Illa J's "R U Listenin'" is the perfect song to warm us up in freezing weather. The beat is vintage Dilla backyard bbq music. Although the songs on Illa's Yancey Boys mostly work better as a group, this one is a perfect solo offering of sunny mid-'90s good vibes rap. We're not ones to throw out the idea that older is better very often, but can you imagine The Pharcyde on this beat? Jam City. It should be noted that Illa J and Guilty Simpson are no slouches, but can we dream for a minute? After the jump read Sam Hockley-Smith's Gen F on Illa J from FADER 58, on stands as we speak.
Illa J finds meaning in unexpected moments
Story Sam Hockley-Smith
Photography Sean Masterson
Yancey Boys marks the first real collaboration between rapper/singer Illa J and his older brother, the late J Dilla. It’s a project that could have only come from a familial connection—reverent but not deifying, as Illa comes to terms with the loss of a family member while simultaneously stepping out on his own. The way he tells it, the entire album is a sort of wish fulfillment that began at the age of thirteen in 1999 when he overheard his brother working on a beat and showed him some lyrics he had been working on. “I spit the rhyme I wrote the day before in my little notebook, and he liked it so he sent the limo for me to come record my little verse.” The moment must have been huge for him, but it didn’t amount to anything. Following the recording, Illa completely dropped out of the music world. He’s not entirely clear about what he did between then and 2006, when he started working on music again, but he mentions something about basketball and then quickly adds, “I knew one day I was eventually going to have to get into music anyway.”
In 2006, Dilla passed away due to Lupus-related illness at the age of thirty-two, leaving behind a legacy that people are still trying to fathom and an enormous collection of unreleased music. Yancey Boys culls beats from ’95 to ’98 (the earliest stages of Dilla’s professional career) and features some of his favorite collaborators, including Frank N Dank and Guilty Simpson. It sounds exactly like an album Dilla would have eventually gotten around to releasing.
Like his brother, Illa raps to fill space between snare hits. Instrumentals play out for a couple minutes before a wisp of a verse comes in, stringing together snatches of experience (smoking weed with Madlib) and ephemeral thoughts (that Elephant is his favorite White Stripes album). It’s not an album about lamenting the loss of his brother, it’s a cautiously subtle album about life and the who gives a shit moments that make up ninety percent of it. So many seemingly inconsequential and small observations build up on it that taken as a whole, it becomes intensely personal.
Listening to Illa speak, you get the impression that he spent much of his adolescence being inspired by his brother while constantly trying to outrun his influence. With Yancey Boys, it seems like he’s finally comfortable with their relationship. “I didn’t want people to be like, Oh he’s doing it because of his brother,” Illa says. “[But] at the end of the day, it’s my brother and why should I not feel good about my brother? Why should I feel any other way?”