A Q&A With Illa J

Today’s interviewee on SpeedontheBeat.com probably needs no introduction. He’s one of the most-recognizable names I’ve had the pleasure of linking up with. And his brother has done pretty damn well for himself, too, in case you don’t know (if you don’t, for shame. Go bury your head in sand somewhere). I’m talking about no other than a member of one of the royal families of hip-hop, Illa J. When I got the go-ahead from his camp for this interview, I’ll be honest. I was pretty siced to get the opportunity (Ed. Note: Big thanks to Marialys Diaz for helping to set this up. I’ve been a fan of Illa and Dilla for years. Heck, Dilla was the visionary who made me start working on–and stepping up–my production skills. So, any way I can help carry on tradition and musical excellence, I’ll pretty much jump at the opportunity). But, enough about me. Let’s get into this one.

More after the jump

SOTB: What started you in music? Was it a by-product of your brother—and everyone else in your talented family—being involved in the world, or was it kind of more your own thing?

Illa J: [It was] kinda just growing up in a musical family. Music has always been a big part of my life. My dad was a singer and songwriter and he also played upright bass, and my mom studied opera and sang jazz. So they instilled music in us at an early age. Along with also singing in the choir at church, all of that played a big role in my development as an artist over the years.

From Illa’s Instagram

SOTB: Being the brother of hip-hop royalty, how did J Dilla influence your own approach—rap-wise and production-wise?

Illa J: Rap-wise, I really liked the rhythm of how my brother was rapping. He wasn’t just rapping—he was literally adding percussion to the beat with his voice. And I still think to this very day that he is very underrated as a rapper, but it’s only because his production is so great. As a producer, I learned from him, that it’s all about that feel. It’s something you either have or you don’t. It’s a feeling, and people feel it when they listen to it. You can’t teach it.

SOTB: So other than Dilla, who has been influenced you?

Illa J: So many artists! I listen to lots of different styles of music, [so] we would have to name them from every genre. When it comes to soul, Al Green, Stevie, Sam Cooke, MJ, and Prince. In Acapella Jazz, The Manhattan Transfers, The Four Freshman, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, in Rock, Nirvana, The White Stripes. The list goes on and on; we would have to write a separate article, ’cause I listen to so much music (laughs).

SOTB: How was it recording that first CD? Were you nervous about making a classic, or were you more concerned with just making great music and worrying about whether it was a classic later on?

Illa J: I was honestly just very excited to be recording my first official album. And I just wanted to let it flow, I had a natural connection to the tracks being that me and my brother came from the same musical background. It was just a natural process. If anything, I just wanted to make my brother proud, and show him respect. Too many times people just rap over beats, instead of just dancing with the beat, if you know what I mean.

SOTB: Yeah.

Illa J: And I know that’s what my brother would’ve wanted me to do—to just do me. Obviously, there was an overwhelming amount of pressure at the time, from my brother’s fans, and his peers, all looking to see what I was going to do. But I think it turned out ok. I feel like I’ve grown a lot as an artist since that project.

SOTB: What was the wildest experience you’ve had as an artist?

Illa J: In 2011 in Brazil, when I jumped into the crowd, the fans surrounded me, they was all tryna grab me and they ended up ripping my tie off! (Laughs)

SOTB: Do you have any upcoming projects in the works?

Illa J: I’m currently finishing up my second full-length solo album, and I’ll be dropping it sometime in Fall 2015. I’m really excited about this project, I feel like it’s the best music I’ve made in my career thus far. And the bulk of the project will be produced by Potatohead People, which is Nick Wisdom and Astrological Beats. 

We have an amazing chemistry in the studio and comes out in the music. I’ll also be dropping a lot of new music on my Soundcloud in this next year. Gonna be a busy year.

SOTB: So, I know that the Detroit scene is pretty tightknit, kind of like the DMV—but still unique and amazing in its own right. How would you describe it to someone on the outside looking in?

Illa J: Well even though we all support each other, everyone is kinda in their own space. Which is cool, that’s how we are(laughs). I love my fellow Detroit artists. Sonically, it’s just that grind, something you can’t really explain, you just have to grow up there, and it’s just instilled in your nature. It’s something in the water (laughs).

SOTB: If someone wanted to get into that Detroit sound for the first time, where would you direct them to start?

Illa J: Motown. Go study all the old Motown Records.

SOTB: So, what are some of your thoughts on the way the game is going these days?

Illa J: I think it’s going good. The industry is changing, but change is inevitable. It’s how you adapt to that change. And all the best artists seem to know how to ride that wave of change.

SOTB: Who are some of your favorite artists out today?

Illa J: Little Dragon, Chvrches, Kendrick, Drake, Kaytranada, Pomo, Lady Gaga, Phoenix, Disclosure, Esperanza Spalding, Haim, Lana Del Ray…just to name a few.

SOTB: Eclectic, just like I would’ve guessed (laughs). Definitely a good thing, though. How about all-time?

Illa J: James Brown, Prince, Stevie, MJ, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Al Green—again, just to name a few. (Laughs)

SOTB: Being a multi-faceted artist, what are some tips you’d give up-and-comers who want to record and produce?

Illa J: Learn how to mix your records, it’s such an important part of the process.

SOTB: Definitely can vouch for that, even with the whole “lo-fi” aesthetic I originally was going for.

Illa J: The mix can turn a good song into a great song and a great song into a Hit. Also, just do you, no matter what. Make sure the end product represents you, ‘cause if not? No matter how much success, you won’t be happy with something that doesn’t truly represent you.

SOTB: Do you have a favorite between producing and being lyrical?

Illa J: For me, it depends. Sometimes, I’m in a producer mode, then I switch to singing, and then to rapping. So it depends on my mood and the flow of energy of that particular studio session. If anything, singing is my favorite and coming up with melodies.

SOTB: Any last thoughts, questions, or nuggets of wisdom you want to share with the readers?

Illa J: If you don’t have a true passion and love for the music, this is not the business to be in. ‘Cause there will be many ups and downs on your career’s journey and it’s those downtimes where your love and passion for the music will carry you through.

SOTB: Where can we reach you on social media?

Illa J: You can follow me on Twitter at @illaj, on Instagram at @johnregal1. On Soundcloud, I’m at Illa J, and on Facebook, it’s the same.

SOTB: Alright, well I want to thank you for taking the time out to impart some wisdom and give us all a little more insight into the world of Illa J. 

Speed on the Beat

Whatever you need to know about me, you can find out on speedonthebeat.com

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