Illa J
Photo: Robert Winter

Going Home: How Illa J Finally Found Peace Along With His Own Voice

It’s not until you’re well past the halfway mark of its second song, when the first rap on Illa J’s new album Home is actually heard. By then he’s already sung a soulful melody over a vocal sample chopped by producer Calvin Valentine, while Dank (of Frank ’n Dank) drops ad-libs reminiscent of some of the classic records Illa’s big brother was involved with, like Fantastic and Ruff Draft. When the track titled ‘Sam Cook’ rolls around, Illa J starts flexing his falsetto before spitting a few bars in the song’s finale.

Suffice to say, this is not the Illa J album you might’ve been expecting. What you’re getting instead, is the pleasant surprise of hearing a man who’s always been talented, and who’s now finding his own voice as an artist.

It was December 2006 when most of the world first met John “Illa J” Yancey, as he almost literally stepped into his brother J Dilla’s shoes, to mime his raps in the posthumous “Won’t Do” video. At that moment, audiences did not yet know about the younger Yancey brother’s own vocal chops and musical acumen. They’d find out in the following years though, as he carved out a name for himself as another one of Detroit’s talented rappers.

“I saw my brother do it, and to me, that’s the only formula. You just work really hard.”

“People automatically think it’s easier, but Questlove doesn’t have to work with me, just because he worked with my brother,” he says. “They have to respect me on my own, as an artist. I have to earn that.” And the way he earns that is, by constantly grinding in the studio, sharpening his craft without end. “I saw the hours it took,” he says, looking back on Dilla’s legendary prowess as a beat creator. “I saw my brother do it, and to me, that’s the only formula. You just work really hard. There’s no secret. Just work hard.”

The aim of that is to eventually be on par with anybody he might end up in a studio with, no matter their accolades. “Working with Robert Glasper, to me that was a very big deal. That’s an artist who’s in the same bracket as my brother. By being able to work with him, that gave me confidence.”

Which is exactly what he needed to lean heavier into his singing. The world might primarily know him as a rapper, but that’s about to change if he has anything to say about it. “I definitely try to bring the point across on this album that I’m a singer first,” he explains. “I make so many songs where I’m singing, it’s just that by the time I release my album I mostly pick joints I’m rapping on. And early on in my career, on my first few albums, I didn’t have the confidence in my singing voice that I have now.”

“To me, everything has always been an extension of my singing, ‘cause it’s just me using my voice in different ways.”

He goes on to tentatively compare himself to Lauryn Hill, in the sense that “there’s people that rap and sing, but like her, I’m more of a singer that raps.” He may have never relied on his singing as heavily as he does on Home, but his will to do so has always been there. “Singing has always been a passion of mine because of my pops. He brought us up. I grew up listening to a lot of Manhattan Transfer, Four Freshmen, a capella jazz groups. That really trained my ear. When I started to mess with different styles of music, like hip hop, it was fun to mess with my voice in different ways. To me, everything has always been an extension of my singing, ‘cause it’s just me using my voice in different ways.”

His brother (back then still known as Jay Dee) made a name for himself in the years leading up to the turn of the century, as the main catalyst for what would become known as the ‘neo soul’ or ‘nu soul’ movement. It successfully merged an organic, warm, soulful sound with boom bap inflections like nothing else had, and influenced generations of artists. Ironically, it’s in that same space that his younger brother now finds the room to spread his own wings, and escape the shadow of his revered brother.

“First it was, ‘Let me establish myself as a solo artist.’ Now, ‘Let me establish myself as a singer’,” he explains. He speaks about the enormous respect he has for Solange Knowles, and her ability to establish herself as an artist in her own right. Something he knows firsthand is not easy to pull off with such a famous sibling. “It was tricky because of the whole brother thing. Honestly, this is the first time I feel like I’m past it. Obviously, that will always be there, but people are starting to see ‘Yeah, he’s his own artist.’”

There’s a sense of duality there too though, as he simultaneously feels a duty to keep carrying his brother’s torch. “Now is the most at peace I’ve been with all of it. I understand my responsibilities as an heir. But to me, there’s also the personal responsibility of carrying the musical legacy. Not only was he a hip hop producer, but he could do all these other things. I feel like, through everything that I do, I represent that. Everything that he could’ve done. ‘Cause he could sing too.”

“My career and my brother’s will always be connected”

“In some crazy way, my career and my brother’s will always be connected. Outside of me being his brother and both of us making music, it’s almost like a spiritual, whole other level,” he remarks. His brother of course also reinvented himself on an independent German label, when he released the classic Ruff Draft EP on Groove Attack. Illa J’s Home is released on Jakarta Records, a label in Berlin, and his debut album was released through Delicious Vinyl, the same label his brother worked with early in his career.

“There’s so many things in my career that are parallel to what my brother would do.” While it was never a conscious decision, it doesn’t stop with their professional lives either: “It goes back to our childhood. In 5th or 6th grade, he performed ‘Billie Jean’ in a talent show. And when I was in 6th grade, I performed ‘Billie Jean’ in a talent show.”

And just like his brother, Illa J is not comfortable being pigeon-holed. “I wanna be considered a musician. A songwriter,” he explains his eschewing of being labeled as a rapper. “As a musician, you’re not put into a box. You can play whatever. That’s why my live shows are so important. I’m playing keys, and I’m starting to make beats live, just show people the full spectrum.”

It’s a big part of what attracted him to working with producer Calvin Valentine, who produced Home in its entirety, as well. “I feel like the melody, wherever the music is, it kinda writes itself. I allow that to take me in that direction, instead of trying to force it onto something else. I can go anywhere, and he can tap into that, ‘cause he can go anywhere. It allows me that much more freedom when we’re working together, to try all these different styles of music.”

“I have this constant need to record. If I’m not recording I feel like I might lose it or something”

Illa J says Frank Nitty (of Frank ’n Dank) initially introduced him to Valentine’s work: “Frank is like my low-key A&R. Frank said ‘I met this dope producer. Once you start doing your singing stuff, that’s the dude.’”

It would take a few more years for that to happen, but once it did, the two hit it off immediately. “I had a show in Low End Theory in 2015, and had a week off in L.A. before I had a show in San Antonio. So I thought, ‘I’m out here, might as well link up with Calvin.’ I hit him up, the first day, we made three tracks on the spot. From that point on, it was constantly working.”

“My vocals and his production—we’re a good tag team. He just throws alley-oops to me all day, and I throw ’em in. Calvin’s a beast.” But it wasn’t just their styles that were in tandem. “One of the things we bonded over was our work ethic. Every time I see him, he has at least forty to fifty new beats to play me. At least.”

“I have this constant need to record. If I’m not recording I feel like I might lose it or something. To me, that helps to develop your voice and your artistry. Continually recording, even the songs you don’t keep. And with Calvin, we make three songs a day on average when I’m there.”

“He’s influenced by my brother, but he has his own style and other producers he’s influenced by, and I feel that’s why Home is so natural. We had already worked together and had done a bunch of tracks, but we came back together to do that type of album. When you hear the music you can hear it’s comfortable, there’s nothing forced. He doesn’t try to put too much on my vocals; they’re raw. If I’m flat, it’s flat. It’s there, it’s real.”

“I really mean ‘home’ in in the sense that, we make all these different styles of music, but that hip hop-soul is just natural to us,” he shares emphatically. “Me coming up on Al Green, and all the people my brother produced…”

“That’s home for me, that type of music.”

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