Music

"Always a singer first": an interview with Illa J, following the release of John Yancey (Jakarta Records, 2018)

Naming his latest album, John Yancey – the artist’s birth name - might seem an overly sober, straight-forward move for Detroit singer and sometime rapper, Illa J but there are reasons and significance behind his choice.

In 2008, Illa J released Yancey Boys – a strong début showing off his talents as singer/MC against some superb unreleased beats by his late brother, J Dilla. With a tiny guest roster (Frank Nitt, Guilty Simpson …), the album was an intimate tribute to the much-missed producer/MC known as Jay Dee.

Yancey Boys still sounds great today, but it seems to have been a mixed blessing for Illa J who was just 19 when his brother passed. Hence the significance of the John Yancey title; this new album, like others before it is all about Illa J reclaiming his name in his own right, asserting - no matter how gently - the singularity of his voice, while still showing respect to his brother.  

John Yancey more than adequately meets any such challenges. Produced by Calvin Valentine - who also provided the music for the previous album, Home - it showcases Illa J’s sophisticated lyricism and truly sweet voice.

Meshing pop/R&B, with occasional rhymes, Illa J’s songs are carried by a summery, almost doo-wop vibe a lot of the time, while still held in the embrace of the music that raised him. Illa J’s vocals have a distinctive timbre, reminiscent … old school Smokey Robinson as he raps on the lovely hybrid-rap ballad, “Rose Gold.”

Other album highlights, such as “Tokyo” and the dulcet tones of “Sunday” similarly allow his vocals take centre stage. Future plans include moving into production, it’ll be interesting to see how Illa J continues to keep building his name as a vocalist, as that is where his real talent lies.   

Our phone conversation last month stayed focussed on Illa J’s new album, John Yancey.  When it was time to talk about the songs making references to J Dilla, “James Said” and “32,” the pre-paid credit on my phone cut, thus leaving my remaining questions unanswered. This seems appropriate, somehow.  

In the interview below, Illa J speaks about Detroit’s distinctive sound, and why we should thank the Yancey Boys’ musician father, Beverly Dewitt Yancey for providing the “foundations” for everything his gifted sons later produced and how Slum Village remains a key influence, as he says: “No Slum Village, no me.”  

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New Order, “The Perfect Kiss” 12” (Factory Records, 1985) plus live recordings

One of the miracles of modern popular music, okay I’m sure there’ll be some ready to debate and argue for the less-known New Order tracks here – note: I have heard them too – but this song, this song. Equally impressive for the mordant ambiguity of the lyrics:

I stood there beside myself
Thinking hard about the weather
Then came by a friend of mine
Suggested we go out together
Then I knew it from the start
This friend of mine would fall apart
Pretending not to see his gun
I said let’s go out and have some fun

as the music itself. This is music to collapse-dance to, to keep your limbs fluid because the music is so total, so totalising. Disco pure in its essence in its spirit: music that helps you ride out whatever you’re feeling, while retaining its own distance, pop music as ambivalence. Note too the animal SFX, to quote Wiks:

“The song's complex arrangement includes a number of instruments and methods not normally used by New Order. For example, a bridge features frogs croaking melodically. The band reportedly included them because Morris loved the effect and was looking for any excuse to use it. At the end of the track, the faint bleating of a (synthesized) sheep can be heard. Sheep samples would reappear in later New Order singles "Fine Time" and "Ruined in a Day".

Frogs, sheep bleating, keeping it Biblical …

As everyone notes, so there’s no need for me to be any different the outro on this track, from about 7’40” with its increase in sonic depth, is something to recognise, to appreciate: it carries within it the essence of energy in music, as the expression of freedom, of being free. But there is so much I love about this song, it’s hard to know where to start, all of those other sounds kept distinct – the pings, the frogs absolutely. There’s something about this music that brings out the kid in me.

Some of the motivation for my writing on hip-hop, and other forms of Black American music is a desire to not go backwards (for a long time this was writing for me, with no real “audience,” prompted by my curiosity and internal cues). Writing these pieces also allowed me to keep getting educated: start with the artist, trace it back, work out ways to put the music in context. (No, there is no kink in any of this as I was once asked by a person who grew up closer to the source. Don’t forget I live in Paris, not a suburban cul-de-sac or rural idyll. There’s nothing natural).

Spending time with music you don’t know that well, music that didn’t provide the foundations for earlier periods in your life also protects you from falling into comparisons past/present, as inevitably the new falls short when compared to what has been tested. Moreover, it stops you from doing what I did when listening to this song once again, after a long break, of posing unanswerable and not very useful questions, such as where is its contemporary equivalent? These is a dead-end, I know. I have no issue with the languid, drawn-out drums, that slowed-down sibilant shimmy that is so dominant now - the genuflection in front of vibey Roy Ayers and some of the softer music of Donald Byrd - this kind of beat has its own feeling, but which music today provides an energy fix similar to “The Perfect Kiss”?

Which songs meet our need to be pulled into the velocity? So much of what you hear these days is deep on mood and introspection (or over-synthetic pop that has always been there, always will be) where is the music that helps us lose ourselves?

New Order’s music is defined by its play with discomfort, what might seem blase. One listener below one of “The Perfect Kiss” videos, Noname, critiqued it on this basis, writing “Always had mixed feelings about this band. Magnificent, expansive, bombastic keyboards!...let down by those miserable weak vocals. Like an orchestra interrupted by a sad trombone.” (Another replied: “miserable? Bernard had a very good voice.” The most recent comment responding to the debate noted: “(Sumner) isn't a great singer but his voice fits in perfectly with New Order's slightly cheesy sound. If you had Frank sinatra singing here it would make things much worse.”)

But that verse where Sumner sings:

When you are alone at night
You search yourself for all the things
That you believe are right
If you give it all away
You throw away your only chance to be here today
Then a fight breaks out on your street
You lose another broken heart in a land of meat
My friend, he took his final breath
Now I know the perfect kiss is the kiss of death

it sounds urgent, it sounds heartfelt and a little desperate. “When you are alone at night/ You search yourself for all the things/That you believe are right …”

To quote Wiks once more: “In an interview with GQ Magazine Bernard Sumner said "I haven't a clue what (the song) is about." He agreed with the interviewer that his best-known lyric is in the song: "Pretending not to see his gun/I said, 'Let's go out and have some fun'". The lyrics, he added, came about after the band was visiting a man's house in the United States who showed his guns under his bed before they went out for an enjoyable night. It had been quickly written, recorded and mixed without sleep before the band went on tour in Australia.”

And:

“Despite being a fan favourite, the song was not performed live between 1993 and 2006 due to the complexity of converting the programs from the E-mu Emulator to the new Roland synthesizer. However, it returned to the live set at a performance in Athens on 3 June 2006.”

Here’s the B/side “Kiss of Death” described by Wik as:

"a typical New Order dub version: it is a mostly instrumental remix of the A-side with added effects; it notably features the opening of the album version. "Perfect Pit" is a short recording of synthesized bass and drum parts that sounds like Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris practicing.”

And the audio recorded live from the video shoot with director Jonathan Demme losing it with happiness/excitement at the end:

The very famous video you can watch here, see those final moments when each band member looks so composed and disengaged, having enacted their musical transaction in a way comparable to someone scanning goods at a supermarket. Apparently Demme was disappointed to discover that the drums were programmed as he wanted to film the band hitting that perfect beat.

Coda: