If you were to ask anyone to name their top 5 favourite classic hip hop songs there is a very good chance that at least one of those would be a J Dilla song. The story of this one Detroit producer who rose to such cult status in hip hop is amazing. It’s impossible to say where (James Yancey aka Jay Dee) J Dilla’s influence starts and stops – it’s everywhere. So many familiar sounds we’ve become accustomed to were created by this musical genius who died 11 years ago. Tribute shows to J Dilla have been played across the globe since he passed and this March Canada joined in with the cross country Canada Loves Dilla tour.
We were lucky enough to have a conversation with one of the key players in the Dilla tribute movement, his brother John Yancey – Illa J who is a musician in his own right. Read below to see what Illa J has to say about his brother’s legacy and his own musical journey.
Q – How’s the Canada Loves Dilla tour going?
It’s been really good. We’ve been all over the place (Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Minnesota, Chicago, etc) and it’s all been great vibes. I got to go to Paisley Park while on tour and that was really dope. We’ve been almost everywhere doing the Dilla tribute shows. At this point I like to joke and say that its easier to list the places I haven’t been. I think Hong Kong’s on that list. I’d like to go there.
Q – Why do you think Dilla’s music crosses languages, generations, and brings all of these different people together?
Dilla was never trendy. He wasn’t about that. He stayed in the game and he worked hard. He loved beats and making dope beats, weird beats, funny beats. He made beats that he was never going to show anyone. It was never about trends. You know how sometimes you can hear something and say it sounds like the ’90’s, or like 2002, or something? Dilla escaped that – the music is real and timeless and people can really feel that. Dilla’s music sounds like the past, present, and the future. I truly believe that people can feel when something is genuine and they connect with that.
Dillas music sounds like the past, present, and the future.
Q – How do you balance doing the tribute work you do for your brother and your own music career?
It was really hard at first, man. Obviously everyone just saw me as Dilla’s little brother and nobody knew that I was a musician, too. There’s also been a misconception that I had it a lot easier in the music game because of my family and my connections. That’s not true at all. It was just as hard for me as it would be for anyone else – maybe even harder in some sense. Lots of people were saying stuff like ‘we already love Dilla.. why would we want to listen to you when we can listen to the real thing?’. They don’t want a wannabe Dilla, they just want Dilla. It was stuff like this that lead to my first album (in 2008) to be an instrumental album.
My projects weren’t being promoted and I was definitely in a slump. It was a hard time, but I never stopped working. I eventually moved to Montreal and gained more control over my musical destiny. It was like stepping out of that box I was placed in. As for the tribute shows – I got to a point where I stopped enjoying doing those so much because I was too connected to the whole thing and the business aspect of it. It took the love out of it. Now, I’m working on my own music and a few times a year I’ll do these tribute shows and I’ll really enjoy it. It’s a lot of fun for me to do those shows these days. It feels like having fun with my bro, I’m a fan too so it’s a great feeling. I think that this is what my brother would want for me, to work on my own music and to support his legacy like this. I’m happy to be at this point.
I also really embraced singing, I mean I see myself as a singer mainly, and then a rapper. I’ve been singing my whole life. About 4 years ago I started working with a vocal coach and that’s helped me a lot. I’ve been working on technique and really getting breath control, posture, and everything else. It’s even helped my rapping get better because now I understand the mechanics of it and how the muscles and everything work.
I’ve put in a lot of work to change that and to focus on my own music. So now the last album I put out was all produced by different people like KAYTRANADA, Mosaic, Potatohead People. It set the standard for me and it has opened new doors for me musically. I’m in a different lane now and it feels great.
Q – What’s it like living in Montreal? What’s the music scene like?
It’s great, Montreal is so cool. I feel like I’m in Europe and sometimes it feels like I’m still on tour because it’s so beautiful here. It’s definitely had its influence on me and you can hear it when I reference things like ‘the metro’ or ‘walking’ somewhere in my music. We definitely didn’t have that in Detroit (laughs), Detroit is a car town. I do get home sick, of course, and french is hard – I’m a 30 year old man so I’m not learning it that fast. The lifestyle is amazing and it has a very cool vibe that I like.
Musically, it’s a dope city. Montreal has a music community full of great producers, and musicians. A lot of these people have become my friends just from being around them on the scene. It feels similar to me to Detroit in some ways. It’s a similar mixture of different scenes co-existing.
Q – Can we expect a Poutine reference in your music next?
Poutine is great (laughs) but we have Chili Cheese Fries in Detroit and – oh man – I love that. If you’re ever in Detroit you have to have Chili Cheese Fries. Personally for me, they are better.
Q – Can you tell us about your band, The Marshens?
This band started when my girlfriend saw a Sunday night open mic type show called ‘Jazz Dilla’ that caught her attention. We checked it out and it turns out that this band was playing and one of the people in the band has a cat named ‘jazz’ and a dog named ‘Dilla’, which was funny. I linked with these guys and started going to these sunday night open mics primarily to work on my singing and my keys. I went every sunday for about 2 years I think to practice and polish my craft. It was a great jam sesh. At some point I thought ‘we sound dope, let’s record some of this’ so we turned it into a band and went from there. We have one song out now but I hope that we’ll have more out sometime soon.
Q – How does being in a band (The Marshens) compare to being in a group (Slum Village)?
The instruments set a band apart – although in a group our voices are our instruments so that’s really not the main difference I guess. The chemistry of a band when we’re playing together, and vibing is great. Everyone gets it and everyone is on the same page. There’s something about live instruments that you can’t beat and I’ve even begun bringing more and more instruments with me when I do my Illa J shows. This band is cool too because there is another singer and so sometimes I’m just playing and she’s singing and I like having that option. The team work is nice. I see a band as a group of friends that play together and a group is something that is often put together on purpose. It’s like when I was in Slum – we were a group and everyone got along and everything, but we also knew that nobody could touch the ‘original 3‘.
Q – Can you tell us about the new music you’re working on?
I’ve been working on a new album with Calvin Valentine that I’m really excited about. It’s mostly singing on this one, less rap. I’d call it like a r’n’b / soul / hip hop fusion. These are songs where you’ll think I rap on – but then I sing instead. I see my career now as a fresh start. I’m like a new artist with this stuff and I don’t want to make the same mistakes as before. There’s nothing like a fresh start. I’m excited about my new album, which will be out in May this year. It’s called ‘Home‘ and it’s all about Detroit – I went back and shot two videos there. The music just sounds like Detroit. I’m very happy with it. I’m hoping that this will just push me further down this new lane I’m headed towards and will let me meet new people and have new experiences.
Q – What’s your approach to writing?
I see myself as a writer first. I grew up on that, and its like if you’re dope with a pen you can go anywhere. Writing is like a muscle that you have to work at. People don’t take it seriously. It’s a technique you can learn and its an art form.
My brother used to put me through bootcamps where he’d take a beat, and then roll a joint and go away for 30 mins or whatever, and by the time he was back he expected to hear a song, or most of a song done. That’s how I learned to write. Once you get a verse and a hook down it all falls together pretty quickly. I still write that way. I tend to write 2-3 songs per session, sometimes more. My new album ‘Home’ was written in a week; a week where I played 3 shows. That was actually a slow week for me. I remember when I was in Paisely Park I saw this Prince poster that said ‘Music for me does not come on a schedule‘ and that really connected with me. When an idea hits I have to get that song out of me straight away. You know that moment can’t be replaced, and you’ll never have a better moment to get those words out. I write whole songs in one sitting because of that. I don’t start and stop sessions, unless I’m just doing a few bars for someone else.
Q – What Canadian music do you like?
I love Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill – my sister put me on that and I really got into it. I also really like Oscar Peterson. I love KAYTRANADA he’s super dope and that’s even an understatement. You know how usually someone says that so-and-so is really talented and you say ‘yeah’, well KAYTRANADA is the real deal. He’s not overhyped, if anything he is underhyped. I also have a lot of respect for Moka Only – he’s too talented for his own good and he’s great at everything that he does.
Q – What are you listening to these days?
I really like singers, as I said. I like well written songs and nice voices. I like the athleticism of singing, I’m fascinated with that. I obviously love Prince and you can start by listening to his first 10 albums. That’s a solid afternoon right there. From newer stuff I’ve been liking Tame Impala, Tinashe, and Khelani. There’s a lot more but I’ve been finalizing my album so I’m a little preoccupied with that these days.
*Feature photo by Joshua Taylor @thesirtaylor