Born into a musical family in Detroit, MI, John Yancey was seemingly destined to work in music. John, known to his fans as Illa J, could have easily been overshadowed by his super-producer brother, J. Dilla, and his musical success, even post-mortem. The rapper, singer-songwriter and producer has dedicated years to working on preserving the legacy his brother left behind and has worked with many of his brother’s co-collaborators. February 10th, 2016 marked the 10th year since J.Dilla’s passing. After taking time to reflect on his roots, former Slum Village member Illa J decided it was time for self expression. With one self-titled solo-album behind him, he took the decadal anniversary of his brother’s death head on. He turned his Sunday jam session group into a band (The Marshens), made executive decisions to break free from the Detroit and old school hip hop sounds, and has been tediously, sometimes painfully, creating his own lane.
Some may say he has big shoes to fill, but Illa J has chosen to cobble his own and blaze a new trail with them. After a week filled with various shows, Illa J spent a sunny Sunday afternoon during a visit to Los Angeles speaking with Saint Heron about communicating with his brother and father after their deaths, finding his own voice and using it unapologetically, collaborating with both his band The Marshens and producer Calvin Valentine, keeping it real with Phife Dawg, and repurposing family heirlooms.
Emily Berkey: This year marked the tenth year anniversary of your brother’s passing. You’ve spent it traveling throughout Europe and the US on the Never Left Tour. What have you learned about yourself this year?
Illa J: I learned how connected everything is. Not only with me and my brother, but with my dad and how everything connects. I’m into numerology and my dad, he was born in 1932, and when my brother died I was 19 and he was 32. I see how it all connects. I realize I am an extension of my brother and my dad in the sense that we are all one. I used to be like, “Oh it has to be like this because of my brother.” I have my band now, I’m doing weird other stuff. I feel like I’m more comfortable just being who I am through my music, whether I want to do rock or a weird hook, I’m embracing that. I would usually play it safe and I’d think, “I’m making all this stuff but I know people expect this from me, so I’m going to stay in this.” Now I feel so much more free. I accept it for what it is… some people might like it, some people might not, but at the end of the day I’m more fulfilled and making the stuff I really want to make.
Sounds like this year was spent finding your freedom, finding your voice, and accepting it.
Well you know what? Not only this year, but my transition from Detroit to Montreal. That was a big step. At the time I made that decision, I had the group Yancey Boys with Frank Nitt, that’s my bro, and I was also in Slum [Village], so I was touring, doing that and I was trying to do my solo stuff. I was in Japan thinking about everything and when I came back I made this decision. It was a tough decision because I didn’t want to upset T3 and RJ because those are my bros, but I was like, “I have to make this decision to go and fully pursue my solo stuff.” I started as a solo artist, then I got caught [up] in doing all those other things. It’s not that I can’t do other projects. I’ve got the project with Calvin [Valentine] coming out, and The Marshens project. But the difference is, all of these projects are things I have a passion for.
It sounds like in Detroit it was all things that were tied to your older brother, then in Montreal it was nothing but your girlfriend there and you made it your own.
Yeah, exactly. And by being in Montreal, I was able to link up with Potatohead People and Kaytranada. I had no choice but to run into them. It’s a big city but it’s not that big. You’re going to run into all these people just being in the scene.
Do you see yourself transplanting like that again from Montreal to another city?
I like the idea. When I get a chance to record at different places, I write different stuff. Obviously, you absorb everything in different environments, so a reflection of that comes out in the music. In a sense, I kind of am slowly doing it because the last album with The Potatohead People you could feel Montreal. That was the reintroduction. To me, I feel like I’m labeled as rapper but I’m a singer first. My rapping is just an extension of my singing and how I like play with my voice. To me, it’s just me using my instrument. Singing is my passion.
You’re a self-taught multi instrumentalist. You received vocal training at a young age…
My vocal coach, Betty Lane, she was in opera competitions. If I’m not mistaken, she went to Juilliard. She studied nutrition and the science of the voice and all of that. She told me to look at myself like I’m a vocal athlete and that you’ve gotta take care of yourself just how an athlete takes care of their body. You’ve got to do that stuff for yourself. I’ve been working with her for four years.
She’s not one of those set-amount of lessons teachers. She was straight to the point and her method of teaching is so dope. She’d give me so much knowledge in one lesson, I had to take all of that in before I went back to her. I’d only go to her a few times a year because each time I went, I’d learn so much, work on that, then go back to her.
You know, my dad did vocal training and I was in choir at church. The first few choir rehearsals I was shy and didn’t want to sing in front of people, so I’d sit by the drummer and the piano player until I got the courage. My dad brought us up on jazz like Manhattan Transfers and Four Freshmen, all these a capella jazz groups from the ’60s and ’70s. I grew up listening to that and Al Green. Then when I was six or seven or eight, I found my brother’s cassettes and started listening to them. He had Ice Cube and all that, so that mixed into it. Before that, it was all soul singing stuff. Then I got introduced to rap by going through my brother’s tapes.
Speaking of finding your brother’s music, you said in an interview one time that, “His spirit still lives in the music” Do you feel like you can communicate with your brother through music?
Oh, yeah! Not just through music, but through anything. If I’m having a tough decision, I don’t know how, it’s so bugged out, but I’ll randomly have a dream about my brother or my dad. They’ll show me through something. I can just be reading and something will pop out.
Do you ask for it, or does it just happen?
I mean I feel like you have to ask, but sometimes I just know my brother’s watching over me, guiding me. Something is just, I know James [J. Dilla] is telling me. I can feel it. Throughout my career he’s been guiding me. There are certain little things I just have a feeling about. Me coming into this industry, having no idea how this works…there’s not really a school for this, it’s just a hands on thing. You learn as you go. It’s one of those things where I know my bro is guiding me. Even the fact that I’m still here now. I mean a lot of projects I’ve done are pretty much one-offs, so to me, that means a lot, especially when there are so many artists. They might even have big names and other stuff but some people don’t even own their own music, which is crazy to me. That’s what it is.
Last night, you really showed off your voice at your show. You went from falsetto to the deepest, base filled voice, then you’d break into a light-hearted rap, then you’d break into some runs. It was really cool to see how diverse your voice, your instrument, is.
Singing is my favorite thing because of my dad. That’s all we’d do. My dad would wake up at three in the morning and he’d be layering harmonies on his tape recorder. He would just overdub harmonies on that and record his song ideas. He’d be doing that late into the night.
This year in an interview, your mom mentioned that she and your father recorded a few tracks together and that you might “redo a couple this coming year.” Is that true?
I’ve been wanting to work on those songs for a while. My dad, he ghost wrote the song “It’s A Shame” by The Spinners. There are a couple of songs I heard them sing that I wanted to re-do but I haven’t had a chance to make it yet. I want to do it right. I want to do it justice. I’ve been talking about that for a couple years. Maybe they’ll be on one of these projects coming up. Earlier in the year I was talking to my mom and I had her send me the song lyrics so I could go over it to tweak it and make it into my own.
Like repurposing family heirlooms. That’s what you’ve been helping to do with your brother’s music for years and now you’re planning to do it with your parents music.
Honestly I feel like as the youngest, it’s how it all works, how it all comes together. The whole numerology thing. I mean, this tattoo (*pointing to “1932” tattoo on his forearm*) I got on my mom’s birthday when I was out in LA, and that was a week before my dad passed.
You memorialized him before he was even dead.
Exactly. That was September 24th, 2012. This year, September 24th, 2016, is when my mom donated my brother’s MPC to The Smithsonian. I know it’s not just a coincidence.
Last night you performed a song, “Spiders,” produced by Calvin Valentine. You mentioned your entire next project is produced by him. “Spiders” sounded funky and futuristic. Is that the sound we can expect from your upcoming project?
I don’t want to put it in a box, but it’s definitely different. I’m not saying that the project we’re [with Calvin] making together isn’t soul, but my last project, Illa J, is more soul in the sense that it’s connected to neo-soul.
The project Calvin and I are making is even more left. We have little pop synths mixed in with some funky stuff, mixed in with hip-hop drums, rapping and singing. It’s hard to explain, but the sound with Calvin and I, it’s almost this infinite thing. We can go anywhere with it. You can hear it in the music. I respect him so much as a producer, and I feel the same respect from him. He allows me to go wherever I want to go and I allow him to go wherever he wants to go. We trust each other’s ideas.
Sounds like freedom.
Exactly, it’s freedom. You can hear it in the music that I’m not confined to this structure. “Spiders” has a hook then a bridge, and it repeats. There’s basically only one verse. It’s not traditional in that sense. Obviously you know the hook is going to come, but some songs are so predictable. Obviously the familiar parts are there. I mean, but at least it’s not so cookie cutter. Again, we’ve been doing some stuff lately that’s been more dirty Hip Hop. Like some grimey stuff.
Will that sound be on the project?
I don’t know. The project with “Spiders” on it, that’s its own kind of sound.
Does that project have a name yet?
Right now it’s untitled. We’re coming up with a name for it. Honestly, I’m really excited about this project. It’s one of those things when we first started playing it for the label people, they were like “whoa, what is this?” I feel like it was too much.
Like it didn’t fit in any of their boxes?
Exactly. And that’s the point. We’re not trying to make something that follows trends.
No one had ever heard anything like your brother’s music, that’s why people loved it.
Yes. And growing up, my favorite artists were doing their own thing. Like you listen to them for that sound. I don’t want to listen to an artist that just sounds like another artist. Obviously there are artists that have similar sounds, yet they’re doing their own thing. That’s cool. But not when you’re using the same drums, not only the same drums but the same flow, and a similar melody on the hook. It’s copying.
It’s a template. You’re reinventing the template.
Exactly. We’re not following the template.
I’m really excited about the project with Calvin and the project with The Marshens. I’ve always wanted to play in a band. Obviously, I was in a group, technically. In Slum [Village]. I feel like a group and a band are two different things. A band, to me, is a group you feel comfortable playing with and y’all just have that chemistry and vibe. You could be a mediocre musician but the point is how you all play together. It’s a certain vibe that we have when we play together. I’m excited about that.
Tell me more about The Marshens. In October you dropped “Do It” which is the only track you have out right now.
There’s four of us: Me, Atamone, FAWNA, and L.E.K.. We were going to drop another track soon but I want to let “Do It” ride for a bit. It was crazy how it came together. I met them through my girlfriend, who’s also my manager. She saw this event called “Jazz & Dilla”. She hit them up, figured it out, asked if I was down to do it, and I was. I liked it because it was a low key little thing and I could go there and just work on my singing. You can practice at home there’s nothing like practicing in front of people. And at a bar, everybody’s drunk, no one knows who you are, you’re just working on your craft.
How they came up with the name, Jazz & Dilla, was because one of the musicians in the band had a cat named Jazz and a dog named Dilla.
To me, again, that’s one of those signs. I’m thinking, “Jazz, my dad” and “Dilla, my brother.” The woman in the band has the same birthday as my dad. It was meant for me. I was playing with them for two years before we started to make it an actual band. We were just playing. That was our Sunday gig.
So you’ve been playing with them for about two years?
Why are you guys just now dropping music?
That was literally just our Sunday gig. It was practice for when I got back on the road. It keeps me polished. I have so much respect for comedians because they’ll go and do a small nightclub with about 30 people in it and try out their material, then you’ll see them sell out a huge venue. And it’s all a part of it, just like sports, you’ve got to get that experience, it’s something you can’t teach. You’ve just gotta get it.
Do you know when we can expect an EP from The Marshens?
Early next year, we’re going to drop an EP for sure.
Does it have a name?
We might self title it. We were playing our gig earlier last year, in April, and I was like, “We sound good together, lets start recording this”. Forty songs later, I’m like, “Whoa. We need to drop something.”
There’s a very ’90s vibe about the aesthetic and the sound of The Marshens. Are you guys influenced by the ’90s?
Definitely. I have an eclectic taste in music. My sister put me up on Alanis Morisette, Nirvana, White Stripes, Third Eye Blind, Tame Impala, ChVRCHS, Paramore. What I like about rock is, I love what you can do with your voice. Take Paramore for example, Hayley Williams has an incredible voice and she does rappy stuff with her voice. I get a lot of influence from that and Jack White. I wouldn’t call him the best singer but it’s how unique his voice is. It’s your voice. Everyone’s instrument is different and it’s just accepting your voice for what it is. Once you get comfortable with your own voice, that’s when you can really start to play with it.
Speaking of drops, in August you had a track you did with Phife Dawg called “French Kiss” released. The track features both of you rapping over a Potatohead People beat. How did that collab come about and what does it mean to you to be able to finally share it?
It means a lot. Everything with that track is heavy. [My girlfriend and manager] Maya had the idea of getting Phife. She hit up Rasta Root and he told us, “Yo Phife about to call.” Phife called Maya’s phone. Originally when I sent him the beat, we made a 32 bar verse. He rapped the whole verse to me on the phone. It was crazy. As far as the song not being on the album, I think it was a management thing because they wanted it to be a video in order for the song to be on the album. We’d already agreed that even if he were to do a song, we were going to do a video, but we didn’t have the time. I was trying to create a new lane so I’m not stuck in a box. I was down to shoot a video for “French Kiss,” but for me it was important to put other videos out first. At that time, they said if there’s no video his verse couldn’t be on the album. It wasn’t like I didn’t want the video. But priority wise, I had to do the others first. I could’ve done that and it would’ve been a really big thing, but I didn’t want to blow up that way.
Sounds like you had to decide if you want it to be the old school Hip Hop route or the Illa J route.
Yeah, exactly. Again, there’s pros and cons. It could be a really good look, but I asked myself, “Do you want to put yourself even more in that even though you’re trying to break away from that?” At the end of the day, he was going to still put it on his album, and we could shoot a video for it. It wasn’t like we didn’t want it. But for my particular project, right now I need to put other videos out first. Later on, who knows? Maybe it could’ve been another single. It was a management thing. I know he wasn’t upset. I talked to Phife about it. He already planned on using the track and he was going to put it on his project. The track was going to be used for his project because it wasn’t going to be a single on mine.
It sucked to hear he’d passed. I found out when I landed in Taipei from Tokyo and Maya told me. I was like, “What?” (grabs face). I was like, “That’s crazy.”
Is there any regret on your end not doing the video with him?
That’s the thing. I don’t regret not shooting a video because I knew it was leading to the right path. I knew not doing it was the right decision. If anything, I feel like he respected that I spoke up for what I was doing. I’ve talked to Rasta Root and he’d tell me Phife thought of me highly, so that means a lot. I feel like, if anything, he probably respected me more because I spoke up.
You kept it real with him.
Exactly. I told him it was a dream to work with him, but the lane I’m trying to create for myself, the other videos were a bigger priority for me. It sucked because not knowing he was about to pass not even a year from that time, so that’s trippy. That’s a trippy thing. Me talking with Phife, it’s a surreal thing. Even now I’m texting with Pete Rock and it’s…I still bug. I’m thankful to be able to connect with people I looked up to who are now my peers.
When your idols become your peers, it’s an interesting thing.
Exactly. They’re sharing knowledge with you on how to elevate your game and excel, and sharing mistakes they’ve made. A lot of people don’t have that coming in and I’m very thankful for it. I definitely want to give back in that way. I see myself doing that with The Marshens. Especially FAWNA. She’s a singer. She’s 25. The rest of us are about the same age, around 30. I see she has so much potential. I see her going really far. It’s dope for me because I’m able to share all the knowledge I have as an artist. She’s a Libra too, so I get it. She’s in the band but she also does her solo stuff. I encourage her to do it because I know what it’s like to be in something but still have that urge to create your own thing.
One last question from left field. You brought out Affion Crockett at your show last night. What? What’s that relationship, where do you know him from?
Long story short, that’s the homie. He’s a super humble dude. If I needed advice about anything, he’s always been like a big bro to me. I met him at a Dilla Lupus walk in 2007 or 2008 out here [in Los Angeles]. I think we were in Venice Beach and I met him there through Dave New York. We exchanged numbers and we were hanging and we’d just record. We would go through my brother’s beats and have a session just for fun. We’d record verses and go back and forth. There’s a bunch of joints we got.
Do you foresee yourselves ever releasing a project together?
In the future, that would be dope. He’s on my first album Yancey Boys on the track “DFTF.” He did a little skit.
Do you guys have a name you go by when you’re together?
No, we should come up with a name. That would be crazy.
You guys could make a crazy project.
>We could do some crazy videos! I didn’t even think about that! He’s crazy good with that. He shoots his own stuff outside of his acting stuff. He’s given me advice about acting and stuff. That’s another thing I’ve always wanted to pursue. I’ve studied for a long time but I don’t have any experience. I want to start taking classes and acting. I’ve been studying and watching movies, but I need to be with other actors so I can get that hands on experience. I’m excited about that. He’s always been there. That’s the homie.
I look forward to hearing whatever you guys come up with.
It’s definitely going to be some silly stuff . When we’d record, we’d see who could come up with the most silly rhymes. When you listen to that song “DFTF,” that was our goal. We were just trying to say clever stuff…just being silly.
Sounds like a comedy hip hop album.
Yes! That would be crazy! With little skits in between. That’s a good idea. I’ll give you props. You’ve got to do the intro!