Illa J: Reppin’ Dilla for Life

Cruising down East 7 Mile Road in Detroit, the sharp thuds and jolts from potholes drumming the tires of your ride is unpreventable. Some would shrug it off as a consequence of being so cold in the D. But to an innovator such as the late underground producer/MC James Dewitt Yancey better known as J […]

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Cruising down East 7 Mile Road in Detroit, the sharp thuds and jolts from potholes drumming the tires of your ride is unpreventable. Some would shrug it off as a consequence of being so cold in the D. But to an innovator such as the late underground producer/MC James Dewitt Yancey better known as J Dilla, this was a melodic muse characteristic of Motor City living. Consequently for his younger brother, John Yancey, riding shotgun has affected the way he carries on his pedigree in the family name. Two years after Dilla’s passing from complications from Lupus, his little bro, also known as Illa J, continues the next chapter using the same cuts of the cloth that made Slum Village’s first beats. His debut, Yancey Boys—released on the Delicious Vinyl label which housed Dilla’s early work on the Pharcyde’s Labcabincalifornia album 13 years ago—reads like Illa J’s thoughts amidst his brother’s timeless sound. Although he would never go through great lengths to separate himself from such legendary lineage, now living in L.A., Illa J wants to prove he can take the inheritance to another level. What’s good, how have you and your family been doing?Illa J: They’re all good man, I talk to them every now and then and they’re doing good, that makes it easier so I can do my thing. I actually heard your mother has been battling complications with Lupus and having some financial problems. How is she holding up?Illa J: Oh, she is a soldier. That’s where I get a lot of my strength from and something and something of mine. She always told me to be strong so everything is It has been over two years since your brother passed. Certainly your life and your family will never be the same. Did your brother’s death give you any apprehensions about continuing through this music thing? Illa J: First off, I always knew I would do music since a very young age. A lot of that has to do with being in my household already surrounded by music, my brother making music, my dad was a song writer, he played up-right bass and piano, my mom she sings opera and my sister writes and sings. Pretty much that whole environment growing up. Also being from Detroit, I know a lot of my friends and their families are really into music and stuff. With hobbies other than hooping, we would just be sitting around making up songs and stuff. So the music was always around and I knew I would always do it, I just didn’t know when. After my brother passed that’s when I decided I was. Because that was like a big moment in my life. At that moment, I felt like life is short and I am going to do what I love. From that, I learned my whole mission and purpose for receiving this gift so I could shine my light and inspire others when my brother passed. Also when I went over to Europe for the first time in 2007 and I saw how many people my brother touched with his music, they didn’t even speak English and they knew all the words and songs. That touched me a lot and gave me a whole other perspective on why we even do this music thing. Not even for us, in a sense it’s bigger than us because it’s like lifting each other up. J. Dilla “Won’t Do” Do you remember the first time you realized he had a significant impact on Hip-Hop? Illa J: Because I was always surrounded by musical people in my family, because it’s in the blood, it was kind of normal that he was doing it. Like I had a cousin in Kool & The Gang, I have family all into music. So in a sense it was normal, I was geeked about it I know when I was back at home and I remember watching the “Drop” video because my brother did that track. I started to know a little bit when he did the track with Janet, like, “Okay that is Janet Jackson, he’s really doing some stuff.” Honestly the whole time before until I went to Europe and realized the music he was making in the basement in Detroit actually it was touching people all around the world. When he passed and I went to Europe is really when I saw the impact he was making on music. I knew he was good at what he did because if that is all you do pretty much it’s natural that you’re going to be good at it especially when you put in the practice and work ethic. It never really surprised me but what really did surprise me was the actually impact overall from making music. Since Dilla is now immortalized and honored, how do you feel you can sneak out from under his shadow to establish yourself apart as anindividually legitimate artist?Illa J: As far as establishing myself as an artist any time I am at the piano, that is me at the piano. Eventually people will get it. At first any artist that comes out especially doing something quite different, people are going to look at you weird at first. At the end of the day I’m not going to worry about that, what I worry about is staying on my craft, sticking to be the best at what I do and eventually people will catch onto it. It’s not like people got my brother right away. They’re so called Dilla fans; they weren’t fans until way after. I’m not discrediting anyone who listens to my brother’s music; I’m just saying the critics used to kill him in the little magazines. But now they’re like, “Oh, his beats are the best.” Everybody has to go through that it would be weird if every single person likes my music then it would be weird it has t    o be some balance. I feel like each day I am doing my music, I am doing myself and people will eventually catch on. Even if my brother was here right now, he would be like, “At the end of the day, do you.”Illa J “R U Listenin’?” Behind The Scenes Let’s talk about the Yancey Boys album. Since you already have people looking at you because of your brother, talk a little about it.Illa J: In a sense, you can feel my transition from Detroit to L.A. If you listen to any of my older tracks, I’m more of a songwriter so all the tracks you have heard before I was just putting some songs together. I grew a lot with this album, when you hear it; you’ll hear my growth as an artist. First coming out of Detroit when you first hear my tracks a lot of them are very aggressive because at that time I didn’t all the way live out here yet. I was still trying to get out the box. After I got out here you can start to hear me relax a little bit in my music. Another thing about this album as with any of my brother’s albums, it’s definitely going to bump in your system and the crazy thing is all the tracks were made between ‘95 and ‘98, so this was all ten or thirteen years ago, which was crazy to me. At the time, my brother was doing stuff for Pharcyde and doing remixes with Delicious Vinyl. It bugged me every time I listen to that album it brings you back to ‘95 when I was sitting on the couch watching the “Drop” video. I didn’t know some beats he made during that time I would end up making my first album to them thirteen years later. I’m sure he would still laugh at it too. Mike Ross has had them since then and didn’t know what to do with them. I hadn’t heard any of those tracks before that even happened. On “Timeless” you talk about your process in making the album. How did it feel going into writing for an album where all the beats were made over a decade ago yet the sound was still timeless?Illa J: It’s just like everything has come full circle, like the stuff my brother did for the Pharcyde got him out the hood, start helping out the family, that was like the start point. When he was doing stuff with Q-Tip and then “Runnin” came out that was a big boost for our whole family, it really inspired me a lot to see my brother do that at such a young age. It also inspired me to instill the strength in myself that I could do whatever I wanted to as long as I put my mind to it. Regardless of what anybody says I am honored to keep his legacy going even though I want to branch off as my own artist, I will always rep my brother no matter what. I rep Dilla for life. The Pharcyde “Drop” Video (Produced by Jay Dee)