Detroit vocalist Illa J steps out of the shadow of J Dilla

Nov 28, 2018 at 1:00 am

Detroit's John Yancey, better known as Illa J, has been on the rise for quite some time now. In the past decade, the 32-year-old vocalist has released multiple albums, worked with different record labels, and is seemingly always on the road. His ascent as a vocalist is similar to other artists who have been paying dues for years. But what do you do musically when your older brother is James Yancey — known throughout the world as the late, legendary producer, J Dilla?

The answer lies in developing your own sound and your own identity as an artist.

"I spent a lot of time growing," Illa J explains over the phone while on tour in Europe. "I think people could see me trying to be myself and trying to represent my brother at the same time. In that, it can almost look like you're trying to be him. What can I do to do me, but at the same time, show tribute to the person that's my hero and who opened the door for me? I realized that being John Yancey is representing James Yancey. It is representing your dad and your mom. Just being you 'cause you are them."

On Friday, Illa J will release John Yancey — his fourth studio album and second LP on Jakarta Records. Based in Germany, Jakarta is home to early music from current household names Anderson .Paak and Kaytranada. Yancey is Illa J's follow-up to 2017's Home, his first album on the label. Home was entirely produced by west-coast beatmaker Calvin Valentine and is based around Illa J's experiences in Detroit. Yancey focuses more on his growth as an artist.

With a run-time of 40 minutes, Yancey is once again produced by Calvin Valentine and loaded with spaced-out, soulful beats. Throughout the album, Illa J talks about navigating the music industry, traveling the world, sex, and developing his sound. He also opens up about being Dilla's brother and grappling with what that's meant in his career — something he hadn't yet explored in his music.

"When I first started, I didn't have the experience to understand my voice or the industry. I had so much to learn," he says. "Now I'm doing it how I really want to do it. I'm still reppin' my bro, but I'm doing it as me now. John Yancey. Going through life naturally brings out melodies," he adds. "At the end of the day, you're only able to talk about life through your experiences. I didn't understand that when I was younger. I didn't have as much to talk about because I needed to go through some shit."

At the start of his career, Illa J was primarily seen as a rapper that occasionally sang. In reality, the opposite has always been true. In recent years, singing has become more central to his music. Home, his album from 2017, was the first time Illa J sang more than rapped on a project. On Yancey, that trend continues. "I love rapping, but singing is how I grew up," says Illa J. "That's my favorite way to express my voice. My goal is to eventually perform in front of people who want to hear some singing. I'm trying to create a lane where I can just go on stage and be myself. I feel like that started happening for me this last year."

Along with wanting to sing more, Illa J has become more obsessed with production.

"Lately I've been thinking about making beats the most," he says.

Illa J's live performances are now completely based around the MPC — an electronic drum machine synonymous with hip-hop beats. Most off days are spent making music on the MPC as well, he says. The catch here is that "making beats with an MPC" is where Dilla's legacy looms largest. For context, J Dilla's MPC is now part of the Smithsonian collection on display at the National Museum of African American History.

While making beats isn't new for Illa J, feeling comfortable sharing them is. The next step will be doing more projects with his own beats. In the meantime, he's constantly practicing and messing around on the drum machine.

"I'm always working on every part of my game," he explains. "I've always done a little bit of everything. I've always made beats, but, you know, for obvious reasons I held that back in the beginning. That would've been too much. There was already enough pressure. I didn't have the confidence to come out with beats right after my brother."

Set to release John Yancey, Illa J is finding that confidence. The new record, which focuses on his life after Detroit, shows the range of someone who's been an artist their whole life and is coming into their own. John Yancey is also a collection of songs that completes a very meaningful circle in the 32-year-old's life.

"My brother only lived to be 32. I'm releasing this album when I'm 32," he explains. "I always had a feeling about this year. My dad was born in 1932. When my brother died I was 19 and he was 32. I'm just really happy about this album because of how everything lined up. It's almost like, how can I not be thankful for each day that I make it after this? I feel like that's what my brother would want me to do. He'd be like, 'You made it. You've already done a lot of stuff. Don't you think I would've wanted to do some more stuff? So, look, you have that time now.'"

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