​Illa J Honours Brother J Dilla's Legacy Through Music

​Illa J Honours Brother J Dilla's Legacy Through Music
Photo: Christopher Mancini
A move from the Motor City to Montreal gave Illa J plenty of inspiration for his new album. The burgeoning alt-hip-hop artist — and younger brother of the late, legendary Detroit producer J Dilla — says relocating to the Quebec metropolis exposed him to a dynamic music scene, afforded him fresh collaborations and opened him up to a whole new sound as he recorded his new self-titled album, out now on Bastard Jazz.
During a recent interview with Exclaim!, Illa J (born John Yancey) praised Montreal-based production duo Potatohead People, who helmed the entire album (along with the help of a few co-producers on certain tunes). Illa J goes on to say that the duo, composed of Nick Wisdom and AstroLogical are "like my bros. We have such a bugged-out musical connection. I feel like my vocals marry their production perfectly."
That rhythmic synergy is not only apparent on the new LP's grimy underground rap tracks like "French Kiss" and "Perfect Game," but also on the far more danceable "Universe," which finds Illa J forgoing rapping and solely singing a straight-up, electro-funk jam.
"I'm excited for people to hear that song. I've never released anything like it, and I'm eager to show people that I can do different things," Illa J says of "Universe."

He goes on to add that the tune's deep dance groove was partially inspired by living in Montreal. Illa J moved to the City of Saints to live with his girlfriend (with whom he had been in a long-distance relationship), and after his arrival, the couple quickly immersed themselves in the local music scene. It left an immediate impression on Illa J, who says with a laugh: "People really go and club here hard, like crazy. I ended up bringing a lot of that energy to the album."
But Illa J says that such genre dabbling was inevitable for him, no matter which locale he decided to settle into.

"If you go through my hard drive you'll see all the rock, pop and soul songs that I've made over the years. I've always seen myself as a singer that happens to rap. But I never released my other types of music because people would say: 'Your brother was this big hip-hop producer, so you gotta come out as this super rapper.' I always felt like I was stuck in this underground hip-hop box."
At times, Illa J was more than eager to fulfill such expectations. That was especially the case on his 2008 debut LP Yancey Boys, which was released two years after J Dilla's death, and solely featured the recently deceased beatsmith's production. But the younger rapper says his new self-titled album is a testament to his late brother's innovative spirit, which fans had only glimpsed before his passing.
"It's great that he's a legend as a hip-hop producer. But there's so much more of my brother that people didn't even get a chance to know," Illa J says. "I remember stealing his CD case as a kid, and that's how I first got into Radiohead. My brother loved all kinds of music, and he was already planning on doing a singing album, until he got sick. He was going to go so much further with his music. But in a sense I feel like that's my destiny, to take it into the future of where he was going to take it. I'm an extension of him, in our bloodline through music."