The Ill life

It’s a Sunday afternoon overlooking a freshly manicured football field at Mumford High School on Detroit’s West Side. Two chunky, middle-aged women and a couple of well-fed teens are walking hastily around the red polyurethane track, avoiding puddles left from last night’s rain.

“That’s all people are concerned about these days; trying to lose something,” says I.L.L. Life emcee Blackstone, looking at the action out on the track. “People just can’t be themselves and be happy.”

I.L.L. Life is a Detroit-based hip-hop label and Blackstone is one of its rising “star” emcees.

Blackstone, or “Stone,” as he prefers, and I.L.L. Life label head O. Taylor are benched on one end of the rickety aluminum bleachers, which on game nights are filled with cheering students and wound-up mothers shaking milk jugs full of pennies. The empty stands that the emcee and his label head sit on provide a fitting Motor City hip-hop metaphor: They’ve got game, but where are the fans?

In three short years, I.L.L (stands for I Love Living) Life has earned the kind of cred in Detroit hip hop that can only be had from heavy street hustling. The label’s hardcore beats and typically raw ’hood life lyrics have been heating up every strip club, bar and party that qualifies as Detroit’s rap underground.

“This rap thing ain’t new to me. When I was in fourth grade I was rocking talent shows using the name The Devastator,” Taylor says. He can’t help but chuckle at the dated ring of his early nom de plume. “By eighth grade, I started a crew called The Fresh Force, but it wasn’t until high school where I started making the most noise.”

Noise, indeed.

Here’s the duo’s quick history: Taylor — whose Dickies, hoodie and ruddy complexion recall a slimmer Mack 10 — went to St. Martin De Porres, a Catholic high school known for turning out stellar athletes, not hardcore emcees. In 10th grade Taylor changed his stage name to C.A.N.I.S. (Crazy Ass Nigga in Society), met Stone, joined forces with four other classmates and started the teen-hyped hip-hop crew Tre-Seis.

“People were ready to write us off because we were young and we weren’t no A and B students,” Taylor says loudly and without irony.

Stone adds: “But when cats can just flat-out rap, you can’t deny that shit.”

The high point for the short-lived teen beats came in 1996 when they aced a talent show sponsored by Marvin Willis of the Floaters (“Float On”). The crew won studio time. But once in the studio, problems arose, as they are wont to do with kids new to the game.

“Marvin proposed to us like a wedding,” Taylor says, meaning “he wanted to sign us to his label.”

Stone: “That was suppose to be da shit.”

There’s an uneasy silence. Taylor and Stone look at each other, deciding who should finish the tale. Taylor stands up, inhales deeply, and says, “All six of us were there with our parents going over the contract. One cat’s moms wouldn’t let him sign.”

They then met privately and decided they were a team, and if one member couldn’t sign, none would. This commendable show of loyalty and brotherhood would soon haunt Tre-Seis. You can almost hear Stone and Taylor’s coulda, shoulda, wouldas.

Taylor: “We were 15, dumb and figured that opportunity would present itself again.”

But opportunities being what they are, Taylor soon got kicked out of school for carrying a concealed weapon and Stone and other Tre-Seis members were booted for behavioral problems.

Less than a year removed “from a potential record deal, the group broke up,” Taylor says. “You can’t pay for studio time when you’re fighting a [court] case. There were days when I came home [from school] and there was no water or lights. My priorities changed.” Taylor enrolled at Cooley High School and Stone entered Mumford.

Stone focuses on the school decaying in the distance, and says, “Leaving De Porres for Mumford changed my life; it was like leaving a Puff Daddy party and going to a Lil’ Jon party. Straight ghetto.”

Stone is a rather quiet dude, almost stoic. He could be an undertaker. But his story is telling: His mother was murdered when he was 4. His grandfather raised him on the city’s West Side. He lives day to day, even if hustling, like hip hop and church, is part of it.

“If O. knows somewhere where we can get eight grand by kicking a door down, then that’s probably what I’ll be doing, and the next day I might be at church with some freak I met at Church’s Chicken. I just go with the moment,” Stone says.

After graduating high school a decade ago, Stone and Taylor tried to stay tight. But making music became an afterthought. Stone had a son by now, and Taylor a daughter — and getting money was priority.

“The more I was chasing paper, the more paper was running away from me,” Taylor says, nearly shouting.

Taylor’s “reform” came suddenly and with consequence. His older brother, Chuck, who had started a hip-hop label called Black Rock Productions, was murdered in 2000. He kept a promise he’d made to his bro that he’d get back into music. He beat his weapons rap and tried to keep the Black Rock label afloat, to no avail. In 2002 he started I.L.L. Life.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Stone had started serving a 22-month sentence for drug trafficking. His spent his time in the clink sweating — sit-ups and push-ups mostly.

“Doing time was a hurtful thing,” Stone says. “But I didn’t feel the pain till I got near the end of my term and I was really missing my boys.”

By spring 2003, Taylor was busy promoting the label, finding artists and making connections. I.L.L. Life released its first album, The Fire, by Young Nova, a 16-year-old emcee.

“Nova had gotten some good publicity from a cameo off of Big Herk’s joint, so it made sense for him to drop first,” Taylor says, in the perfected lingo of a street-level record mogul. “He’s been rapping since he was 8 years old, so cats was getting shook quick when the album dropped.” The Fire promptly sold 1,000 copies with little promotion.

A year later, Stone, freed from jail, hooked up with Taylor. The label head took him straight to the studio, and added him to I.L.L.’s growing stable of emcees, which now includes Sean Merk, The Block Boyz, Casper Gomez and Young Nova.

I.L.L. Life’s second effort, the just-released O. Taylor Mixtape Vol. 1, stars all the I.L.L. artists, and prominently features Blackstone’s stellar dark raps. Things are, Taylor says, going as planned. And the wind has picked up literally and figuratively.

Stone and Taylor move from their bleacher seats and step down to the concrete. They talk of sharing the stage with D-12, Fat Joe, and finally getting respect in the ’hood.

Still, one wonders what it will take for the two to completely ditch the street life. There’s cred and then there’s cred. The two appear bizarrely at ease with negative things.

Taylor looks up to the sky, glances down at Stone, than back at the clouds. “The street shit is what it is. It’s a part of me just like the music. But one day, my life will be just about the music.”

Stone isn’t as concerned. He’s apparently happy with himself. He cracks a rare smile, and looks at Taylor. “I done sold dope, been locked up, and hip hop has always been there for me. I just keep doing what I do. I really don’t need no album for cats to tell me I’m a legend, I already know.” OK, then.


The I.L.L. Life crew performs a short set on Friday, Aug. 12, at Comerica Park (2100 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-471-6611) on the Anger Management show.

Kahn Davison is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Kahn Santori Davison

Kahn Santori Davison is from Detroit, Michigan. He's a husband and father of four and a self-described, "Kid who loves rap music." He's been featured on Hip-Hop Evolution and Hip-Hop Uncovered. He's also a Cave Canem fellow, author of the poetry book Blaze (Willow Books), a recipient of a 2015 Kresge Literary...
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