Photo credit: David Morrison
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Illa J is a musician from a family of musicians. His dad ghostwrote It’s A Shame for The Spinners and his mom sang — that’s how they met, actually. But the best known member of the Yancey family is Illa J’s older brother: J Dilla.
So, yea, we spoke about finding your own way when somebody else’s legacy looms so large and so close, but more about how, practically, to ease your audience away from what they expect you to make into what you really want to make.
We also talked about what success looks like when you’re 19 as opposed to after you turn 30, and he told us about the simple change he made that threw his career into high gear.
Illa J did not set himself an easy task when he decided to make a life in music. But he doesn’t seem daunted. He sounds tough.
We hope you pick up a lot from this one.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: Yes, Illa J is definitely in the building. What's good, man? Happy to have you here.
ILLA J: I'm happy to be here, man. It's dope. Even just being in this studio is dope. I come up on music, so it's like, if you know your music history and stuff, if you really about it, if you come in this studio, you'd be really geeked up. It's not showing how geeked I really am, cause I don't want y'all to not invite me ever again –
FRANNIE KELLEY: I can relate.
ILLA J: – so I was like, "OK."
FRANNIE: That's OK. That's me every time I'm here.
ALI: Nah, you at home. Man, be comfortable. We're happy to have you here.
ILLA J: For sure.
ALI: It's been a long time in the making too. I don't know even know where to begin with you.
ILLA J: Yeah, I know, right? It's crazy. It's crazy.
ALI: It is.
FRANNIE: Well, talk about when you guys first met.
ILLA J: I was actually – it was funny. I was actually still living in Detroit at the time, and a friend of mine, Teyana, we were working on this project that had to do with my brother and that's kind of all I can really give about that project, but basically through Teyana I was able to connect with Ali. And then honestly, a lot of the first conversations wasn't even about music. I was talking to him about investments and, like, different – all these other questions, investing my money and stuff.
FRANNIE: Uh huh. He's good about that.
ILLA J: Yeah.
ALI: Sometimes I'm good about it. I have information. I love sharing information. If people want music information, yeah, we could get that, but nah, I just appreciate, first of all, I mean, his brother – may Dilla be resting in peace – was dear to the family.
FRANNIE: So when you were out there visiting him, did you ever meet anybody else in the family?
ALI: No, I actually only saw Dilla in Detroit once.
FRANNIE: Oh, OK.
ALI: Other than that, he would –
FRANNIE: It's just a story that looms large kind of.
ALI: If someone said that I've met him, I mean, I went to his place – I don't – I've never heard that – I mean, I don't know. People talk about a lot of things, so I don't know.
ALI: But no, he used to come to New York and to New Jersey and kick it with me and Tip, so I never met Illa J. My introduction to him was just hearing about him through the music actually, which is crazy – but just in admiring him from the sidelines and understanding the journey of someone who's a sibling of someone who's had such an impact on the culture, and just being on the sidelines as a cheerleader, obviously from the music perspective being a cheerleader, but just in life. And so when we connected, it made absolute sense that he was asking me about non-music stuff.
And as someone who's been in the music business for a long time, and I've had a lot of life experiences through the glass of music. But my experiences are so vast beyond music and things that I've seen, so it was just dope to have him call me and just ask me on some OG like, "What is it? What's this? What's that? What's this? What's that?" And so it made me feel like he's in a great place actually. Cause creatively, you're making your own mark as Illa J, as John Yancey.
ILLA J: That's crazy.
ALI: You know what I'm saying? I mean, you could tell us better than anyone else your journey. I don't know if you want to start from the beginning.
ILLA J: It's funny. Cause even before I started to pursue my career, cause – if I'm going to go back to the beginning, basically I'm from a musical family. So everybody in family did music. My dad, he wrote – he ghost-wrote "It's A Shame" for The Spinners. Cause he actually played that song for their manager, on reel. Like, it go back that far. And then both my dad's parents, they played. My dad was born in 1932, so he's up there. He passed away in 2012, but both his parents played piano for silent movies.
FRANNIE: Whoa! That's so cool.
ILLA J: It goes back far. As far as my journey –
ALI: Wait. That's a moment though.
FRANNIE: Right? I was just lost for a second.
ALI: That's, like, probably their biggest song, The Spinners.
ILLA J: Yeah, yeah. It's crazy.
ALI: I still play that now and people just go crazy over it, to this day.
ILLA J: Yeah, he was – I think he wished he made a better move on that record, cause it became – it was a big record. It's something he just wrote on his organ at the crib. It became this record, and he got some good money for it, but the story, it's crazy. So basically, for back then, he got like five gs for it, and then he went and bought a car. And then, the next day – cause he had parked the car somewhere. The next day, he found the car stripped down basically. Yeah. It's one of those like, "Uggghhhh."
FRANNIE: That's a shame.
ILLA J: Yeah, yeah, it's a shame! It's a shame. Yeah. For real. For real.
My dad played a huge role in me and my brother as far as musically, even our whole fam. Cause my mom sings too, but even with that, my mom and my dad met, because – so basically my mom was singing at a party. You know you have family get-togethers, and a friend of the family, they were at they house. And anyway, my mom was singing some Aretha Franklin song – rest in peace, it's crazy – and basically that friend of the family heard my mom singing and was like, "Hey, I gotta let my friend hear you sing," which was my dad.
Cause my dad, he basically – not only did he write songs, but he would develop artists and he was in the artist development, but basically just for free. He just wanted to work with artists. That was his thing. So my mom and my dad met through music. Literally he heard her voice over the phone, so he wanted to work with her, and then they met.
So it been music from day one. But what's funny is music, that's just a normal thing for me, but before I got into pursuing my career, I knew that if I had ever tried it myself, I knew it was going to be a comparison thing, even when I was young young. Cause I saw what my brother was already doing. So I'm like, "OK. If I ever do it, I know it's going to be this whole comparison thing." So when I was younger, I didn't want to do it kind of, because of that.
I always knew music was going to play a big part in my life at some point anyway, and then when my brother passed, that was actually like, "OK." That was just the straw right there. That was it. Like, "OK. Skip that. This life is short. I want to do what I really love." And kind of went from there. But as far as the – that's one thing, but then me trying to establish my own name within it is a whole 'nother story. It's a whole 'nother story.
Cause then you gotta go through the politics of the industry to establish your name, but not only that, it's more than that too. It's a certain image that my brother has in the public eye, so it's automatically this younger version that kind of looks like him. It just automatically looks like, "Oh, is he doing it just because of his brother?" Blah blah blah. So I had to kind of go through all of that and kind of prove – but I don't mind it, cause for me, it set the bar high.
So I had to work that much harder than the average person coming in that no one knows, and it's just like, "Oh dang, this guy talented." But for me, they could be like, "Yeah, this guy's talented, but then his brother is this. So we expect him to at least be at a certain level. If he not at a certain level, then we like, ah. He OK. But his brother." I'm just saying, cause my brother, his MPC is in the Smithsonian Museum. So it's like, you know what I mean? It's not – it's a big deal. You come out after that wack, then you not going to make it.
ALI: So do you feel pressure or are you actually comfortable understanding that his mark is his mark, the bar is there, and it's not anything for you to pay attention to?
ILLA J: It took me time. When I first started, it was pressure, because I felt in a way that I had to live up to a certain bar or whatever. But then as I continued to work on myself, I realized – and that's actually why I'm naming my next album John Yancey. It's almost like a personal thing for me. It's like, "Yo, look in the mirror. Yeah, you might see your brother. You might even see your dad. But guess what? That's John Yancey, John Yancey right there. You don't have to be nobody else but you. Just do you." I honor my brother, my dad, and my family just doing me, because part of John Yancey is James Yancy and my mom and my dad. So it's like, just do you.
But it took me almost ten years to get that point. And I think part of it was because – had I had my brother here, during this journey on my career, I think it would make it a little bit different. Maybe I would've been like Janet and like, "Nah, I don't want no questions about Michael." You know what I mean? But it's a different thing, because my brother was already passed. So now I was grieving at the same time as dealing with the pressure of living up to the – cause all my people's here be like, "Yo, John been singing all his life." But I had to prove that on my own.
But again, I don't regret it, cause it made me work that much harder to get where I'm at now. And now I'm good. I feel like I finally got my point across. Like, yo, I'm my own artist, but at the same time though, I'm here right now cause of my bro! It just is what it is. Our stories is connected. He took it to a certain level. My brother took it – my dad took it to a level for even for us to learn from to take for our careers and stuff. So it'll always been connected. It'll always be – I hate to keep using Janet, but it's a sibling thing. So it's like, Janet, Janet Jackson, amazing artist, amazing dancer, she's dope! But you can't disconnect the fact that she's a part of the Jackson family.
ALI: No doubt.
ILLA J: Cause you automatically see, it's like, OK, Janet Jackson, Jackson 5, her brother Michael Jackson, it's just what it is. It's a part of it. So if anything, it's more like embracing it. Like, yeah, that's my bro. He's amazing. And this is what I could do.
FRANNIE: What's the age difference between you guys? Is it ten years?
ILLA J: Twelve to – cause I have a late birthday, so his birthday is in February. So the year he died – it's actually crazy, cause basically my dad was born in 1932, and then when my brother died, I was 19 and he was 32, even though I turned 20 later that year.
But it's stuff like that; it's still kind of trippy to me. It's like, everything that's happened in my career, the timing of it, for it be right where – I'm about to be 32, and it's like – I don't know. I really believe that this whole journey, it's just been divine. It's like the story's already written, and I'm just following faith. I just unravel all the next steps, but it's already written.
But yeah, I'm the youngest by far. My sister that's the closest to me, she's nine years older than me. So everyone's in their 40s and up, so – but musically it's dope, because basically I understand this generation musically, but then I'm also – because I have older siblings, so I was listening to what they were listening to. So in a weird way, I'm literally right in that – I get both sides. I understand why certain people don't mess with this generation, but at the same time, I understand this generation. I'm like, "Oh, OK. I get what y'all on, cause I was on that too."
FRANNIE: OK, why do certain people from that generation not get this generation?
ILLA J: It depends on how you look at it. I'll just explain it like this: this generation, OK, I feel like the biggest thing where – and I won't say it necessarily on them, but by them putting the label hip-hop on it, I feel like that's what annoys people that's from the other generation. It's like, just don't call it hip-hop.
FRANNIE: Ali is nodding his head a lot, emphatically.
ILLA J: Just don't call it hip-hop. Cause I get it. They listen to – they grew up listening to turned up electronic music, rock. They kind of want to be rock stars, but that rap. That's really what it is. It's the same thing. They like – it's a dude dressed like Prince, but then he rapping though. That's basically what it is.
But at the same time though, I know people looked at Prince like, "Prince dressing weird," as far as just the fashion, but if you listen and not actually look at a Prince show, he's playing guitar all kind of stuff. And he was influenced by a lot of rock. Cause you know, they had that glam rock going on, so much stuff going on there, and he was kind of weirdly a part of that, but then also a part of the R&B, soul, and funk too.
But with the kids, it's just a different thing. They just like – my only thing is: just respect what came before you, the platform that you're using. Cause even though you not making hip-hop, they giving you the hip-hop platform to perform on, so at least you could do a study and see who came before that's doing that. Like, "Oh, OK. I'm not the first to do this. They worked hard to develop this platform for us to even rock on." That's my main thing. It's just all about respect.
But I get it. Like I said, they grew up on electronic rock stuff, so if you listen to they stuff, it's more melody-driven, and it sound like punk rock from the '80s and stuff, as far as what is it like.
FRANNIE: It sounds like pop punk.
ILLA J: Yeah, pop punk. Yeah, yeah. One phrase and then you just say it over and over and over, just like some punk song, and then a looped riff or something, and then you kind just of scream and do the verse, not even really – like, yeah, I get what they trying to create.
And then my thing is if they were respectful to be like, "Yo, we just trying to create something new that's different" – my thing is I'm only against those that's using the hip-hop platform and then just want to say, "Ah, skip all the old heads. They don't know what they talking about." That's the only thing I don't respect. Cause it's a few of the kids that's like – I've saw it – like, "No, I got respect for what they do. It's just, I'm making something different." And I get that. That's cool.
ALI: Yeah. So what then – cause I know Detroit has always had its own identity in the world of music, with Motown, it changed the scope of music for America and for Europe. And I'm speaking of the Motown music of the '60s. But even in the world of hip-hop, there's a close identity obviously to what comes out and what had come out of New York, but it just had this Detroit – there's no other way to say it; it's just Detroit. Always it seemed grounded in soul music. Everything just comes out soulful. I don't care what the rappers – what the content is. It's just the way the flow – the cadence is still just this soulfulness. The music has a soulful landscape.
And so knowing that hip-hop today has changed, has taken on many different forms, different sounds, electronic, matching Europop with, you know, all these especially electronic, bass-type beats and stuff like that, which I find refreshing for some of the hip-hop, but what's going on in Detroit now sound-wise, as it relates to hip-hop, I mean?
ILLA J: You know, cause I was about to say – cause you know we kind of always been all over the place. At least as far as artists I know, everybody kind of – it never really changed for us. The Black Milk album today – I'm not saying that he's not doing anything progressive. I don't want to sound like that. What I'm saying is though, it's like, that soul has never left for the Detroit artists that I see that's doing they thing.
Now for example, Big Sean has his crew, whatever, and he does – he raps over a lot of trap beats and stuff. But actually if you really listen to his albums and stuff, he kind of all over the place as far as he definitely has a lot of soul and substance in his music. He really rapping. He flipping flows, changing cadences.
And I'm just saying – cause a lot of people now, they use – I don't know what to call it. It's almost like quotations "the flow." It's like, "the flow." And it's like –
FRANNIE: Hashtag flow.
ILLA J: Yeah. And it's just like, OK, you get a trap beat, and then you use "the flow." Cause everyone using the same flow. But I don't know. At least for me, coming up on my music, it was like, OK – don't get me wrong; you had those rappers that just rapped over the beat. I never liked that. Even in the '90s, I never liked that. Always my favorite ones was people that could fit in that pocket, and it's like, they with the music. Them, they vocals with the song, marries.
Cause I feel like it's a misconception with the whole thing about lyrics. Yeah, don't get me wrong. You gotta have lyrics. But poetry and songwriting and rapping is three different – they all – it's just different things. Some people, they could write poetry, but poetry don't necessarily sound good over a beat. I'm just saying. It's like, "Yo, where your pocket at?" And then, rappers, it's like, "OK. Cool. You can rap, but can you write a song?" So to me, it's all of those things.
Even hip-hop, it goes back to songwriting, cause at the end of the day, you writing a complete song. "The Breaks," it's a song. It's a concept there. He talking about all the stuff that's the breaks. "We sitting on the corner, ain't got no money. That's the breaks." I'm just saying it's some type of concept. It's a song there. "And these are the breaks." And they got a bridge. It's a complete song.
And now it's just somebody rapping for three minutes straight, and I have no idea what they talking about. All I know is that he has a nice chain, his car is nice, and he does a lot of drugs, and he's getting the ladies. That's all that I know. But it's like, "Cool, but what is this about? What is – what am I wasting my life listening to this for? What is happening here?" Cause, for real, at some point –
OK, I might get some flack about this, but whatever. People compare Jay-Z and Nas, right? And for me – again, I respect both as lyricists – in my opinion, the reason Jay-Z is more relevant and able to go longer, it just is what it is. Jay-Z is a better songwriter! He has better hooks. Nas is more of a lyricist, and he doesn't necessarily always pick the best beats. And that's just real stuff. I'm just talking about music. When you talking about the best MCs, lyricists of all time, obviously Nas is on that list every time. I'm just talking about songwriting.
Cause some people get it twisted. Like, "Yeah, I got bars. I could free" – OK. Cool. You could freestyle outside the studio, and when you come in the studio, you gotta be able to write a song. I know my brother wouldn't go for that. He was like, "Yo, cool. Nice verse. But what is the song about?" I feel like at some point, people just forgot about songwriting, and they just want to hear theyself rap. And it's not the same as a song.
ALI: You are 100% accurate, and it's nothing else I could say.
FRANNIE: If you get flack for it, we will too. That's fine.
ALI: Nah, I mean, it's nice. You just – first of all, that's an age-old debate that I guess will never get old, and you just presented another perspective to just help push the argument further along.
FRANNIE: True. You know, we met because of this whole poetry vs. rap thing.
ILLA J: Wow. That's crazy.
FRANNIE: We met cause somebody published this anthology of rap – they'd basically just copied from the OHHLA, printed it, and we met because it contained mistakes that I reprinted. But the reason that I posted about it at all was somebody reviewed that book, reviewed those songs, just as poetry. And I called him, and I was like, "What are you doing? Also just call me after you listen to the songs and he did and he was like, 'Oh, I changed my mind about everything.'" So yeah, I mean, it's age-old, and it's an unfortunate argument, I think, perpetuated by people who don't listen to the music.
ILLA J: Well, no, they don't really know about writing. It's so simple. Poetry is meant to be read. Songs are meant to be sung.
ILLA J: That's what it is. It's certain words that don't sing well. I can't think of the exact – right now, but it's certain consonants that don't sound good being sung.
ILLA J: Yeah. When I hear a melody – a lot of times when I'm writing to a song, I hear "duhduh duhduh doom duh." I could hear what vowel sounds go over it, cause it's just the music. The music creates it. Everything starts with the music. The music will tell you, "Ooh, something in the a, something a-e-ooh-uh-un." It tells you what vowel sounds, and you could try to force it. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it don't. Cause you kind of going against – well, I say it's all about the music.
And then poetry, it's a lot of stuff you could get away with, cause again, this is supposed to be read. Either you read it out loud or someone is actually reading it, but they not listening to it. Cause, say, it's a certain consonant sound will clash with the snare, or if it's a crazy bass sound. It's stuff like that clashes musically. So it's just not the same thing.
It's definitely rhythm in poetry, how you can read it and write it, and don't get me wrong, in some way, related. They related in the sense that your rap can be poetic, but it's not a poem.
FRANNIE: Lyrical as an idea.
ALI: I was sitting there thinking about – I was thinking about Freestyle Fellowship when you were actually speaking. I'm like, there's some artists who have been able to really merge the two concepts, but most don't.
ILLA J: Yeah.
ALI: It's tough. Cause as you're saying this, I'm thinking about opera. I'm like, is that one of the reasons why I'm challenged when it comes to certain opera? Some operas are really beautiful, and it all flows. And some of it, the idea of it going from – and likewise with musicals, it goes from speaking to now you're speaking the words of a song, but it's not a song, and then it graduates into becoming a song. I don't know. That's my own personal challenges with those operas.
But in form of hip-hop, I think one of the beautiful things of hip-hop has always been that it breaks molds of, I guess, traditionally what is conceived to be the way to do things. I just think some people find a very creative way to break those molds and offer something really dope, and then some people just don't quite – they didn't quite get to the finish line. And so what we get might not be that appealing. But it gets pushed to the forefront and mass marketed and we have to live with this as the identity of the culture – or the representation of the culture.
But as a songwriter – let's go into that. With this last album, I think with the Illa J album feels like you were saying, "Hey, world." You know?
ILLA J: Yeah.
ALI: With Home, it was definitely different. What was the difference for you in the two?
ILLA J: Well, I went at Home differently. The Illa J album, that was the first album that my brother didn't produce for me. So it was a big deal, because I felt like at that point in my career, again, I was still under the whole brother thing, comparison, but then also it gave people a chance to see me not on my brother's beats. So it was like, "OK. You can't say it's about it being a J Dilla beat or this beat." It's like, "OK. He working with different people now."
So that was kind of my chance to flex a lot of different styles. I got a funky song on there that's kind of R&B-ish, but then I got something super hip-hop where I'm rapping. I got a damn near house song on there, "Sunflower." That one I kind of wanted to show people a little bit of – that album basically was a reintroduction. Like, "Yo, I'm my own artist."
And then Home was kind of like literally coming closer to home, cause I'm a singer first. So that was the first album where I perfectly balanced me singing and rapping. Cause I feel like when I came in, it was cool, but I was like – I didn't get off my message right. Cause I felt like, from day one, I've just been like, "Yo, I'm a singer, but I just like to rap." So I'm not trying to over-rap. I'm really just trying to write songs, but I just rap. But I'm a singer first.
So the Home album was the first one where I was – finally got the perfect balance right. And it just takes recording over and over, and then you get comfortable with your voice in the studio, where you just like, "OK. I know I should sing right here. I should rap it right here." Even on my first album, "Timeless," I actually had a rap on that song, but I took it off. But a lot of that, like you were saying, it depends on how you strategize it.
I feel like the big thing with Home was I took the chances on how, as far as marketing, as far as I went – I purposely picked the two songs on the album where I'm basically just singing falsetto the whole song. Cause you can't get out – it's like, "OK. He's singing." You can't – you know what I mean? You singing falsetto, it's like, "OK, dang. He's singing now." And my brother don't got no records where he's singing falsetto, so, oh yeah, I definitely approached that very strategically, so they could – but it helped.
Cause now people started to see the picture. People come to my shows to hear me sing now. "Sam Cook," it's a song on my last album, and I'm singing falsetto. I got a little rap on it, but it's mostly singing. And people love that song at my shows now. So it's really – I was thinking about this other day, I'm like, "Dang. My first album, if I put 'Timeless' as the first single, maybe that would've changed the whole outlook of everything." Cause that's the first song on my first album Yancey Boys, and I'm just singing the whole song. It's stuff like that.
If I would've put that in the forefront, then I could've already steered them in that direction earlier, but at the same time, I don't regret – cause as long as you rap, no matter what, I don't care, you could sound like – I don't know – Gerald Levert or somebody! You could sound like them on one track, but if you rapping on one track, you a rapper. It don't matter. It don't matter.
FRANNIE: That's so true.
ALI: I guess it depends on the strength of the singer. For an example, like CeeLo, CeeLo was an incredible singer.
FRANNIE: OK. Good point.
ALI: I can't really compare him to – when he sings, it's shocking still to this day knowing how good he is. But I'm like, "Yo, he's so ill with it." And it has his own – you can't really compare CeeLo to like a Teddy Pendergrass. He's Cee-Lo.
ILLA J: He's singing. Exactly. Exactly.
ALI: As a singer. But oh shoot, he can spit too. He's a rapper.
FRANNIE: Same with Lauryn actually.
ILLA J: Yep, yep.
ALI: Yeah, Lauryn. I think Phonte is another example of that. There aren't too many who do it really well, and maybe there are some other rappers who sing who we just – they won't ever –
FRANNIE: Right. They'll never take credit.
ALI: I imagine like Snoop, for an example.
FRANNIE: That's true.
ALI: Snoop sings sometimes, and the way he sings, it's like, you really want to be a singer. Plus the music he's shared with us that influences his sound as a rapper are the greatest soul records ever made. But it is a hard thing to do, and to be taken seriously. And for an example, like the "Sam Cook" song, in listening to it, it makes you go, "Oh, who is Illa J featuring on this record?"
FRANNIE: Yeah, cause your singing voice sounds so different from your speaking and rapping voice. It's wild actually. Do you cultivate that?
ILLA J: Well, no, I mean – what's funny though is – cause my vocal coach, she know that I like to sing high, but technically I'm a baritone. Going on that, if you notice, a lot of people that can actually sing higher got deeper voices.
ILLA J: You can hear how deep Prince voice is, but he could scream in exact note.
FRANNIE: Michael too.
ILLA J: Mike too. Yeah, yeah. Cause it’s all overtones. So the lower you can go, the higher you should be able to go.
ILLA J: As you strengthen your lower range, you could – you're actually extending your range as well.
FRANNIE: Huh. I didn't know that. How long have you been with your vocal coach?
ILLA J: For like five years. I actually met her through Amp Fiddler. It's a singer in Detroit named Monica Blaire, and he got the contact from her. But he just never went to her, and I was just – I was working with some vocal coaches at the time. I could tell they were just one of those, "I just want my hourly rate" kind of thing. And with her, I knew it was real when I had the first lesson, cause it wasn't about having this many lessons or this. It was just like, you go there. you learn. It was like the oracle or something like that. You come back when you need her again, when it's time to re-tune up or whatever.
My first lesson with her was all about breathing. I was saying I want a vocal coach that studied opera or something like that, cause I want to learn they breath control and how they doing that. That's some next level – you know what I mean? I want to be able to control my breath like that, so since working with her, I haven't lost my voice at no shows. I just been – every part of my range is stronger, and it's so much simple stuff with technique.
Singing is just – ah, I could do so much stuff, man. I could just – I can go in between registers, go into my falsetto, do the same thing in a falsetto and it sound completely different than when I sing it here. I don't know. I'm super passionate about singing. You just do so much more with your voice. And then I could rap, and then I could put the rap on it and put a melody with it. So singing is just – yeah. And then technically that's the first instrument if you think about it.
ALI: You're working on your next album. What's the vision of it? Because you've had such a journey. Obviously just talking about your connection with your brother, having your own identity and really presenting it, and listening to your albums clearly you're focused on certain topics and focused on being a better songwriter. With the next record – especially your naming it John Yancey, so that's a huge stamp, a huge mark – what do you want people to get from your album?
ILLA J: For this album, what's different is I took a more bold direction in really where I'm trying to go, and kind of where I wanted to go from the very beginning. But I had to kind of take this detour to get back to where I'm going now. But it's cool, because it was meant to happen that way. I learned a lot of stuff about songwriting, about how to basically show what I'm trying – how to present that. Cause it's really all about presentation, so I just didn't know how to balance all of that.
With this project, it's the first fully bold step in like, "Yo, I'm a singer/songwriter. Yeah, I'm in hip-hop, but I'm more – I like R&B. I like this type of stuff." And this album's more bold with it. Cause that's how we played it safe. We played it safe in the sense that we gon' go with production that they familiar with, but I'ma flip it and sing falsetto on it. Basically. That's basically what I did. I used beats I would normally use, but then just flip – no one had ever heard me sing in falsetto, so now they already heard that, so now it's like, "OK. Now I'ma do a little bit of that and then just move a little bit more musical, the direction."
Cause I feel like you could do anything; it's just really about the – it's how you do it, and it's production style. You could always switch – a lot of people – how do I put it? – as far as to keep they career going and stay relevant in each generation and stuff, and they feel like they have to change who they are to keep moving forward or whatever. But nah, it's not really anything changing. You're really just changing – it's really production that really changed. You still the –
Eminem album, for example, the one he just dropped, it's still Eminem, just Eminem over some trap beats. And it's just funny to me with that, he just basically did that better than every other rapper did it. It's crazy. But it's still Em, but it's just him on trap beats.
So that's kind of where I'm going, but at the same time, like I said, I'm a singer first, so it's definitely a lot more singing on this album. But I'm still rapping though, cause I have a love for rap. But I sing enough for the average listener to be able to know that I'm a singer. By the time they done with this album, they be like, "OK. So he's a singer."
ALI: I guess what I'm asking is for an example you have a song like "Maureen," titled "Maureen," or like "Seven Mile," and those songs have a lot of meaning. So what are you going for in terms of that with the new album? In terms of subject matter.
ILLA J: You know what? I went a little personal, and it kind is perfect, because of the whole John Yancey. I definitely touch on a lot of personal topics in this album, even more deeper than the last one. Cause I went – on the Illa J project, I had a song "Never Left," and I kind of touched on my relationship with my brother. And the last album, that definitely was very home-inspired. Like, the song being called "Sam Cook," that was my dad's favorite singer. So that was literally home.
This album is – I touch on everything that I went through coming up – from my twenties, all the stuff that I was learning, relationship stuff. I got a song called "32" actually, cause that was actually the original title of the album, for this new album, was 32. Cause I'm turning 32, so that marks a big year for me, because it's – it's special, cause I saw my brother only live to 32, and he died three days after his birthday. So this is big for me.
At this point, it's literally taking kind of where he left and going, in the sense that, not musically, but it's like, "Dang, I'm same age my brother was when he passed." It's important, cause it's like, "OK. I'm really keeping it going," really keeping going, basically try to take this journey even further. But yeah, I touch on that.
I mean, definitely a lot about relationships on this one. This album reflects on a lot of that though. The kind of beginning of the album, as I say, I'm indecisive John. I'm trying to be a player, and the next thing you know, next song I'm in love, and then the next thing you know, oh, I'm not feeling it, and then next thing you know, no, I'm back. Like, it's so me. It's really – it was dope. Me naming it John Yancey, it's really that. Not only musically, as far as me being very forward as a singer on this album, but also it's very personal, the stuff I'm talking about.
Yeah, honestly, talking about it, and I'm thinking about the album, it's the most me as far as subject matter. Other albums, I have the subject matter, but it's more a general topic. And then this album is a lot more directed toward experiences from my life.
FRANNIE: So when you were 19, and your brother passed away at 32, did you imagine what it would be like to be 32?
ILLA J: You know what? Nah. I honestly didn't even really think about that till the last few years when I'm getting close to it. I'm like, whoa, that's crazy, I'm 30 now. Like, when I turned 30, that was a big deal. I'm like, "Whoa. Now I'm two years away." I remember my brother's 30th birthday. He was in Detroit at the time. Cause this was around the time he was sick, so he was – he would stay at the house in Detroit with the family. I remember that day, because I gave him – it's like, what do you give your brother when he has – he had everything.
ILLA J: So I gave him 31s. I remember that. I don't know. I didn't think about then. Honestly, at that time, it was like – that first year was just still a shock. It was just like, "Word?" Cause he was sick, but you know, I was optimistic that he would be OK. And then the last few times I saw him, he was good. And then his birthday, February 7, '06, I remember leaving him a voicemail. I left him a voicemail of me doing his verse from "We Be Dem" on the Slum – Fan-Tas-Tic. It's the one where he's, "It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep" – I did that verse on his voicemail, and then it was three days after that. And my boy came to pick me up from school, cause I was going to school up north in central Michigan.
It's weird. I knew I was going to do music, and I was already kind of – he had already knew at that point I was starting to make the steps toward it. Because at that time, I was basically – my grades were real bad in college. Ironically, I had, through high school and everything, 4.0s, everything. And then college, I had all that time and don't have no pressure from parents, and I'm like, "OK. I'm chilling out." I realized all I would do in college was go record shopping. I would go toward my class, cause I'm an introvert, so I'd look in, and I would just go record shopping. I'd skip. "I'm not going to class. I'ma just go record shopping." And I'd just drive around campus listening to music.
FRANNIE: I was the same way. I did super well in high school, which was a super fancy school or whatever, and then I got to college and it was easy in comparison, so I just – I came within a breath of failing out, cause I just didn't go.
ILLA J: Oh yeah, at that point, I had to go to a different school out there, cause I was up north Michigan, so it was another school that was like 30 minutes away. And then I just ended up going to that. It was like this little community college or whatever. So I was starting to take classes there, but I knew at that time – this is like January '06 – that I wanted to – I was ready to – I was already having conversations with my brother about coming out there and starting to – like, "I'm ready. I'm ready."
Cause my first session with him was when I was 13. It was at Studio A in Michigan. I did a song with him. I got my verse. I still got it, and it's – but at that time I was busy with basketball and all this other stuff, and then around that time – actually the day that my brother passed, I get the call – I was actually on the way to the bowling alley, cause I bowl too. I'm, like, Michigan. We – I got like –
FRANNIE: It's an indoor activity.
ILLA J: Oh yeah, I got like a 200 average. I could really – I could throw down. I was on the way to practice, and then that's when I get the call. And then actually the day after my bro passed, I had a – I still – cause I had a bowling tournament, cause that why I was going to practice that day. So I had a bowling tournament. I didn't do that good obviously, but yeah, we listened back – well, that was my first time hearing Donuts. After my tournament, my boy drove me back to the crib.
But honestly, the one thing I've thought about since then is – it's just one of those things that's like real thing, carrying his legacy and making sure that my brother's represented right, but at the same time, that I do me, but represent my family legacy with respect, with honor. Honestly, that's been the one constant thing that I've thought about for these last ten years, and it's like, "Am I doing it right?" And over the years, I feel like I would hear my brother's voice just saying, "Yo, just do you. Just do you."
And I feel like this album is finally fully that. Fully that. I feel like if he were to see, like, yeah, oh, you named it John Yancey too? What? Yes!" That's what my brother always wanted for me, but I put this unnecessary – in the beginning years, I put this unnecessary pressure on myself to be John and James Yancey. Like, "No, you are John Yancey. That's it." That's kind of – that's where I'm at now with it, but it took, like I said, it took almost ten years for me to get to that peace with it, where I'm at now, where I'm just – I accept that part of it too, but at the same time, I'm here doing me.
FRANNIE: I think it's hard when you're a teenager to imagine life in your 30s, because it's not what they show you on TV or whatever. It's better basically. So that's kind of what I meant. Does your life, just kind your day-to-day, your responsibilities, I don't know, your emotional – your headspace, is it something that you could've imagined? Does it help you imagine the future? I mean, I personally failed to imagine adulthood.
ILLA J: I honestly – I never – it's something I never really thought about. The only thing I really thought about was, "When is shit gon' pop? When is it gon' be that moment?" And then over time, I started to learn it's not one particular moment. It's all one moment. It's all together. So once I realized that, then that changed everything. I stopped thinking about, "Ah, when is this" – it's now. You know what I mean? It's all now.
But I mean, that's definitely something I thought about. When – cause for me, my career reaching the next level, it's not necessarily fame or anything, it's just more – my favorite artists, I will l see how much they were moving, and I always wanted to move that much. I wanted to be able to – I got a lot of energy. I can't – I get bored fast. So I actually enjoy being busy. I will always look forward to – I want to be like, "OK. I got a show here. Then I come home for two days, and I gotta do something."
It is a little different now, and I'm like, "Dang. This is crazy." But at the same time, I'm thankful for it, cause I'm not made to just be chilling. I need to be doing something. I get – I'm home from tour for like a month, and I'm already bored. I'm like, "OK. I can go to the studio or whatever, but I'm ready to move. I'm ready to move."
So honestly, I never thought about that like, "Ooh, adulthood." In my mind, I always knew, "Everything's going to be alright. Just keep doing this." It's just that in my mind I thought it would happen sooner than – obviously when you first start, you just like, "Yeah, put out this record, get my first - and it's boom." And it's like, "No, it's not. You got a lot of work to put in."
But I do agree with – yo, my 30s have been – since I turned 30 – I mean, I'm only 31. I'ma be 32 soon. But since I turned 30, I feel like it's just every – it's been the best part of my career, everything. It's like a switch. I just flicked the switch or something, and it was just like, "OK. Be responsible." And then it just all turned on at once, and it was like –
ALI: What does that mean when you say be responsible? What is being responsible to you?
ILLA J: OK, you always have your vision of where you trying to go, right, and as before, I had that vision of what I wanted to do, and I was going toward it, but in my twenties, early twenties, I was easily distracted. I'll just say that. I would be going toward my goal, and I never stopped going, but I would have a few detours every once in a while. And now it's just, "Yo, this where I'm going, yeah."
ALI: Get there.
FRANNIE: I get that.
ILLA J: I hear you, but I'm going here.
ALI: Get there. Yeah.
ILLA J: Yeah, that's it. I just get it now. It's like, "OK. Let's get it."
ALI: I know that Dilla had a whole community of MCs around that he developed and helped to launch and created I guess a platform for people to just get on and find their way, make their own way, whatever. Do people pressure you to put you in a position of like, "Yo, help me get on?" Or –
ILLA J: No, I definitely –
ALI: Because I know that you are sort of – you self-contain. And I'm sure the community in Detroit knows that about your character, but I'm just wondering do people just come to you knocking on the door, like, "Yo, uh, help out. What can you do? Can I get on? Is there – make a beat for me. Something."
ILLA J: Oh, man. It's so funny, cause yeah, I definitely deal with a lot of that, because people have this illusion that it's just, "I see you there, so." Like, OK, it could be something as simple as a label. I'm on Jakarta Records or whatever, so someone will think that, "OK. Well, if I give you my record," like if they turn it in through me, that it's going to be something different. Now don't get me wrong. I have a good relationship with my label. OK, they'll take note to it. "OK. Cool."
But they really just – and this is what it is. They really just want to hear like, "OK, so John are you working on something else? Yeah, you sent me the other thing. Yeah, whatever. But you and Calvin working on something?" You get what I'm saying? They have this illusion that you just going to – cause it's like, "OK. Cool. You have this connect now. But yo, you still gotta be dope." And then not only that, what are you bringing to the table? That's what these people looking for. What are you bringing to the table? "OK, cool, he introduced you. But it's like, what do you have to bring to the table?"
It's just funny that people think that I'm just going to – somebody hit me – who was it? Robert Glasper and Common, I think, they had an August Greene show in London, and someone actually hit me like, "Yo, can you hit Robert Glasper and" – like, basically hit me to see if I could get them in the show in London.
FRANNIE: I thought so, but hoped that wasn't where you were going with that.
ILLA J: It's like, really? I'ma hit Rob right now and be like, "Yo, I'ma have somebody that you never met in your entire life, and I'ma just have them come backstage with y'all." Nah! Unless my mama in town, you know what I mean? That's a whole different thing. That's a whole different thing. He was like, "Oh, mom's here? In London? Word?" Other than that, nah. It's not going down.
And then even for me, I have certain people that I have – I can call and stuff like that. The fact that I have your number, I could hit you up like, "Yo." But even then, it's respect with it. I don't even be wanting to bother you, cause I know you got a million things. I know Rob is probably touring right now or working on his seventh group. He got seven groups, Rob Glasper trio, his R+R. It's inspirational.
But everybody that I know is always moving, and if anything, I have these connections, I'm still iffy about reaching out. Because I know everybody doing their thing. If anything, that's why most of the times if I hit you, it's about some advice or I'm just asking you about something. Because I know it's 17 other dudes that's like, "Yo, can you play this for Adrian Younge?" or – I don't know – something like that, something random like, "Yo, I see you in the studio with Rob. Can you play him my demo?" No, man, it's just not –
ALI: It's part of the life. You get used to it. I was just curious only because I know there's a wealth talented people in Detroit still, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of artists that are notable in the scene where people can look to and go, "OK." Like Em is doing it. There's not a whole lot of people that you can count on fingers and toes, so there are only a couple of you, it seems like. And this might be me speaking out of ignorance. It just seems like it's only couple of y'all that's really –
ILLA J: But it's real though. OK. You got Eminem, everybody that's a part of that crew.
ILLA J: Slum, my bro, everybody that's part of that crew. Big Sean, everybody that's part of that crew. That's really it, man, especially as far as hip-hop. You got the house scene, but even though Detroit is – it's just a bunch of separate cliques.
We all respect each other, but everybody's kind of in their own lane. And then even then, everybody that went and got it literally had to go and get it. That's what the weird thing about Detroit is. You gotta go outside of Detroit. Yeah, James did his thing. But he had to go to New York to work with y'all.
ILLA J: He was in New York all the time. He wasn't in the D. I'm pretty sure y'all came to the D. Maybe y'all connected in that way or whatever, but I remember James having to go to New York, and it's like –
ALI: Yeah, he was in New York a lot, and then L.A. after that.
ILLA J: Yup.
ALI: I don't know. I just know the city, there's sort of this – at least from the city government, they're trying to bring people back to Detroit. And I'm just wondering for artists, what is that like, where your city is so rich with creativity, and it being a hardworking, blue-collar working city – and so from that perspective, you're talking family-oriented type of places – and just wondering with all that history from an artistic perspective, what will the landscape look like in the future for Detroit?
ILLA J: Oh, man. It's definitely changing. They starting with downtown. Like, right now what's happening, even just with downtown, they building it up. We got – basically all four teams will be downtown basically now. It's the Tigers, Lions, the Pistons, and – and the Pistons share the same Little Caesars Arena with the Red Wings. So you could see all four sports teams downtown. All the casinos. They really building up downtown as like this big, tourist-y kind of place, and yet the city is still shit. But what's going to happen is now, past Eight Mile, where the hood starts, that's going to be the new suburbs. And then the further you go out, that's going to be the new hood. That's what's slowly happening.
And as far as opportunities for artists in the city, it's the mindset there I feel like. I think it's more that. It's a lot of people doing they thing, and it's a lot of talent and stuff too. But I feel like that's anywhere, but – what I'm about to say. It's a lot of people that good at talking. They present you an amazing game plan with no action though. But again, that's everywhere. I'm not pinpointing that. But it's that type of thing where everybody that I know that I made it out of there, they really put in that work.
And I think that's the biggest problem. It's people expecting other people to do the work for you. You gotta create your own lane, cause what works for me is not necessarily going to work for you. Like my brother had his own journey. It was kind of his production that did that, cause he was technically shopping Slum. But his production, that was the chosen path for him. For me it was a different thing. I had to go a whole 'nother route for my career.
Again, it's different for each person. You got to figure out your niche and how that works for you, and I feel like that's – and that's for everywhere, especially for city's that's not an L.A. or a New York where you got damn near the whole damn industry in that city. But Detroit, I mean, it used to be. We had Motown, but Motown moved to L.A., or wherever it moved to or whatever. But that still doesn't change the work that needs to be put in to get to a certain level. It's just what it is. Either you step out that box or you just gon' stay in that box and not – you gon' miss out on all these opportunities outside.
Cause I'm not going to be like, "OK. Dang." I get it. It's dope, bringing people back to Detroit, and that's what's up to have opportunities for artists that can't necessarily make it outside of there. But at the same time though, I don't think that changes it, in a sense. OK, cool, just because you got those platforms there now, it's not going to make it any easier. You're still going to have to go through the same process to get to that point. It's not going to be given to you, and that's for certain. You gotta definitely go get it. I learned that. In this industry, ain't nobody – don't hold your breath for nobody. You gotta go get it.
ALI: Very true. I mean, it goes without saying, but I have to say it, Dilla's legacy, and you mentioned it, it lives on, and he left such a hard imprint on the world, not just America, the world. And you're – between you and your mom, I know, are very visible in making sure that it's respected, cause there's a lot of people that are trying to get in the mix who have no business being involved, and they see it as an opportunity, and I know, because you and I have talked about some of your plans with regards to his legacy. I can't imagine what it is to be in your shoes, doing that and being dedicated, because you are dedicated to him, at the same time as your own dedication to your own craft and making your – creating your own legacy.
FRANNIE: It's like being one of Warren Buffett's kids.
FRANNIE: What do you do?
ALI: For real.
ILLA J: That's crazy.
ALI: But it sounds like you understand your purpose, and that's – it doesn't get any more beautiful than that. And we support you in what you're doing for making sure his legacy is properly preserved and creating and establishing your own path and your own legacy, so I'm looking forward to this John Yancey album –
ILLA J: For sure, man.
ALI: – and the journey that comes after that. Because I know that a lot more doors are opening up from that. I'm looking forward to those phone calls.
ILLA J: Oh yeah. It's about to get real, man. I'm honestly – for real, that means a lot coming from you, cause like I said, I mean, I know that – you worked with my brother, so you a part of that whole musical fam, but still to me, again, I grew up on y'all, y'all music, and everybody around y'all. So for me that's the – yo, I'm just saying, how many records of y'all that I've bumped? It's just crazy. I'm just chilling. We just here talking right now.
To me, that's – I'm just honored to even be doing it, to keep repping it, and yeah, I'm definitely excited about the future, of everything with my brother, everything with Pay Jay Productions, and it's going to be a really interesting year. It's crazy though – it's trippy to me, the timing of it, the year that I turn 32. I'm just saying, I can't get around that, the timing of how God work. But yeah.
ALI: Dope. We celebrate you.
FRANNIE: Yeah, we just want to say, early Happy Birthday.
ILLA J: Thank you. Thank you for sure. Happy Birthday to you to. Early Happy Birthday. For sure, for sure.
FRANNIE: Thank you. Thank you.
Yeah, thank you for coming. Thank you for spending all this time with us. We really appreciate it. You're tough, man. You are – yeah, to your point, you were doing a thing that so many people would be afraid to do and that so many people have failed it, been felled by, and I'm not worried about you.
ILLA J: Thanks. That means a lot. For real. Cause it's definitely been – I say it's been a journey, and yeah, I'll just say I've had to deal with some things.
FRANNIE: Of course.
ILLA J: But no matter what, like I said, I love my bro, and I just want his name to be respected and just to honor him. And at this point, it's just really just doing me the best I can do, and that's it. And I know that that's the most that I can do, is just do me the best I can. And that's it. And make sure the fam is good.
ALI: Cool. Big up your moms.
ILLA J: Yeah. Moms, where you at?
ALI: Tell her hello.
ILLA J: Salute.
ALI: Alright, cool. Thank you.
ILLA J: For sure, for sure. Thank you. For sure.
ALI: Word. Cool.