Feeling truly free: Illa J is ready to create his own Detroit hip hop legacy
Becky Buckle speaks with John Yancey, AKA Illa J ,about the influence of Detroit’s music scene and the legacy of his older brother, J Dilla
Detroit is famed for its musical heritage that spans across genres such as rap, techno, blues and soul. Artists that fuel the creativity that flows from the Motor City include the likes of Stevie Wonder, Juan Atkins, The Supremes, Madonna, Eminem and Aaliyah.
Another artist who is part of this revered group is John Yancey, aka. Illa J. Younger brother of the late pioneer J Dilla, Illa has greatness running through his veins, albeit faced with a legacy that looms large. Growing up in Detroit with his brother, an opera-singing mother, a bass-playing father and a poetry-writing sister; he looked destined to follow a musical pathway. Songwriting has been a crucial part of his life since he was 13-year-old and recorded his first track at Studio A with big bro.
After Jay Dee tragically passed in 2006, Illa J set out to follow in his footsteps, dropping out of college to pursue music, with a focus on singing and rapping. In 2008 he joined his brother's former group Slum Village as a full-time member, and in that same year he released ‘Yancey Boys’, an album blending never-heard-before J Dilla beats with his own verses on top. Since leaving Slum Village in 2014 to focus on his solo career, he's put out a number of albums and EPs, including the 'Illa J' and 'John Yancey' LP on on Bastard Jazz Recordings and Jakarta Records respectively, showcasing an increasingly smooth vocal style with plenty of R&B influence.
Last year marked a new dawn for his career, when he dropped his first self-produced work. Joining forces with UK artist Harleighblu, after discovering her through a Colors performance, they released the joint project ‘Hideout’. Now with a new album from the pair on the horizon, as well as his first self-produced solo album set to land in 2023, Illa J is setting out to stamp his own musical identity upon the world.
Read our conversation with Illa J below.
How are you this morning?
I'm good. I mean it's been a crazy few years, for pretty much everybody. But in a good way. I was touring so much before that I was getting burnt out from touring, and then I got a chance to work on a lot of other ventures that I never got a chance to work on before because I was so busy. I had a chance to really work on my production. I've always been producing, it just takes time to really build your studio and have all your equipment and get a chance to understand your workflow and really be productive. It was a good time to really catch up on stuff musically. I feel like I'm in a much better place musically now than before the whole thing.
What a positive start to the interview! So you feel like everything's come together recently?
With the studio, it's a long process. Getting everything and trying out gear like: "Ah I don't need this." Then you realise you need more mics and preamps. It's a very expensive career. A lot of artists go off and record at different places, but even then you could spend a lot of money going to studios. You're going to spend the money either way, but it's more valuable to have your own studio. You spend that money once, but you can record whenever. Now I record a hook at random parts of the day, chill, play some video games then go record a verse later.
Isn't that like every musician's dream?
Yeah and it's about the freshness of the idea. We have ideas all the time but if I can't record it somehow or put it down on paper, then you lose it. I'm really happy I'm learning how to write music now. I knew the basics before but now I'm doing it more consistently by actually writing it out in notation. Anyone that has been making beats for a few years realises that when you start to look at notation it's all the same visions and numbers.
Can you tell me what it was like growing up in Detroit surrounded by music?
It's crazy because growing up at that time it extends beyond hip hop. Growing up on the East Side of Detroit there were churches everywhere, so at least for me I had all my friends going to church and in the choir. That was the life of me.
My brother (J Dilla) would be in the basement which is where you'd hear drums in the house all night. But really my introduction was being the younger kid going through my older brother's stuff. I found a cassette player lying around and I'd be like "Hey, what's this?" I'd see some cassettes with some Ice Cube on it and that was my discovery. My sister writes poetry and she introduced me to Nas and people like that.
After that, I built it on my own. But my music influence from Detroit would have to be a lot of Motown, soul and church music. I'd listen to the radio and there'd be a lot of Anita Baker and Patti LaBelle playing. But it transitions into hip hop if you listen to the type of songs that a lot of the hip hop producers from Detroit sample. They sample a lot of Motown and soul. It's known for the hip hop scene but that comes from all these kids that grew up listening to all this soul music as that's what our parents were listening to.
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Do you have any key memories growing up in Detroit in particular with its music scene?
I didn't really get into the scene until I was 18 or 19 when my brother passed. People would invite me out but shortly after that, I moved to LA. So when I think about the Detroit scene I think about the Detroit artists. There is technically a scene in Detroit, but at some point to get the success you have to leave. You can be locally dope or whatever, like in New York if you're big it can go and spread, but in Detroit, it is what it is or you have to go somewhere else. My brother went to New York and LA to connect with artists in the scene.
So like I said, when I think of the Detroit scene I just think of Detroit artists. Realistically when we had a "scene, scene" it was when there was Motown. That whole era is the foundation of how we got to where we are now. The only difference is that at some point it was a bridge in the gap of musicianship, but again that is how hip hop came about. Because instruments weren't available we rapped on turntables. It's all technically the same but the difference is that they once had more instruments and music classes were available but when that stripped out, we loved music but didn't have the expensive equipment.
What about the scene in Detroit now?
It's somewhat different now. It's good because it's more open than ever so I feel like you can as an artist not have to overthink things. I feel like people really listen to everything. Someone might listen to hip hop, rock and hardcore rock and jazz, all at the same time. In your approach to making a project, you can go left and people appreciate that. They like when people go left now. Bringing it back to the Detroit thing is that in our scene you've got the techno, the soul, and house music you're already mixing a lot of different genres. But obviously, we've had some really big hip hop artists that have come from Detroit, but when you really think about it, all these soul artists and Stevie Wonders is what makes Detroit what it is. When you think about it, you have 'Finally Famous', Shady and then artists that branched from Slum [Village]. All these artists are technically connected behind the scenes. Detroit's a small city. Even Guilty Simpson says in one of his lines: "It ain't hard find me I'm in the D".
It's a big-small city. You probably know my cousin or something. One of the dudes I went to middle school with is Big Sean's DJ, Mo Beatz. It was definitely a strong musical influence growing up. It was one of those things that everyone knew someone who did music or could sing. It's a whole vibe.
I'm intrigued that Detroit has this rich history yet you say it's all going left?
If you've grown up in an environment for a very long time it's going to be imprinted on you. As soon as someone starts to travel it rubs off on them. That's why it's so important to travel as it breaks you out as it's a big world. I notice that when I travel around the world many places remind me of Detroit in different ways. I was talking to a homie and he was saying that Memphis gives him a Detroit vibe.
Also when you travel to these other places there is music out there that you've never heard. You grow up thinking the music from where you're from is the only thing that exists in a way. Then you find out about all these other artists which were my journey. Other places have been making hip hop for a long time too. Music is everywhere. Each genre bounces off from each other as you can find African rhythms in this and Brazilian swing in this. It's all mixed up. Like you had a lot of Detroit Motown artists move to LA so obviously that influenced the sound out there and vice versa.
Each person has their own imprint. It's the person, not the city. Like my brother's curiosity took apart a tape machine, it wasn't because he was in Detroit that he did that. I will say that what I for sure get from Detroit is that music was always around. I think the churches were an influence because a lot of singers come from the church. That's how I leant to sing. I have vocal lessons to help me get to certain notes and work on my range but how to express I learnt from the church as it's a certain type of soul like when you see the preacher sing. Then you see singers like D'Angelo who was another singer from the church. There is just a certain soul that comes from the church and again if you look back a lot of that R&B stuff was gospel chords which was a whole thing when it started out as it was like the devil's music to do with the lyrics. I was watching a Ray Charles movie recently and he was using gospel chords and talking about sex, but even back then the church was an influence and there were only certain places you could play music.
What's so dope about hip hop is that it came from not having instruments. I've done a lot of work on my voice, and yes it's a skill, but it is something you've had your whole life so you need to get to know it. It's more impressive when you're learning an instrument, like I'm taking piano lessons now. I've been playing my whole life but I want to take it to a new level. I just see music as so much more than music as once you get into it, it's a science.
Let's talk about your album 'Hideout' as it marks your first solo production work. How did the reaction to that album feel?
It felt amazing. That's the one thing I've been hiding my whole career. I've been producing since Funkmaster Flex's video game came out. I was making beats on that back when I was younger. The thing that shied me away was the whole thing with my bro. Are people going to judge me based on my bro? Which is crazy as I produced a solo album before I put out 'Hideout'. I didn't know how people would take my production and ironically that album will be coming out at some point this year. That was technically the first full album I produced by myself. At the same time, I produced that I was in contact with Harleigh [Harleighblu] and I sent her the album as I was just sitting on it. She came out and we recorded 'Hideout'. We recorded those albums back-to-back, so I recorded my solo album and then she flew out to Vegas and we recorded 'Hideout' in 10 days. Then a few months after that, she came back out and we recorded another album. So we have been working like crazy.
I know her from Colors when it was like the underdogs on there, as at the time as it was discovering undiscovered talent. I remember checking hers out and I was like, I get her vibe. At some point, we got in contact and we just always stayed in touch. She came out to LA because she was out writing songs with people and I knew that if we had the time we could really write something together. Then all the stuff I did with her came out first but it goes back to how I feel about stuff.
The 'Hideout' project coming out honestly gave me the confidence to be able to put out my solo stuff. It was the first test to see how people would feel about me putting out my productions. It was dope to have someone on it with me. If I went out on my own people would have judged me more. I'm thankful for working with Harligh on that project. She's so easy to work with even when we were touring. She's family at this point. It's hard to find people that are ready to work.
I write on the spot as I don't want to lose the moment, I want to capture it now. That whole album was made with me writing the chords and she's writing the melody then ten minutes later she's got a hook and we're in the booth. All those songs were done in six-hour sessions. It's the same process with our second album. There were so many times I wanted to take a chance with my production but I was just scared of people. It makes sense now though, I'm older and don't give a fuck. I'm happy, my wife is an artist too and we're doing our thing. For me, that's what it's all about, being around people you love and doing what you love. I'm thankful that I'm able to travel and perform. It's a blessing. That album just gave me the confidence as I've had so many beats this whole time. And when I think they are too left, people really enjoy them. When I was touring people appreciated that I wasn't afraid to go left. If you like it you like it, if you don't, you don't, it's that simple.
You were saying how it's daunting to go into producing with the reputation of your brother. Can you talk more about Slum Village as that must have been a difficult thing to join?
I dropped out of school right when my bro passed and then I moved out to Cali. I already wanted to do music like I did my song with my brother when I was 13 but I was young. Then I realised whilst I was at college that I was in my room listening to music that yeah my brother was successful but I knew I had it in me, my whole family knew. It was worth it to take a leap of faith.
Technically I started in LA first with my solo album. My first tour was with Aloe Blacc - but like hip hop Aloe Blacc. Then it was 'Yancey Boys'. After 'Yancey Boys', I moved back to Detroit and that was when I started working with T3 on the project 'Village Manefesco' which was the first I featured on. After that, I started doing shows with them. During that time they split up for whatever reasons but it's all good now. Then I became a part of the touring Slum. I was still solo Illa J and had happened to be touring with them, but I grew up with them around so I just ended up being in it. It was a blessing as I learnt a lot during that time. I got really polished in the studio working with them so I will always appreciate that time for that. But then at a certain point, I knew I had to get back to my solo or else my career will just be what they were saying, I will be the shadow thing. It was hard to get out of that as I was doing shows with my bros.
Then after that, I did my album with Potatohead People, which was the first album I did without production from my brother. Everything else in my career like 'Yancey Boys' and 'Sunset Blvd.', everything was on my brother's beats. It wasn't on purpose as I was making music on my own before 'Yancey Boys' but I got the opportunity to do music with those tracks from Delicious Vinyl. It's a full circle, I feel like I'm starting my career how I want to now. How I wish I would've started it with me producing and being a full on musician.
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Is there a narrative to your upcoming albums?
For these albums, I would say the storyline is different for me and Harleigh. For her, it's her coming out party, really giving her a chance to show people her versatility as a songwriter. She's a really dope songwriter and has a really dope voice. I feel like it's just the beginning for her, she's starting to blossom into the great songwriter that she'll be and she's already amazing. Then for me, it's my journey as a musician and producer. In my mind, I was in this producer shadow as I felt that I couldn't put stuff out as a producer because of who my brother is. So it really represents me being truly free. When I performed the 'Hideout' album on tour, it was all new stuff. I wasn't playing stuff I knew they liked. It was dope because to see the stuff that I thought was too left being the stuff they liked the most. It gave me a lot of confidence. It's a beautiful thing when I can go play something and they get that energy too. Right now I'm curious for them to hear the new stuff. Both albums are completely different. I'm probably rapping more than I ever have on an album. I have like 19 songs on my album. It keeps that bounce and there's some familiar swing, it's just going to be fun. The stuff on the Harleigh project leads into mine so it's all interconnected in a way.
It's completely different vibes all made at the same time. I'm really excited about this year and just moving forward. It just feels good to be finally at the point in my life where I'm not thinking, I'm just doing. There's no stopping at this point.
What do you want the reader to take away from the interview about yourself?
I'm very straightforward forward. I'm 36 and I know exactly what I want to get across. I make music, I'm a music producer [laughs]. I'm a good guy and I like music. But really, for me and my career, the one thing that I've got to know was the whole younger brother thing. I've grown now. At the end of the day, I look at it like "yeah cool, my brother's a legend." People would use that against me but now that I'm older I'm like, that's so stupid. Obviously, there's going to be that reaction. All I could do was do my own thing. Some people that have said things like that before have now changed their opinions. It's kind of funny. I try to tell younger artists that it's such a rush to put out music, but I honestly think you should just wait. Just keep recording stuff and really learn your voice and understand what you want to make before you put it out there. Once you figure that out then you go out there. But then people have also witnessed my growth. 'Yancey Boys' is what it is. It's the 20-year-old kid making an album for the first time, knowing nothing about the music industry.
BMF Season Two, a show exploring the criminal underbelly of Detroit hip hop business BMF Entertainment, can be streamed in the UK on the Lionsgate Plus app
Becky Buckle is Mixmag's Video and Editorial Assistant, follow her on Twitter