"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.”  


"Killaz Theme," writing on Cormega, betrayal and justice in hip-hop and other genres

Heh heh, yea
Hahahaha, right
Part the crowd like the Red Sea
Don’t even tempt me ”

Genre: Hip-Hop Style: Thug Rap, Conscious

Towards the end of a 2015 interview with Dead End Hip Hop (DEHH) that’s equal parts monologue and free-form talk, New York rapper Cormega says that remaking his début album The Realness was always an option, but that he wanted to do something more, something different to reflect his changed perspective. The man who made the music more than one decade ago was not the same one speaking today. “If we go back to the year of The Testament, (2005) I would have had at least 14 more friends physically still breathing, I would have no kids ...” Not only that, throughout the interview the Queensbridge MC stressed how he was aware of his position as a role model, as someone who could show others ways to move forward in their lives.

One of the DEHH team had suggested that his album Mega Philosophy was “preachy” in parts, then later clarified that he missed the “charismatic Cormega” (before listing all the tracks he liked). “If you speak truths, I don’t consider it preaching, maybe I’m wrong but I don’t,” Cormega replied. “Everything else I said was to uplift us, to say we’re not at the bottom, we’re more than ni**as standing on a corner dealing, jail is a business trying to employ our children, and destroy our mental; every day we’re more conditioned to conform to ignorance …” Starting to rhyme, momentum building as he interspersed lines about how he sees the world around him today with references to African lineage and references to pyramids in Egypt and Sudan to conclude that Black Americans “came from something great.”

Another DEHH host added that Cormega’s serious lyrical intent was “good preaching … (The word) preachy is now given a negative edge so when he says it sounds preachy it sounds like an insult … I say make it preachy as possible because we need that.”


In praise of: ‘Sparrow’ Marvin Gaye (Here, My Dear, Tamla, 1978) plus ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’

Personnel: Vocals, keyboards and synthesizers Marvin Gaye, drums Bugsy Wilcox, percussion Elmira Collins, bass Frank Blair, guitar Wali Ali, trumpet Nolan Smith, tenor saxophone Charles Owens/ Fernando Harkness, alto saxophone (solo) by Ernie Fields

Something to value is an artwork, a song, a piece of music that expresses the spirit of an artist, while gesturing out in new and unexpected directions. ‘Sparrow’ from Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear is the perfect example of this. Wiks suggests that the lyrics have a ‘poetic and religious tone’ to them, but what does this mean?

In 1968 Marvin Gaye covered ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ a gospel hymn, written by Civilla D. Martin with composer Charles H. Gabriel in 1905, see the description of how the song came about (which is kind of eccentric, stolen from Wik as always) 

Early in the spring of 1905, my husband and I were sojourning in Elmira, New York. We contracted a deep friendship for a couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. Mrs. Doolittle had been bedridden for nigh twenty years. Her husband was an incurable cripple who had to propel himself to and from his business in a wheel-chair. Despite their afflictions, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to all who knew them. One day while we were visiting with the Doolittles, my husband commented on their bright hopefulness and asked them for the secret of it. Mrs. Doolittle’s reply was simple: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” The beauty of this simple expression of boundless faith gripped the hearts and fired the imagination of Dr. Martin and me. The hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” was the outcome of that experience.

This hymn has been covered by all the greats: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson, Lauryn Hill, Whitney Houston and by Gladys Knight singing at the funeral of Michael Jackson. (What’s interesting is the way the piece of music resonated with artists from particular eras, with nine recordings in the 50s/60s, two in the 70s and 80s each, before experiencing a resurgence in the 90s, with seven artists putting out versions of the song). Here is Marvin Gaye's interpretation: 

‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’ with its stirring music and final resolution, moves from the opening spirit of despondency to comfort, knowing that God is ever-present, ‘watching over’ the one who is lost. Quoting Marvin Gaye's lyrics:

Why should I feel so discouraged
I wanna know why should the shadow come
Oh tell me why why should I feel lonely, so lonely
And long for heaven and a home

Since Jesus is my portion
A constant friend he is
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches over me
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know he watches over me

I sing because I'm happy
And I sing because I'm free
His eye is on the sparrow
And I know Jesus watches me

Note how Marvin Gaye simplified and loosened up the original lyrics of the hymn, leaving out the more literary, but touching refrain: “Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears.’

Compare this then with 'Sparrow’ from the angry, sprawling and brilliant ‘divorce’ record from 1978. On one level, Gaye’s tone is tender, gentle as if addressing his lover in 'Sparrow' (his ‘sweet, itty, bitty, pretty bird.’ Even if in the same verse he refers to himself in the third person, ‘Sing to me, Marvin Gaye before you fly away ...’ thereby diluting the sentiment). 

As with any gospel song, 'Sparrow' begins with the expression of loss, difficult circumstances, the problem or obstacles faced by the artist:

I used to hear a sparrow singing, baby
Oh, but one day as I went along I didn't hear his song
But I know the sparrow should sing
Sing on such a morning in spring
Oh sparrow, why don't you sing?

Sing to me, oh, sparrow come around
Come around, why don't you come around?
Sing about melody, aww, melody
About the things you see
Anything you want to sing about
Just sing it on out now, sing it on out

Let the world know what life's all about
Sing, little sparrow, sing
Sing, little sparrow, sing
Oh sing, little sparrow, won't you sing for me?

This encourages us to think it could be about artistic inspiration, with Gaye feeling abandoned by his muse, but then the next verse flips this entirely. Distancing himself from the lyrical framework of gospel music Gaye does not place himself in the role of the abandoned (sparrow). The ‘sparrow’ is said to be his previous support, as he sings: ‘Every time I'm feeling low/I know I can always count on you/Sing, little sparrow/About the troubles you're in, places you've been/You can sing I know it, don't you try to pretend ...’

Taking it at face value, Gaye is singing to a sparrow (a lover) and this fits with one of the key tropes of popular music, from soul/R&B and pop music, the idealised (or real) vision of the lover who is forever true. Carried within this is the awareness that the expression of longing is what counts, the desire for the idealised love.

Yet the song’s true achievement (outside the extraordinary musicianship, take that as a given) lies in the way it changes lyrically/musically half-way through, following the lull in the bridge, when Gaye returns, just after 3’30.” Any and all of the previous gentleness is gone, ‘Sing to me ...’ Gaye begins with a tone that sounds more like a directive rather than an expression of affection or gratitude.

And what does Marvin Gaye want his ‘sparrow’ to sing of - the focus is light years away from gospel and indeed any kind of straightforward love song :

Sing to me about man's inhumanity
And all the injustice you see
Sing sparrow, sing, little sparrow, sing
Sing about what to give
Sing about about how to live
I want you to sing your tune sparrow
Oh, little sparrow, sing

Sing to me of jealousy
Aww, sing what that's all about
Sing it all out, shout, little sparrow
Aww, sing at me
Sing me a, sing me a song
I wanna know what's wrong, little bird, tell me
Aww, sparrow

Sing sparrow 'cause I wanna know
You sweet, itty, bitty, pretty bird
Sing before you go
Sing to me, Marvin Gaye before you fly away
Never stop singing sparrow till we hear your song

Sing your song
Sing your song
On and on and on and on
On and on and on and on and
I remember a bird

Gentleman Ruffin: writing on the ‘forgotten’ soul legend, David Ruffin

Of course, there are multiple measures of success and recognition, but on the most basic level when thinking about an artist's status - and as someone writing on them as a journalist - it often comes down to how much material there is on them (interviews, reviews, essays, memoirs and the like). How are they talked about, how are they remembered after their deaths.

Here, the former leader of the Temptations David Ruffin is badly served; even if, in this, he is not alone. It’s something that unites him with other black musicians (and perhaps others too) who, while famous when alive, after their deaths frequently fall into a kind of intellectual abyss. 

And yet despite the relative vacuum with the fans/music aficionados Ruffin isn’t really forgotten. Far from it. Remembered certainly with affection by most as the lead singer with The Temptations of some of the most important songs of the 60s, ‘My Girl' ...

(I love this video, slowed down, the voices unaccompanied adds to the atmosphere and makes it very moving; likewise, this marvel, ‘I wish it would rain’ – also in the acapella version that shows off the glorious range of Ruffin's voice alongside its quicksilver character and intensity. This is another nice version of 'My Girl' as well - the original video from 1964).

And he isn’t forgotten on this site, either.

Over the past few months my appreciation of Ruffin’s David has seen a real bounce and been the most shared individual piece of music-related writing that I've published to date (the essays on Borges and Houellebecq are still out front in terms of the overall content). I noticed that this piece was shared on a British group devoted to all things culturally mod not so long ago: fantastic.

So, in the spirit of keeping memories of this amazing singer alive, here's some new writing on Mr Ruffin; first, a piece on the psychedelic Soul gem, ‘I saw you when you met her’ (prod. Norman Whitfield) and a celebration of Ruffin's skill as an interpretative artist, comparing his version of '(If loving you is wrong) I don't want to be right' with other notables from his era.

Thanks again to you all; your ongoing support of my work means a lot to me.

Here’s an interview with David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, date unknown, published on a blog where the artists talk about their position in the business and their roles as ‘entertainers’: 

'Neither gentleman has much to say about their reunion stint with The Temptations other than that the experience "was successful to the end of the tour, we enjoyed some of it and then we went our separate ways". David and Eddie spent almost a year on the road with that situation but then, touring has been a constant factor for both men since their early days with The Temps. They still enjoy the chance to travel "except when we have to fly and make stops all over the place. But being able to get out there and perform before the public is still a great opportunity and," says David, "I'm just glad that we can give so many people so much joy through music."

Eddie confesses that when he started out with music as his career, "I thought it would be much easier. But I've weathered the waters," he states candidly. "I never knew that I'd still be doing this so many years later," says David, "but I knew I always wanted to sing." "That's because you couldn't do nothin' else!" Eddie chirps in. "Well, I'm a pretty good cook and I'd have made a good mechanic too!" responds his partner. (…)

Asked what they'd like to achieve in the future, David says that "a starring role in a movie" would be very satisfying. Eddie is a little more philosophical, reflecting that "I've done everything I wanted to do and it's like a 360 degree turn to me now. I can clean up some things, mistakes I've made and I know I won't do them again."

David and Eddie see themselves as "trendsetters rather than followers in this business, we're good singers and we do good music" but when it comes to defining exactly what they see themselves as in relationship to the business, they're not exactly in accord!
"We're singers first, then entertainers," says Eddie.

"Naw, man, we're entertainers, not just singers!" David responds. "There are a lot of 'singers' in the business who shouldn't be in it, frankly. If you want my opinion, they give this business a bad name."