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Artist Feature: Illa J

Click here to listen to the Illa J Radio Show.

When Detroit native John Derek Yancey, better known as Illa J, released his third album, Home, in 2017 on the Cologne/Berlin-based label Jakarta, it was partly an act of self-affirmation for the rapper-slash-singer. As the younger brother of hip hop legend J Dilla, who tragically passed away in 2006, the 32-year-old artist has spent much of his career in the shadow of his illustrious sibling – even playing a bit-part role in Slum Village after Dilla’s death.

Around 2014, he eventually parted with the crew and moved to Montreal where he would hone his artistic skillset, free from the influence of his native Detroit peers. On returning to his hometown, he went straight to the studio, where he recorded “Home.” It was a record that would see him step out of his brother’s shadow for the first time, showcasing his talent not simply as a rapper, but as an accomplished, ambitious vocalist. “Home” comprises of the soothing, soulful loops you might expect considering his family history, but it’s one in which bars take a backseat. “Rap is easy,” he shrugs when we meet him in Basel on a rare day off during his recent tour through Europe. “When you sing it is all more precise. You really choose the words carefully.”

In last November, he released his latest album, the eponymously titled John Yancey. It’s one which oscillates more sharply between R&B and hip hop, delivering twelve songs of wispy vocals, like those on “Home,” and the breathless raps of his earlier work. 

For Carhartt WIP Radio, Yancey, now Los Angeles-based, has selected some tunes that DJ Glenn Astro put together to showcase the eclectic nature of Illa J's work, from that raw rap talent shown on his first album – the 2008 release Yancey Boys – to a more mature, mellow artist a decade on. As always, we also sat down with the artist, to discuss music, family, his hometown and why people from Detroit have such a special affinity for Prince.

You come from a very musical family, but were actually interested in starting a career as a sportsman. Why was that?

Illa J: My dad played bass in jazz bands. He wrote the hit It's A Shame for the Motown band The Spinners as a ghost-writer. My mother was an opera singer. I've always been involved with music, but initially focused on basketball. I wanted to be the next Michael Jordan – I'm still a big fan. When I was in school, I wrote an essay about how Michael Jordan and my brother, J Dilla, were my biggest idols and how I wanted to be like them. What they have in common is their work ethic. Both were so disciplined. I've learned that from them: only with discipline you reach ambitious goals. I'm like an athlete – I work hard at my art all the time. Prince is my role model for the same reasons.

Why is Prince so important to people from Detroit? Moodymann loves him too.

Illa J: Well, we all come from Midwest cities. This is the first connection. And this is why we have a certain sound. We get the music from the East and West coast, so there is this special mix of sound. If you listen to Prince, you hear that he is a little bit of everything. He covers the whole musical spectrum. That is what is so amazing about him. And this is something I want for my career too. I do not want to link to a special type of music. I am known for hip hop and R&B. But if you hear the music that is on my hard drive you will learn that I make all types of music. I hope one day the world will hear it. And that’s why I and Detroit love Prince: you can’t put him into a box. Also, there has been almost nobody that has been that famous and that wrote all his music by himself. That alone makes him unique. I like sports and if Prince would have been a Basketball player, he would have been the greatest all-rounder of them all.

Do you actually see yourself as a rapper or singer?

Illa J:  Singer. That's why Stevie Wonder is also a role model for me. Rap is easy. But someone who wants to sing well has to work a lot on himself and has to keep his body in shape. Otherwise it won’t work.

And why do you prefer singing to rapping?

Illa J: When you rap, you say so much in a very short time with very different rhythms that it is sometimes hard for the listener to understand all words. When you sing, it’s all more precise. You really choose the words carefully and so, for the listener, it is easier to understand all that you are saying. This is something I really like about singing. You have to be on point and I enjoy that challenge. Take a song like Tokyo, which is my first fully R&B song, it was a challenge to write it and I really enjoyed it as I learned so much.

Do you see your new album “John Yancey” a step forward in the direction of being a singer?

Illa J: Definitely. Since the “Home,” which was my introduction as a singer, I took a step forward. When I play live people want to hear songs like Home, Sam Cook” and 7 Mile. This makes me happy as I wanted to be a singer for a long time and those songs prove [I’m] this. They also gave me the confidence to push my art forward, which I did with my new album “John Yancey.” And this album is a step forward! Even if I am rapping on it, it is more of a singing album.

Do you also see yourself as an artist who continues the rich musical history of Detroit?

Illa J: Of course. For example, "Home" represents the Motown sound, but in a futuristic sense, made by an artist whose parents heard Motown and who himself has been socialized by House, Techno and Hip Hop.

How do you write lyrics for your songs?

Illa J: Depends. Sometimes I come home with ideas after being on the road and write them down. Sometimes I also write to a beat but this is more for practising. I usually like to write in the studio so that I can directly record it. I feel like if you don’t do it in that moment you lose the moment, the energy, that special fire. That’s always what I am looking for. If I can’t write and record a song during a day in the studio the song might be not that good. I write better on the spot.

So, in a way. you write like beat poets: from the gut, directly, without a filter or a second thought?

Illa J: Yeah. Let’s say I have a studio session tomorrow and I’ve already done the best I could do before [I arrive]. That would drive me crazy as I would think about how it would sound in the studio and so on. I could use my mobile phone or laptop, but it is a different thing to recording in a studio. Maybe something sounds good when you say it, but when you actually record it on the beat it changes. So, for me it is better to do it on spot. I am so happy that I learned how to do it.

Does this also have something to do with routine? That you need a certain environment to get into a song?

Illa J: No, it is not routine. For me, it is simply capturing the moment. Last night is the perfect example. I had to do a feature for the French band La Fine Èquipe where I had to write a hook and bridge and I sung it. They sent me the track and I listened to it and liked it. My manager said: you can record whatever you want to it. As I was in Paris I said, ‘Let’s record it together now that I am here.’ That was the only chance I got the to catch their vibe and get into the thing. It’s different than just recording something. They can see my vibe and they can see if they like the direction I am going. It is something about energy and the flow of energy.

What was the driving force behind your new album?

Illa J:  To bring it on stage with a band. I always had the idea of having my own band that follows my lead, because my shows are very spontaneous: the flow, the energy, the way I deal with the crowd. It’s almost my recording practice. My last five shows have been completely different in terms of what songs I play. There are some songs I always play, like “Home” or “Sam Cook.”  Other than that, I mix it up. As I said, Prince is my favourite artist of all time, so I always wanted to have a band. It’s like a dream, you know. But for the recording process this all didn’t really matter. We all took our time but we still did two songs a day, as my producer Calvin Valentine and I have such a good chemistry. Sometimes we do four songs [in a day]. But for this album we took it slow. There was only one song that we took a full day for, and that was “Tokyo.”

And where did you record the album?

Illa J: In Los Angeles. I only made one song in Detroit – that was 12 AM. Technically this was the first song of the album and everything else was built around it. When you hear the album you will get it. It’s a bit of a clean song but you will get it.

Does environment influence you creatively? In L.A. it is almost always sunny, while in Detroit it can be very grey.

Illa J: It is very different. I lived in two different cities during my life. My album “Home,” for instance, came out when I came back to Detroit from Montreal where I rebuilt my career. That was a special time as my “Home” album really opened the door for a lot of things in my career. A lot of people did not know that I could sing. As an independent artist, this was a real success for me. You can hear this on my new album. You can hear that I have more confidence.

You are now based in L.A. but Detroit is in your heart, right?

Illa J: Sure. That’s my home and will always be my home. But I am also deeply connected to L.A. That’s where I started my career. That’s where I saw my brother the last time and he was at peace when I saw him. And they have so much love for my brother out there so when I moved there, I felt home.

How do you deal with such prominent brother like J Dilla? Is it hard to cope with his fame?

Illa J: When I was younger, I felt pressure, but then I realised it is all how you look at it. That’s all. Also, it’s family. Today, I’m very thankful as he made me work harder and that is why I am where I am. It is a driving inspiration. And I am very happy for him for all he did. When I was younger, I wanted to establish my own name. Now that I have done that it gives me a whole different perspective on things. I am no longer J Dilla’s little brother! One of the big moves for me – and it was a real hard one – was when I got out of Slum Village. If I had not done that I might not where I am now. I think my time with Slum Village was a great learning experience. It was good and I learned a lot about the art of recording and how to do vocals right. But when I left it was time for me to do something on my own as Slum Village was deeply attached to me brother’s legacy and staying with the band would not have been good for my own emancipation as an artist. My move to Montreal was a big, and positive, step for me. I’m happy that I did it.

You released your last two albums on Jakarta Records from Germany. How is it working with an independent label from Europe?

Illa J: It is very nice. Everything is on the table and you as an artist feel very comfortable. We have a lot of communication together on everything: strategy, marketing, which single comes first. Also, when I delivered the album, they never said ‘we like it but we have to change this or that.’ They respected it. They take me fully as an artist.

Does working with an independent label also give you more freedom to grow as an artist?

Illa J: Totally. Also, many people talk about being a major artist. But what is a major artist? Are you a major artist only because you have a major contract? Well, there are actually a lot of artists on major labels that have still yet to put out a record, still yet to tour, and so on. These are all the things that I am doing as a so-called independent artist. So, it makes me think what is a major deal? Ok they put more money into your budget, but that is more money you owe and you’ve not even have put out a record. Me, I am recouping my money, have a record out and a tour. So why be a major artist? I own my masters, man. But when I started my career, I saw it different. I looked up to people on major labels. Now I understand the business, and when you understand how corporations work you see them differently as an artist. Let’s say they give you a budget for your album that is 60k and you tell them you only spent 6k, they will tell you: you have to spend the rest. There are tax reasons or little rules for that. And once you understand that you don’t want that so much anymore. A lot of young artists who have a good song get trapped in that. But then I also understand the corporations, as they see you like an investment. At the end of the 1990s and early 2000s labels were just throwing away money. They had ridiculous budgets for videos and so on, and they did not put that into newcomers. They put it into artists that already had a fan-base so they could recoup money. It is what it is. And you, as an artist, have to see this and be a businessman by yourself. This is very important because when it comes to big companies it is simply a business and there is no space for romantic views. You are self-employed.  And I want to keep it that way.

One final question, as for somebody from Detroit, what does Carhartt mean to you?

Illa J: Sure. It is a Detroit thing. But also, I must say: I was never a guy for giant logos. We are from Detroit and we lay back. My brother just used to wear a pair of jeans, some Timberlands and a Carhartt jacket. The fanciest thing would be his watch maybe. That’s it. That is Detroit. Even drug dealers in Detroit don’t dress fancy. At least in the East Side where I’m from. In my hood, people dress simpler and the Carhartt brand represents that perfectly. It is funny because every time I post something with Carhartt clothing on social media people write me and say: ‘I want that jacket,’ ‘That trouser is so nice and simple.’ And I always say: ‘Yeah. that is the simple Detroit style and that is Carhartt.’

Illa J discography