ILLA J: BRAIN FROM ANOTHER WORLD
Illa J is J Dilla’s younger brother. Having spent the early years of his life idolizing Michael Jordan, he chased hoop dreams instead of music until shortly after his brother passed away. A meeting with Michael Ross, who had a CD of unreleased Dilla tracks from around the time the Pharcyde dropped Labcabincalifornia, led to Yancey Boys, which pairs Illa rhyming and singing over Dilla’s beats. This interview by Alex Roman.
Is your whole family musically inclined?
Yeah, a lot of our music comes from our pops. He played upright bass and piano, and also sang and wrote jazz. Both of his parents played piano, so you can see where that comes from. My mom sings, my sister sings and plays flute, my brother—obviously, you know what he did. What a lot of people don’t know, though, is J played a lot of instruments. I’m the youngest and my next oldest sibling is my sister Martha. When my sister was going to school and starting in band, she had a lot of pressure on her because J had played a couple of years before her and the music teacher was like, ‘OK, you’re one of those Yancey kids—let’s see what you can do.’ Music is just one of the things in my family’s blood.
Growing up it was music and basketball for you?
Yeah. Because it is so natural, I knew I would do music anyway, so I kind of just relaxed with it. Even my brother knew I would do it one day, as did my family, so they all just kind of let me do it in my own time instead of forcing me. Growing up, you’d never see me without a basketball. I was always hoopin’.
How old were you when J was doing the stuff for Labcabincalifornia?
It was 1995, so I was nine or ten. I remember sitting on the couch watching the ‘Drop’ video and being like ‘Dang, my brother did that beat.’ To put out an album where he made the tracks in that same era—it’s kind of crazy.
How did his success during that time affect your family?
He was doing well, but what happened was when he got sick his hospital bills were expensive. He’d be in there for a minute, and that’s when it got crazy for him. Other then that, he was doing pretty good. Doing nothing but working year around. If you look at the catalogue it speaks for itself because there are a lot of joints that are from same year or same era but they are all on different albums. It definitely inspired me to see him do his thing. What inspired me the most, though, was his dedication to his craft. Just like watching Jordan play, you’d see how in tune his fundamentals were and that comes from hard work and dedication—that’s how my brother was with his craft. He was really in tune, and it inspires me to be the best.
How much were you able to pick up from him? It seems like you were maybe too young and still playing basketball to learn from him.
Honestly, nobody was ever in the studio when he was working. That was his thing. We already understood that as a family. Everybody in my household is kind of like an artist. I know at times artists need their space to do their thing; whether its music, writing or whatever, so I never really bothered him. I respected his space. I do remember one time when I was trying to teach myself how to mix and DJ, J hooked up the turntables and the mixer and said, ‘OK, practice!’ I learned a lot just from that one experience because he showed me that I have to find me in whatever I do.
So, after J died and you quit school, did you go home first or come straight out to L.A.?
I went to Detroit first. I was just practicing there for a while, thinking about maybe going to school and trying to change it around to some music classes, which I don’t know why I just didn’t do at first. You know how high school is—everything is kind up in the air and you don’t really know what it is you want to do. If I could choose over, I honestly think I would have just taken some music classes. I don’t regret it—everything happens for a reason. After my brother passed, I couldn’t be up there in Mt. Pleasant anymore. I needed to be around the fam, so I dropped all the courses I was taking and just came back home. At that time, my mom would come back and forth to Cali, so I asked if I could start coming out with her. I felt free when I was out here because I was away from all that was going on in Detroit and just relaxing and writing. That’s all I did when I was out here, and eventually I came out in December 2006 with a one-way ticket. The only reason I went back to the D is to pick up my equipment.
How did you end up hooking up with Michael Ross?
After my brother passed, a lot of people would hit up the fams just to say what up and show respect. Mike had kept in touch with my mom and he came over to me and my girl’s house when my mom was out visiting. When my mom told him where we lived, he came over and pointed to his house from in front of our house; it turned out we lived right in the same neighborhood. It was crazy! It was almost one of those ‘meant to happen’ kind of things. Even at that time, though, I never thought of doing an album with Delicious Vinyl.
How did the album come about?
In December 2007, I wrote a song and I was hitting up Mike in January 2008, with the hopes that he’d guide me in the right direction. Basically, he came over and listened to that song and a couple more songs that I recorded. He liked my style and voice and then had me perform at a club a couple of days after that. It was like perfect timing. It happened to be on my brother’s birthday. After my performance he came up to me and said, ‘Yo, you should just do the whole album.’ What happened was the time when I met him before, he gave me a CD with like 38 tracks and he had me pick one. He was going to do a compilation album with various artists that had worked with my brother, but after my performance, he liked what I was doing and suggested that I just do the whole album.
How long did it take to put the record together?
I had to listen to the tracks for a couple of weeks, because my brother, his brain is from like another world, so I really had to study everything. This album is as much my brother’s album as it is mine. Even while I was writing for this album, it was all with respect to my brother. How I feel he would be in the studio with me, if we were working on this album together. I got away from the question… what was it again? Oh yeah, I listened to it for a couple of weeks just to bill with the tracks, then I pretty much took Friday, Saturday and Sunday and wrote like eight songs. I had a couple that I had already written a couple of weeks before that, and then we just knocked it out around other people’s schedules. Altogether, we pretty much finished in about two weeks time.
When I was a kid, I remember hearing “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Message” and songs like that when hip-hop was just getting started. You seem to have grown up with it your entire life, how have you seen it change and how do you feel about where it’s at right now?
Right now, I don’t know, I think that it’s in a good state. I think it’s going in the right direction. I really just think people need to step it up a little bit more. It’s like a rookie coming into the NBA. The first year, you get away with a lot of stuff, but when it’s your second year, your sophomore season, you need to start proving that you are here to stay. And, not just here to stay, but I feel like if you say you are at this level, you need to be a professional with what you do. Not just kind of getting by and stuff, man.
You grew up idolizing MJ—do you have a favorite player now?
Oh, I’ll always love MJ, but in this particular era right now, it’s been between Kobe, Lebron, Chris Paul and, since he came back from the Olympics, Dwayne Wade because he’s been ballin’. So far, though, the most exciting player I think is Lebron. I’ve never seen a player like him in the entire history of basketball, and I’m one of those basketball fans that keeps up with everything from back in the day. You can’t even describe him as a player; he’s strong, yet he’s super fast, he can shoot on you, post up. It’s like what position can’t he play? Kobe is the best player right now, but don’t get it twisted Lebron is coming to take that torch soon.
Which current NBA player would you say your game is most like?
He’s actually out right now because he hurt his ankle, but when I played I had a mad first step like Monta Ellis, so I was able to slash and get to the hole and stuff. But honestly, like with Kevin Garnett who’s added a little more smooth in his game, I kind of changed up my game a little bit so I’m a little more Chris Paul now. I got more patience, I can take that step then instead of trying to score, I can set somebody up, but next time I can take it to the hole. So, definitely, a mixture of Monta Ellis and Chris Paul.
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