Illa J, the brother of late hip-hop artist J Dilla, has released his long-awaited, self-titled sophomore album, produced by the Canadian production duo Potatohead People (made up of Nick Wisdom & AstroLogical)–and it is exceptional.
The LP dropped via Bastard Jazz Recordings on Oct 2 to wide acclaim. The 11-tracks draw influences from across a broad musical spectrum–hip hop, jazz, funk, electric–all working together to compliment the artist’s almost instinctually rhythmic voice. Now based in Montreal, Quebec, Illa J and BTR sat down to chat about how his parents met, the inspiration behind the LP, and a can’t-miss upcoming documentary.
BreakThru Radio (BTR): What’s your musical background?
Illa J (IJ): I mean, I’ve pretty much been in some music all my life. My dad and my mom brought me up in a house that was always filled with music. My dad was a vocal coach and wrote songs back in the day, he had his own doo-wop, and my mom sings opera and studied jazz. That’s how my parents met actually–he was auditioning singers and he met my mom. Music has always been a part of me. I was in choir-singing and also me and my brother would make a lot of beats in the basement. It was honestly like growing up in a musical workshop.
BTR: Did you always want to go into the industry?
IJ: As far as getting into the industry, I always knew I wanted to do music professionally but at a younger age I didn’t want to yet, because my brother was already very successful at it. So I knew, even at that age, that if I did it I would be compared to him. But at some point, especially after my brother passed, I realized that this life is so short, you know, I might as well do what I love.
And, those comparisons do happen, that’s just what doing this comes with, but I would rather put my all into doing what I love.
BTR: Was your brother’s style a big influence?
IJ: In the way he raps, definitely, certain rhythms and pockets that he picks, but I would say my dad is my biggest influence as far as my family, because I’m a singer songwriter first and I just happen to rap. On this new album I’m trying to reintroduce that and show people–ok, let’s start from scratch: This is what I do, and I know I already put out a lot of rap, but I do more. I have one song called “Sunflowers” on the new album that’s acid jazz, and I’m singing a lot on the new album, really trying to open that door.
BTR: Will that be true of future projects?
IJ: A lot of the music that will be coming out after this project will be a lot more singing, too. I’ll still be rapping, but I want to balance it out because I’m a singer first. I want to sing more at my shows, it’s my favorite thing to do. And my dad, he’s the one that made me like singing so much as far as melodies go. All we would do is sit and listen to all these a cappella jazz groups and that’s my biggest songwriting influence.
BTR: What was the writing process like on this album?
IJ: It was midway through this particular project that I would start to memorize my raps on the spot, instead of writing them in my notebook, and it was a fun process because when I delivered it into the microphone I wasn’t looking at my notebook because I already knew it. That gave it this kind of natural style when I listened to it through the speakers. Just like how an actor can’t be looking at the script while they’re acting it out. Not looking makes them able to get more into the character, and I used that process a lot on this project.
BTR: How about the inspiration for the writing?
IJ: A lot of that came from conversations that me and Nick [Wisdom] would have–we would just go be breathless and talk about random stuff. Like we were talking about girls that had done us wrong in the past, nothing from the present moment, when I was like I want to write a break up song, and just dug deep and I wrote “She Burned My Art.” Some of the writing is not from personal experience and some of it is; some of it is what I’ve felt for a long time and was just never able to express until this album. “Never Left” is a perfect example of dealing with being in the industry and with everything that comes with being the younger brother of J Dilla.
As far as musical inspiration, it’ll come from anywhere. I usually start with the melody and the rhythm, and I kind of hum out into my tablet a basic idea–like “da, dum, da, da, dum”–and then eventually I’ll put words to it. I could just be walking down the street and see a sign and be like, “I like those words,” and it’ll end up being a song.
BTR: What was the recording process like for this album?
IJ: It was really good, I started recording last March, so technically we recorded for a while but all the sessions were really fast. [Nick] would start on the drums and I would be writing while he was adding things to the beat, and by the time he finished the beat I had a chorus and a hook and we’d record right away.
I actually recorded “Universe” and “Sunflower” early on in the project, but some of them were a little bit flat or a little bit sharp, so I re-sung the vocals later to make sure I got it right. I really believe in correcting those mistakes yourself. A lot of people use auto tune these days and just let the computer fix it for them, but it’s so much more genuine when you actually go in, punch your own vocals, and make sure the notes are right. That natural sound… there’s nothing like it.
BTR: So what are your upcoming plans?
IJ: Definitely doing some touring, I have upcoming shows in Switzerland, Brussels, Zurich, Japan later this year, and some other Europe dates in early 2016. And I’m actually working on a project with Mozaic–right now it’s untitled–and I already started a full album with this producer Calvin Valentine from Portland, but now based in L.A. It’s crazy, we’re making crazy stuff!
I also did this project called Meeting Points, a documentary where they take one artist to another artist’s world and they make music together there. They took me to Nova Scotia and we were mic’d up the whole time, and I went there and met Arthur Bilodeau, from Radio Radio. It was super cool because the studio was set up in a cabin right off a lake so I got a chance to meditate out on the lake, go canoeing, a lot of stuff I haven’t ever gotten a chance to do.
It was like this guy from Novia Scotia and this kid from Detroit making music together, and we actually made some really dope stuff. Definitely look out for that! Other than that, I’ll just be making a lot of new music.