Illa J

"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.”  

    

Madeleine Byrne: The promo material says John Yancey is all about Los Angeles, whereas Home was about Detroit. For me when listening to the record what came through were ideas about relationships, love and lust in songs like “Tokyo” and “Rose Gold.” What do you think about that comment?

Illa J: Well, I mean it wasn’t specifically about Los Angeles, but the vibe was, musically it was more Californian but as far as the subject matter the album is more personal relationships over the past ten years, not a specific time; all the experiences I’ve been through. I’m talking about a little bit of everything.

MB: You’ve got a real talent for evoking matters of the human heart, those songs I mentioned before stood out for me (“Rose Gold” and “Tokyo”). Could you choose one and explain what you were aiming for?    

Illa J: “Tokyo,” for example, is a straight-forward R&B song. The music comes first, it’s whatever the vibe is (I write to that), so for “Tokyo” as soon as I heard the beat it was R&B for me; the melody comes first, then I bring the words in, even when I’m rapping, you know rhythmically. I’m a singer, so melody comes first, but in terms of the subject matter, the music tells you. But we set ourselves up for those situations, ‘cause I pick beats that sound (a certain way). The subject matter just comes, the music brings it out.

MB: Let’s talk about “12 AM”  because the song has got a really different mood.

Illa J: Technically that song started the album, it was the first track we did. The one difference is that was the only song that was recorded in Detroit. Every other song was recorded in LA. That was the only one I recorded over the beat somewhere else, not in the studio – every other song was recorded in the studio. You definitely hear a different vibe on it because I was in Detroit the time I recorded that song.

MB: How is that vibe in Detroit different?

Illa J: A range of music inspires you differently … It’s hard to explain, but I write different things when I’m in Detroit versus when I’m in LA. It’s a different feeling I have, more “real life style”, it’s almost like trying to get out if I’m in Detroit, even if I’m good there’s a certain kind of energy that it brings out in me.

MB: What is it about that sound in Detroit, though, obviously your brother (J Dilla) is an important part of it, but how would you describe it for someone who doesn’t know much about Detroit’s music scene?

Illa J: Honestly, if you go back and study Motown, you’ll understand it all. The drums are heavier in the Motown stuff, they have like two drummers drumming at the same time. Don’t get it twisted it’s pop/Soul, pop melodies but if you listen to the full sound of it, it’s pop but still soulful, it has a certain feeling, you know what I mean? It’s nothing technical musically, you could have an electronic beat if you do the right thing to it and it could feel soulful, it’s all about your individuality and what you put into the music.

It’s just that Motown musical feeling, and definitely that 9-5 grind that we grew up around is ingrained in us as well, but I think it’s one of those things you absorb the kind of environment that’s around you. If you listen to Snoop and all of them, one thing I find in Cali – not all of them – but a lot of Cali artists have got a laid-back kind of vibe in their songs. It makes sense. They got palm trees to look at every day, the sound might be similar to Detroit the funk of it, but it sounds more laid-back; ours is more gritty, that’s what it is. We got snow and all that stuff. A lot of these beats are made in winter ‘cause you don’t want to be outside (laughs).

MB: I understand that the production is sample-based, did you use any live instrumentation on any of the tracks?

Illa J: All the production is done by Calvin Valentine, though on the next album I’m going to do the production; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, even when I was younger, but you know my brother had just passed when I started, and it was so much of a comparison thing. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t produced my albums, but at the same time I like working with other producers ‘cause on my solo albums I can then focus on my song-writing and my vocals. Calvin Valentine did all the music; he’s a talented producer and solo artist as well. It’s all sample-based, even though some tracks don’t sound like it. Calvin plays around with it, he plays on top of it and builds on it.

MB: Thanks for mentioning Motown before because you can see it’s a big influence. One of your tracks (“Rose Gold”) includes a reference to Smokey Robinson, you had a song called “Sam Cook” – no e at the end -  on your last record, Home. Your dad is extremely important too in terms of this. As far as I understand it, he wrote The Spinners’ song “It’s a Shame” is that correct?

Illa J: Yeah, yeah, he ghost-wrote that song. I mean it’ s the same thing today, you have songwriters who write songs, but they pay them to not give them the credit, they pay them upfront because they don’t want to give them the royalties from it, or whatever. My dad sold that song to The Spinners.

MB: I saw in an interview that you’d sing with him when you were growing up and here’s a quote: “My dad would wake us up at three in the morning and he’d be layering harmonies on his tape recorder.” Could you talk some more about your dad and how he has inspired you in terms of your music?

Illa J: He’s the musical foundations. Don’t get me wrong both my mom and dad are musical, my mom sings too, but my dad is the one; there wouldn’t be a J Dilla if it wasn’t for my dad. He was a songwriter, he played piano – both his parents played piano. His group went on the road with The Harlem Globetrotters way, way back in the day. He was making moves back then. I don’t know how to put it but basically everything me and my brother have done is inspired by my dad, because he never had a chance to have solo success. Motown wanted to sign my dad but he didn’t want to take the deal from Motown. He knew all the people there. They wanted to sign him, but he didn’t want to sign with them for whatever reason.

MB: Can you recall any conversations with your dad when you’d talk about music, something you might remember to today?

Illa J: I mean, we talked about music a lot of times, it’d be hard to break it down to one conversation, but it was just one of those things; my dad had it, James had it, not so much conversations but schooling us to jazz. I started off with jazz because of my dad, I listened to a lot of vocalists growing up, the obvious ones – Stevie Wonder all of that stuff, cause if you’re growing up in Detroit you’re going to hear all of that – as far as our household I heard a lot of a cappella jazz, Manhattan Transfer, Les Double Six of Paris. They were back in the day, even before Manhattan Transfer before anyone even knew who Manhattan Transfer was, they did a whole album with Quincy Jones (Les Double Six – Rencontrent Quincy Jones, Columbia, 1960)

putting words to it in French. One of the dopest a cappella jazz groups ever. My dad put me up on them, you should check them out. I grew up with a lot of a cappella jazz – just jazz period, more than any other music I learnt jazz first.

(Here’s an announcement from the Stones Throw website marking the event of Beverly Dewitt Yancey’s death in 2012. In a later email Illa J passed on this information about his father: “Beverly Dewitt Yancey. Born West Virginia, October 8th, 1932, played music all his life, both his parents played piano for silent movies. He had a band called "The Ivies." They put a record with an A and B side, “C’mon" & "Sunshine." Motown wanted to sign his group the Ivies.”) 

MB: I saw that you had experience singing in church, but it sounds like you had more of a jazz education than church/gospel ….

Illa J: No, no, no all of it at the same time; all of it at the same time, that was the household, we went to church on Sunday, I was in the church choir. It was a full musical background. Jazz was the household, I was in choir as well, I got a lot of training from that. I didn’t realise till later that was a lot of good training: rehearsals, I’d go to my mom and dad’s rehearsals and Sunday choir. Not judging but it wasn’t like Catholic church where it’s just (breaks into falsetto trilling singing) it was the real thing, it was soul like real music. That was good training everything I would end up doing later, not until five or six years ago I really started to master my voice, working with my vocal coach.

I was always a singer first, I feel like people are like oh so you’re a singer now, no I’ve always been a singer. I just could rap, rapping was always something I could do I’m musical, I grew up writing poetry, so writing was never anything, but it was always singing for me.

MB: I don’t want to avoid speaking about your mom, how would you describe her influence on your music?                      

Illa J: Musically my mom was a singer, so she’d tell me different singers to listen to, to practice, but like as I say my dad was the musical foundations. I understand they both did music, again my mom sings too, but my dad was the musical inspiration for everybody. He was the musical master. He even got her more into jazz, ‘cause he was helping her as a singer. He heard her voice and wanted to work with her. My dad was the man, musically; on the music thing, he was the one.

Obviously, they made us, but it is what it is, my dad is the man. People don’t know that, they never mention my dad like that, like you can’t talk about J Dilla without my dad. No, he’s the one (laughs). Of course, I say this to mom, show love to my mom, but really my dad is the one, I’m a spitting image of him. I would not be able to do anything musically without him. I’m most conscious of him because he is more of a song-writer, you know melody side, music period – the jazz chords, the rhythms, I took all of that and the singing stuff ‘cause I was a singer like when my dad was in a group.

They had an a cappella jazz group that’d record at our house. This happened even before I was born, so my brother would play drums for them when they were singing, but I was singing, learning my notes, taking the harmonies.

MB: What ages are you talking about here?

Illa J: All my life, as far as I can remember, before I could talk (laughs) music was around. It was the main driver: it was like brush my teeth, watch TV, music. It was always a big part of our lives.

MB: One of the songs “Sunday” on the new album, the harmonies in that song are fantastic. It’s quite different to the other songs, what’s the story behind it?

Illa J: Well, it’s technically an interlude, but we didn’t want to call it an interlude, no it’s just a shorter track. Each track touches on personal stuff and stuff with my brother, a lot of it is relationships based but also how your life affects your relationships. “Sunday” is everything coming together near the end, I went through all these things, but I’m still here. All those things weren’t in vain, I learned from it, how to get myself back up and keep going. Literally “Sunday” is like church, it ends almost like a gospel song, that song was like all the stuff I’ve been through the album and you get to that song and it’s like Sunday, literally (laughs).

MB: On Twitter you call yourself: “Singer, rapper, songwriter, alien” Frank Nitt, of course had a song on the first Yancey Boys album called “Alien Family” where he’s talking about how Jay Dee really loved aliens and how “the Jackson Five from Mars” could be a description of your family, what is it with these alien references?

Illa J: To me, it makes sense, Frank used to call my brother alien, honestly for me it has nothing to do with that, my dad’s favourite channel with the Sci-Fi channel so we grew up with that, Science fiction movies, scary movies and all that stuff. I’ve always been into extra-terrestrial (stuff) … space, aliens all that type of stuff. In a personal way, I always felt, ah different (laughs) I’ve never fitted in, even around my people, I still have my weirdness, I always felt like I never fitted in fully. I feel like an alien in that way, I actually have a tattoo too on my left arm, it’s an alien (laughs). I just got it this year.

MB: And you also got a tattoo of 1932, the year your dad was born, right?

Illa J: Yeah, but it’s tied to both themes: it’s the year my dad was born and the age my brother died. I was 19, he was 32.

 

MB: The new record is quite international – you’ve got references to Ukraine, Japan, Paris, London and other places – Home your previous album was apparently about finding your own voice, about going home, “a spiritual reference about the journey of finding my own voice” is the way you put it. Now Detroit is still important to you, I’d expect, even though you’re based in LA. Do you go back there often?

Illa J: No (laughs), but it’s still important. I love it, it’s my home. I know that’s where I became who I am today, it started there. It will always be home base no matter what, I just don’t see myself living there at least not right now.

MB: The video for “Home” was filmed I think at your actual childhood home, is that right?

Illa J: Yeah, it’s the very first home, it’s the house I literally grew up in, and the house I’m singing in front of was when I was a baby, I was only a baby there. The first house in the video, the very first house they show I lived there a lot of years, a lot of my growing up – my teenage years – were there.

MB: There’s another song I’d like to speak about from that record, “Seven Mile,” it’s an interesting contrast; “Home” is like a rousing, stirring song, “Seven Mile” is completely different, much harder but funkier too in a way. Could you talk about how the songs work together?

Illa J: For me that album has got a dirty soul type of vibe to it, Home wasn’t just the title it was more of a vibe, by the end of the recording it came through as a common theme, so it didn’t make sense to call it “7 Mile.”

One of my favourite things is titling songs with a word that’s not used in the song. Sometimes a title just describes the vibe of the song. “7 Mile” – the street Seven Mile in Detroit is one of the crazy streets to drive on, the street is really messed up, really bumpy; that was the purpose of the video driving down, it’s more about the vibe and the feeling.

It’s almost like they’re taking the drive, it’s a tough road and they’re going get through. “Home” is more a spiritual realisation, like I went through all that stuff and I’m finally home, it’s about making it home. I made it, back home, it was kind of real, cause even though I was then technically still living in Montreal, I had to come out here, I had some shows in California, so that’s how I was able to record it.

By the time the album came out, I was moving back home, so it was really spiritual; it was for real, home. Now it’s full circle with John Yancey because it’s the first album in a while that has my last name in it, Yancey in the title, since Yancey Boys and it’s ten years later I put out this album, John Yancey.

It’s full circle, it’s almost where I wanted it to go originally, there’s more singing on this album, I’m still rapping, but there’s more singing. The singing is very present. That’s what I want people to see, oh yeah, he’s a singer, for the longest time people were looking at me like a rapper, and I’m like no I’m not a rapper.

MB: You’ve always been a singer, where does this feeling come from of thinking that people see you as a rapper first?

Illa J: With The Yancey Boys album … people still don’t get it, it’s like once you rap, automatically you’re a rapper. The only way to get around that is to not rap, that’s what worked on Home. I rap less, then they have to pay attention to my singing, I don’t know what it is. I listen to music a lot and I’ve been doing it for years, the average listener they’re not listening like that, you have to do so much more for them to get an understanding of it.

Even with this album, it’s like (people still call it) a hip-hop album, but it’s not. It’s a weird type of vibe, it’s a total hip-hop vibe, but if you really listen to it it’s not an underground hip-hop album at all (laughs), but I will still be put in that category. They’ll call it an underground rap album, and I’m like, no it’s not, go back and listen to it. It’s damn near a soul/R&B album with rapping on it, if you really listen to it, it’s not an underground rap album. I want to get out of that category, what is underground rap? What is conscious rap?

I make music, that’s it. I listen to everything. I listen to pop music, R&B, ‘cause there’s good music everywhere. There’s wack music everywhere, there’s wack music in underground rap, people are like I’m from the underground, so they feel like they’re better. No, there is great pop music, people get it twisted like oh he’s making pop music, he’s selling out, it’s like no, I’m making music for everybody. You’re actually limiting yourself if you go in a specific genre. It’s not like yeah, I’m hip-hop, I make music.

MB: One thing that’s interesting about this is that everybody goes on about how the rap in Detroit is hard, with the techno-influence etc but Slum Village which you were a part of, touring and recording with in 2012-2013, was all about melody and changing the lyrical content, your brother J Dilla had heaps of tracks about relationships, about lusting after women, you know …

Illa J: Exactly.

MB: So, what you’re describing is kind of surprising as in Detroit there’s a long tradition of singers teaming up with rappers.

Illa J: Thank you, yes. If anything, that is our history: Detroit musical history is pop music, pop Soul music is what it is, it’s weird it’s got to the point where it’s only this underground rap thing, ‘cause it was different late 90s/early 2000s. Even some mainstream artists wanted to be called underground cause it was a different thing then, now it’s just like a turn-off when it’s underground cause it’s going to be overly conscious.

When there’s a song with rapping it’s like they just wanted to hear themselves rap and I’m like where’s the song? I can’t see it. Every song on my album has a specific topic. Every single song is very specific, “BTW” is about me travelling and doing music and trying to have a relationship, “Enjoy the Ride” is about someone going through some shit but still enjoying the ride, “Tokyo” is what it is … Everything has a specific topic. You won’t be confused, I guarantee it, you won’t be like what’s this song about. I worked very hard on my writing to get away from that, in the rap world it’s easy to stray away from the topic and you end up rapping for two minutes about … what? (laughs)

MB: Bringing it back to Slum Village, there’s a connection with what you’re doing now I think in terms of their music, the focus on melody, talking about relationships. What do you think about that idea?

Illa J: I definitely represent their vibe, it is what it is, T3 is my brother and Young RJ is my brother. I was very influenced by them ‘cause that was my introduction to a lot of that type of music ‘cause you know I was telling you about my dad, I was listening to whatever music my dad was. When we were younger we didn’t have access to explicit content (laughs) you had to get some permission, or sneak out and buy a CD to get some explicit content, I had no idea what else was out there outside what my parents were playing on the radio, so all I heard was Stevie Wonder and all that stuff and jazz and things like that until I was seven, or eight or nine and could sneak out and grab my brother’s cassettes and all of his quote, unquote explicit music, all that rap stuff that was out at that time.

Slum was my introduction to that type of music, they have influenced me their whole style, if you listen to my records you definitely are going to hear the influence of Slum Village – it is what it is, no Slum Village no me (laughs). It’s all the same story, I can’t tell my story without saying something about Slum, even in my career, they play a big part.

I was working with them for three years, I was only on that album in 2013, but I was actually technically working with them for longer. We did two straight mixtapes, Dirty Songs 1 & 2, two full complete projects but they were released as mixtapes and was touring with them the same time. Evolution in 2013 was the only album, even though I was working with them the two previous years. A lot of things I learnt from them was in the studio, that’s where I learnt a lot of things from Slum. I really got way better as a recording artist.

MB: To close let’s bring it back to your album, John Yancey, there are two strong references to your brother on it: the songs “James Said” and “32”.

Illa J: “James Said” basically, cause on the hook I sing, “like one won’t do” ‘cause he had a song, “Won’t do” on The Shining album. It was me writing my verse, building on that – again it represents how it was when I was younger and I was trying to be my bro in a way, you know what I mean? It’s almost me trying to take him on but at the same time I’m talking about me and what I went through, on the hook you can see it’s like the younger me, learning, going through stuff.

“32” is the most direct, in that song I’m actually talking to James, literally talking to James. “James said” is more a reference to my brother, “32” is me talking straight to my brother and when it comes on you can hear his voice, that’s his voicemail. (You can hear it at the end of track, Sunday) That’s his actual outgoing message, then you hear him talking under my singing when the song starts, you hear me singing, “The things we go through are …” (sings) The voice under that talking is him, that’s James talking.

MB: It’s very powerful, I thought it was his voice.  

Illa J: The point of that song is that I’m 32 years-old and he died when he was 32 years-old and that’s trippy as hell, I’m 32 now, that’s crazy and talk about the whole 1932 thing as well in the verse. The point of that song is that I’ve never had a conversation with my brother as a grown man …

(and with that the line cuts).