be.
How would you describe the Detroit sound?
All of the music comes from the surroundings. If you’ve ever been to Detroit it’s like there’s a feeling there that influences all of the music that comes out of the city. It’s a hard thing to try and explain, but there’s a soulful sound in Detroit that comes from back in the Motown days, but then there’s also a hardness to what we do which comes from the environment people are living in today.
Do you have a particular approach to making beats?
For me, it just comes naturally. At the end of the day, I don’t like to force anything. If I have an idea I’ll work on it, but if I don’t have an idea on a particular day I won’t sit down and try to push something out. It just so happens that ideas do come to me a whole lot (laughs). I mean, I write songs all the time. I was at the Prince concert here in London last night and I wrote a song while I was sitting waiting for him to come onstage. Whenever an idea comes to me I’ll try and put it down right then because I like to let the creativity flow and let it be natural. I’m on the edge of so many different musical genres with what I do but it still has that hip-hop feel to it. The one thing that all great recording artists have in common is that whenever they put out a new album, you don’t know exactly what to expect, but you know it’s going to be something fresh and exciting. A true artist isn’t afraid to try new things. I mean, if you look at what my brother did, he reinvented his sound a number of times. The early music he made as Jay-Dee sounds different to what he did as Dilla, which sounds different to the Dill Withers stuff that came out on ‘Donuts’. That’s what music is about to me, just letting your creativity flow in whatever direction it wants to go in.
What prompted your decision to move from Detroit to Los Angeles and how has that influenced your creativity?
The first time I went to LA I was visiting my brother while he was out there and I loved the place from that point on. After Dilla passed I wanted to move out there because he’d lived out there and I wanted to follow in my brother’s footsteps. I think it was the right move for me to make and it really helped me deal with Dilla’s passing. Plus, I feel so much better out there than when I’m in Detroit. When I go back to Detroit, almost as soon as I land I can feel how stressful it is there. Also, there’s a lot going on in Detroit that distracts me from doing what I need to do. But in LA I feel totally free and that’s how I think my mindset should be as an artist; I should be able to let my mind float freely and let all the creative juices go to work. Plus, in LA people get things done, whereas in Detroit a lot of people talk about doing things but don’t ever actually do them. It seems there’s more of an aggressive mind state in LA, compared to Detroit which can sometimes have something of a lazy atmosphere.
Aside from your brother, who were your musical influences growing-up?
Well, as with Dilla, my musical influences really start with my mom and dad. They had a jazz acapella group and would always rehearse in our living room. That’s really how I got my musical ear from watching and listening to my parents. The first actual artist’s music I remember listening to was James Brown. After that, I’d say my other influences would be Michael Jackson, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Zapp & Roger Troutman, Nirvana. I have very broad musical tastes, so it’s hard for me to name all of my musical influences. But as far as right now, I’m loving The White Stripes and Amy Winehouse. I listen to everything.
You’ve mentioned a lot of older artists there as influences which isn’t something that’s particularly common amongst younger artists today, particularly in hip-hop. Do you think it’s important to have an overall awareness of those musicians who’ve come before you?
Yeah, I definitely think that’s important. You should know the history of the music you’re getting into and where it came from. That can only help in what you do because it enables you to appreciate the music more.
As Dilla’s brother, do you think people will only expect a certain sound from you and do you feel pressured to conform to those expectations?
I feel comfortable putting out whatever I want to put out, with respect to what people expect from me as Dilla’s brother. I mean, my brother told me to just do me and that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Whether other people like it or not, at the end of the day I have to like the music I put out otherwise there wouldn’t be any real purpose to it. It’s crucial for me to feel what I’m doing myself before I even let anyone else hear it. But when people ask me about comparisons to my brother I always tell them, there will only ever be one J Dilla, and when I come out it’ll be as myself, Illa J. If I was going to say anything about myself as an artist, it’s that I’m original. Everything that I do comes from the heart.
Are you getting a lot of support from those artists Dilla worked with himself?
It’s weird because although I do get respect for what I’m doing, the Detroit crowd still see me like ‘Ohh, it’s Dilla’s little brother’ (laughs). So in a way I’m looking at that as a challenge to come out and prove myself to them because I don’t think the Detroit crowd really get it yet (laughs). But the people I’ve already worked with definitely have respect for me as an artist first and foremost. At the end of the day, I don’t want to build my career just off of being Dilla’s brother. I want people to be able to look beyond that and see me as an artist.
If there was one album throughout history you could’ve been involved in as a producer what would it be?
It would have to be Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall’ album because every time I listen to it I can hear all the hard work they put into it, but at the same time you can tell they were having fun with the music as well. Like on ‘Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough’ and ‘Workin’ Day And Night’, they’re playing with glass bottles, shakers, anything they could get their hands on (laughs). That whole album has got such a good feeling to it and its energy is timeless.
If we were to sit down again in five years time, what one career goal would you want to have achieved?
Honestly, all those BET awards and everything are cool, but I want some Grammies on my shelf (laughs). I have such a strong passion for music and I want to share that with as many people as possible.______________________________________
Illa J Interview (Originally Posted On MIKEYMCFLY.Com Oct 27th 2008)
LINK to MIKEY MCFLY'S website and the Original interview
Mikey McFly: What's good with you?
Illa J: Aww nothing just you know, staying on my craft, you know just pretty much moving forward with the music.
Mikey McFly: Let's get down to it, how is your upcoming album, Yancey Boys, coming along and what brought about the concept for that project?
Illa J: Well first it came out like really dope, in a sense I expected it a certain way, and actually it turned out better than I thought it would turn out and I exceeded my expectations, but as far as how the project came about, I know a lot of people think I already had the beats and just kind of went in and did an album but Delicious Vinyl actually already had the tracks. Like all the tracks on the album were made from 95-98, so like 10 to 13 years ago and I met Mike Ross, the president of Delicious vinyl, last spring in April of '07 or maybe before that and he gave me a CD with like 38 tracks, those were tracks that my brother did between 95-98, tracks he did for Pharcyde and remixes for Delicious Vinyl. At that time, he didn't even know I did music and and he told me to pick a track and let's see what turns out. The next time I saw him was January '08 and I let him listen to a song that I wrote about December 13, 2007, when I went to see Stevie at the Nokia center. I mean, it's Stevie and I was so inspired [by his performance] that I eventually started teaching myself piano. A week after that I wrote my first song on piano I contacted Mike Ross and told him about it. I was like "You got to hear this song!" In February '08 I played him the song on the motif that I wrote he said "oh man thats dope" and I played him some more joints and he wanted me to play at some clubs and on that thursday, which happened to be my brother's birthday I performed the songs. Originally the project was going to be compilation with all the artist my brother has worked with but then it was decided that I should do the whole album and thats how it started.
Mikey McFly: The funny thing is after I heard your first single "We Here" and the joint "R U Listenin ?" with Guilty Simpson, I realized that those beats don't sound aged at all, almost as if he just made them.
Illa J: They are relevant and they are still ahead of their time.
Mikey McFly: My first introduction to you came by way of your appearance in J. Dilla's "Won't Do" video and after snooping around on the net, I came up on your EP. How long have you been creating music?
Illa J: Well the EP honestly wasn't really an EP at the time just a collection of songs. At that time I didn't have studio equipment and when I could use somebody else's studio, I'd go in and make some beats and create some joints pretty much to get some practice in . Practice makes perfect, you got to start somewhere with your craft. The EP was just me messing around with different machines. Music has been with me since I was brought into this world because of my family, music was always around, it was apart of the daily life in my household because everybody was a musician, everybody could sing and being from Detroit, everybody knows somebody who sings or does music, there are so many musicians in the city. I always knew growing up that I'd get into music whether it would be being an artist or on the business side. Before my brother passed, around the first two years of college I first realized that music would takeover and I couldn't help but to write . After he passed, I realized life is short and Feb 10, 2006 [Date of Dilla's passing], I knew everything was going to change.
Mikey McFly: My favorite track from that EP, that really wasn't an EP, was a track called "I Ain't Gonna Die". How did you start making beats?
Illa J: At that time, thats when I just got out to Cali, my mom would come out and we would stay at Common's crib. Eventually my boy Houseshoes from the D moved out here as well. He said he had the 2 and the 3 (MPC 2000 and 3000) , I asked to come over and get a little one on one with the machines. Coming up as an artist, I didn't really have the money to get studio time and I didn't have the room for a drum set. I just started with 3 and 2 and just started making beats at House shoes'. Thats kind of like my beginning stages, you could tell, I'm just messing with different kinds of sounds. Those were my first tracks and it was fun making them. You get geeked the first time you hear yourself recorded. eventually you find your own unique voice and understand the right pattern to sing or rhyme to.
Mikey McFly: In your opinion, what are the advantages of being an emcee and producer?
Illa J: Well first, I produce a little bit but I see myself more as a songwriter. People get confused because they want me to produce for them but I'm more of a song writer with a vision of a producer. As soon as i make something I write to it. Eventually I'll start putting a band together when I start recording my tracks. The music ais orchestrated in my head and it would be dope to have a band to translate my vision.
Mikey McFly: It's almost like you want to play the role of Quincy Jones, almost like how he produced Michael Jackson's Off The Wall album.
Illa J: Yeah, I want to be on some Prince type shit. Right now I play bass, and piano. I'm going to start taking drum lessons this year. I have so many ideas and sometimes another person wont be able to express the ideas you have so why not learn to do it yourself.
Mikey McFly: The city of Detroit has made many contributions to music from Berry Gordy and Motown to Hip-Hop acts such as your brother, Royce Da 5'9", Eminem, Slum Village, etc. How do you plan to make your mark?
Illa J: I dont know how people look at Illa J, when I make my music I make its always from the heart and soul,because at the end of the day I can only be the best at what i do. Once the right producer comes along and helps my writing, things can progress. I want to be like my brother, just leave my mark as far as no matter what music you listen to, you know that it came from my heart. That's whats good about Delicious Vinyl, they allow me to truly be an artist and and on my album I'm freely expressing myself and there are no limits on what I can and can't do.
Mikey McFly: Alot of artists seem to forget how music should be made. At the end of day isn't about the materialism, it's all about coming from the heart.
Illa J: Like one thing I've learned as a writer, its already been songs written about everything but whats different is that if you have something to say thats from your heart and you put it on record its different because all through history you had songs with the same song titles and the same kind of song concepts. Perfect example was when I first came out here me and Shoes would have beat contests where we would try to flip the same record. His beat was what he got from the record and and when I made my beat thats how I expressed myself as an artist. In a sense of being original, you can't be anybody but you, and you have to be yourself as an artist.
Mikey McFly: What artists do you want to collaborate with in the near future?
Illa J: I definitely know when I schedule it, I want to work with Karriem Riggins, his sound goes with my songwriting style. The type of music he makes is funky. He's a polished drummer but he's funky and on the next album I definitely got to get a verse from Common.
Mikey McFly: I want to give you props on the AOL freestyle with Aaron Lacrate. We all know that freestyling is an essential part of rap and its good to see artists keep that tradition alive. What is your view on the current climate of hip-hop?
Illa J: To me Hip-hop never really left, its just not being put out there as much. Its wierd, because we need these times to appreciate on the music that we have. Honestly alot of this music is garbage and you appreciate when people do it for the love. I think overtime, artist will continue to do it from the heart and get back to how it should be done. When people do it from the heart, it becomes inspiring. I think over time will continue to just do it from the heart. We all go through our little recessions. Music went through many phases from funk then disco , to superpop in 80's. I think it's definitely going come back around to the liveness and the freshness, its not gonna be exactly like the golden era but you know its gonna be that live feeling, lets have some fun that lets rock the spot, what its really about, our escape from what we go through during the week. Like lets listen to Redman's Rock Da Spot, like thats the shit, for when i wanna vibe out, man its so fresh. "You can quote this, I'm the Moby Dick of dopeness..." It's not going to be exactly like it was, I mean even with the whole political shit, it takes these recessions and these hard times for us to learn how to be better the next time.
Mikey McFly: Your brother, Jay Dee, was one of hip-hop's greatest producers. I'm sure as his younger sibling you've been exposed to a great deal. What was the best lesson that you've learned.
Illa J: As far as from my pops he brought me up on straight up jazz and it made it easier to understand the rest of the genres . He put me on to all the acapella jazz groups His main thing was to make sure that I learned music. My whole family supports all the music that I'm doing. As far as my brother, at one point even if they don’t goe all the way through with it, people think about Djing. One day, my brother set up the turntables and the mixer he said practice. I learned so much from that, I mean he could only show me much, and I have to find it within myself and put in that work ethic. You won't become a vet overnight, it takes alot of work and dedication and if it's worth it then why not? I mean one day you can look back and admire all the hard work you put in and see how far you came.
Illa J's Yancey Boys will be available on November 4th!! Go out and support real Hip-Hop.
Illa J's website