Earlier this month, Illa J blessed NYC with hosting his album release show at Cameo Gallery in Brooklyn. Performances off his latest self-titled record via Brooklyn label veterans Bastard Jazz were met by an excited crowd where head nods abound. With support from DJ Spinna and Potatohead People‘s NYC debut, the venue was packed with positive vibes and true fans hungry for some real hip-hop.
Many outlets are of the opinion that Illa J is only just now immersing from behind his brother’s impenetrable shadow, but is that really the young artist’s intention? Where the late J Dilla is commonly referred to as the “King of Beats,” Illa J has always put his energies into honing his vocal talents. “Singing has always been my passion,” he honestly admits.
And never has this been more clear than on his latest offering. With production from Potatohead People and limited guest contributions on tracks like “Strippers” and his latest single “Sunflower,” Illa J succeeds in making this album his magnum opus. Atop a diverse soundtrack of Detroit boom-bap, electronic influences and jazz-inspired melodies, the artist’s soulful crooning and unique rhyming abilities fit together seamlessly. Fans and inquisitive minds can purchase a copy of the digital album here and vinyl heads can get their hands on a hard copy here.
Brooklyn Radio’s Lara Gamble got time with the rapper/singer/songwriter before his set at Cameo to learn more about the formation of his unique sound and his experience in creating his latest release.
What’s your earliest memory of hip-hop?
My earliest memory of hip-hop, actually, is me going through my brother’s cassettes, and I discovered an Ice Cube cassette. And that was my introduction, listening to Ice Cube.
I had this other cassette that was like the “Best Hits of ’93,” and it had all these songs on it…and The Box. I mean, you remember The Box where you would put in the number and pick the videos. But yeah, a lot of it came from The Box. Honestly, my brother and sister put me up on a lot of stuff. My sister actually put me up on Illmatic.
How old were you?
I’m thinking around somewhere between 10 and 14.
How did growing up in Detroit help mold your style/your sound?
I think it’s just the overall mindset in the sense that…I feel like it’s what you call, I guess, a “working class” city. So, it’s just that mindset of “Grind. Hustle. Hustle. Hustle. Hustle.” If anything, I feel like being a musician from Detroit, you automatically have that natural grind that pushes you to be better as a musician and to be the best at your craft, so that you can get out.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of nice parts of Detroit. But you know, some parts are not so nice. People grow up in some of those not so nice parts, and being in those places, it kind of pushes you to work hard and to want to get out of it. I don’t know. If there was something to describe the vibe of our music…not all of it. I mean, we write songs about love and all that stuff, but I just feel the mindset is still just, “Grind. Hustle. Hustle. Hustle.”
You come from a very musically talented family. Did you ever feel pressured to make music your career, or was it more of an inspiration/supportive environment?
It was more of an inspirational/supportive thing where…I mean, it was just one of those things where music was just always a part of my life just from the get go, even as a kid. Being in church all the time around music with my parents, I was in the choir, and then at home, my mom and dad, they had an a cappella jazz group.
They would be singing all the time, so that kind of trained my ear for hearing melodies, just listening to my mom and dad sing jazz. My dad, he had a doo-wop group back in the day. He’d also sing jazz and play upright and played piano. And my mom, she studied opera. She also sings jazz and stuff. So, it was like, music was always around.
And then, you know, my brother. He did what he did. It was one of those things where I always knew, at some point, music would take over in my life. I always wanted to do it. When I was younger, there were times when I didn’t want to do it just because I knew that my brother was already successful at it, so I didn’t want to have the whole comparison thing. But, you know, I got over that. I’m like, “You know what? At the end of the day, this is what I love to do.” And I’ve been doing it all my life.
It’s almost like that one thing you know that you’re good at. You know what I mean? You could feel like a loser at everything else, but when it comes to music, I know that I can be cool. (Laughs.)
What was the first instrument you remember picking up?
I have to say that, I hate to be like this, but technically voice, that’s my first instrument. Singing has always been my passion. Even now, it’s like, if you look at my track record or what I’ve put out so far, I’ve put out mostly rap, but I’ve always been, and always will be, a singer that raps.
Because I respect the art of rap, like the craft of writing raps, so much that a lot of times I end up writing more raps for when I record the album, and then I’ll regret it later, like, “Oh, I didn’t put enough singing joints.” Again, I’m a singer first, but I just really enjoy the pocketing and just writing raps.
Performing raps and what not.
I actually enjoy singing more though. But, as far as other instruments, I had piano lessons when I was around six or seven, and I was on and off with the piano until I saw Stevie Wonder live when I was around nineteen. And then, that’s when I really went all the way with keys. Like, I love keys. I also had bass lessons, too. I’m good on bass. I can play bass, too. I’m good with pocket, but keys is my main thing where I can really do my thing on it.
What prompted the move to Montreal?
Honestly, it’s simple. It was following my heart. I moved there to be with my girlfriend. When we first started talking, I was going to Montreal, and then she would come to Detroit. Montreal, Detroit. You know what I mean? Then, I made the full move. Like, I’m going all the way there.
Everything else that followed, it just showed that me following my heart, it opened up all these other doors. I didn’t know that it would connect with my career and everything.
So, you’ve released albums with Slum Village and Yancey Boys. When did you begin working on your latest solo, self-titled release, which dropped on Bastard Jazz this past Friday?
I started working on it early 2014 around March, early March, ‘cause I was coming back from a couple shows with Slum early 2014. That’s when I stopped working with them. That’s when I started to work with Nick Wisdom. I actually met him in Vancouver, but we didn’t get a chance to really, really link up as far as start making music together until I moved out to Montreal.
Frank Nitt, my bro Frank, he actually worked with him first. And he was telling me, “Yo, you know, Nick actually moved out to Montreal.” And like, my manager was telling me to work with him as well, who’s also my girlfriend. She was saying, “You should work with Nick Wisdom.” And it took off from there.
I love Frank. I had a really good interview with him last year. Who would you name as notable influences on your sound?
That would be an all-day discussion because I’m one of those people…you know how, whether it’s iPod or Google Play or even Amazon, you download the albums you bought, and they’re on device, and then you can switch those songs up? Every day, I change. I put different albums on device and take them off. I switch it up all the time.
But if I were to say my favorite, Prince is one of my favorite artists of all time. Michael Jackson, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Al Green. I mean, it’s mostly singers first. Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Manhattan Transfer, Les Double Six (the Double Six of Paris).
And then as far as rap, Eminem, Nas, Jay-Z. I mean, my brother, but I feel like it’s an obvious thing. But for real though, not just because he’s my brother, like really, my brother. Busta Rhymes is one of my favorite rappers of all time. Paramore. I really like Paramore. Hayley Williams, I just like her voice. It’s so dope. Her belting range is really dope.
How did you go about choosing the features and collaborations on the album like Moka Only and Kaytranada?
Well, Moka, he’s actually from Vancouver also, so he was already good friends with Nick. And that was before I toured with him live. Now I know him even more now. That’s like the bro. Pretty much, Nick was already close with Moka Only, so while we were recording the album, even early in the beginning stages of it, he would hear joints, and he would be like, “Yo, it’s dope.”
And he would just put a verse on it, and Nick would play it for me, and it just happened that everything just fit perfectly on it. It blended so well. It sounds like we’re in the studio together on a lot of the songs. But it’s like, he sent all his verses from Vancouver to Nick to mix. But yeah, he mixes very well.
Kaytranada, it was really fun working with him. We actually went through three different beats in that session, and then “Strippers” was like, he had this keyboard patch playing, and then Nick added some drums. Nick just built around it, and he played this sick bass line, and that just took off from there.
And then also, Mosaic is a super dope producer that’s on the album. Actually, he’s really close with Nate and Nick. a l l i e kills it on the singing. Ivan Ave kills his features. I think that’s pretty much it for features.
What was it like filming the video for “Perfect Game” at Brooklyn Bowl?
Oh, that was super fun. It was actually, for me, it was kinda trippy because I never imagined my bowling life and my music life ever crossing paths. I grew up bowling, so I can really bowl, like really can bowl good.
And actually, the way the concept of the song came up is we have this thing Torchlight Commission which is like me, Moka Only, Potatohead People, John Rogers. It’s a collective, kind of like Soulquarians. It’s more like a movement. We’re all the same as far as the energy we bring in our music.
Me and Nick, we just happened to be having a conversation one day and we came up with, “Oh, shit. We’re the two bowlers of the crew.” We actually grew up bowling. We both grew up bowling. What’s funny, we actually ended up watching a couple bowling tournaments on YouTube, and I don’t know if it was that day or one of the next days, but we were thinking like, “Yeah, we’re gonna start making some joints, and we’ll call it The Bowlers.”
We never called it that, but I came up with the hook for “Perfect Game” around that same time. That’s kind of the inspiration for that. But it’s bugged out to, even then, to actually be there in the bowling alley. Like, “Whoa. I’m shooting a video for bowling. I grew up bowling.” I never saw those, for real, coming together.
It’s also a pretty upscale bowling alley.
Yeah, it’s really nice. Really nice. I used to bowl in like the hood bowling alleys.
What can fans expect from your set tonight?
Tonight, I’m going to delve into.…I mean, I’m basically just jumping into this new project. A lot of these songs, I’m performing for the first time. It’s exciting, and I’m kind of nervous at the same time. I’m always nervous performing something for the first time, especially like “Sunflower.” The chords are really jazzy, and the intervals between the notes and the melody of the part I’m singing, it’s so easy to mess up because it’s these jazz chords.
So, I’m nervous about that one. I don’t know. I’m actually really excited. But I’m basically just doing the new stuff from the album and stuff that’s on Big Luxury off the Potatohead album. And then, I’m going to throw in maybe one…maybe one, two joints from my first album.
Is there anything else that you want to add or promote?
Well, look out for me. I will be touring. All the scheduling and stuff is coming for that. Look out for the video for “Perfect Game” coming soon. I actually worked on this thing Meeting Points. Shouts to James Benjamin. We did this thing where it’s bringing an artist into another artist’s world.
So, basically, I went to Nova Scotia to work with Arthur Comeau from Radio Radio. It was really cool. So, yeah, we came up with some crazy music, so it’s really bugged out. Other than that, look for me touring.
Social media – @illaj, @johnregal1 on Instagram, “Illa J” Facebook. Yeah, I’ll keep you updated, but it’s going to be a fun ending to this year, but next year’s going to be really crazy. So, definitely look out.