Artist Feature 001: Illa J

Nov. 17. 2014

Photo: Anisha Patel

Photo: Anisha Patel

We’re very excited to be launching the Music section of the ADSR blog with such a talented vocalist, rapper and all around musician: Illa J!  We exchange some words with the man, talking about everything from influences and upbringing to his current sounds and future directions.  He’s also left us with a couple tunes down below so be sure to have a read and a listen. 

How’re things in Montreal? Whats going on with you musically at the moment? 
I’m loving it out here in Montreal. Honestly, the happiest I’ve been in my whole life. I literally moved out here to be with my girl, and everything on the music side, just sort of fell into place. And as of right now musically, I’m just finishing my album and recording as many songs as possible.  I actually just released a new joint called “Cannonball” on my soundcloud, and it’s getting good feedback, so that makes me happy.

And that joint is produced by Nick Wisdom and Noo-Bap, S/O to the homies, they murdered that beat!

Talk to us a bit about your collab with Vancouver producer Nick Wisdom and Potatohead people? 
Well I officially met Nick In February 2013 in Vancouver.  He brought me and the homie Frank Nitt out for a show, cause Frank was featured on a Potatohead People song. But me and Nick didn’t start really vibin’ and making music tlll I moved out to Montreal. Frank told me he had moved out here, and gave me his info and told me we should work. Then eventually my girl heard his music, and she sort of pushed me to work with him. So earlier this year around late March we started recording, and just vibin out. I had no idea we would have so much chemistry in the studio. Then Nate came out to Montreal for a month, cause they had to finish their Potatohead People album, and I’ll just say, that’s when the magic started to happen, and we haven’t looked back since then. These are my bros, we were meant to work together, I feel like my big bro (James Yancey-RIP) put us together, I tell them that all the time. The chemistry is like Magic, James Worthy, and Kareem lol Real Talk.

How did this partnership come about?

Well we basically just kept recording songs, and the songs just got better and better and better…..etc even after Nate went back to Van, me and Nick kept recording, and still record every week. There was a point where we literally were recording a song a day, and we still have those kinda weeks from time to time, and sometimes it’s just me and Nick, and sometimes me and Nick will make something, then send it to Nate, and Nate will add something to it, it’s just natural, our vibe when making music.

Describe to us what it was like growing up in such a musical family?

Well I didn’t really realize it till later in life, after looking back, but music had always been a natural thing. I was literally surrounded by it, I had no choice, it was just there. It was part of my daily routine, just like brushing my teeth lol.  My brother making beats in the basement, my sister writing poetry, her and her friends blasting Michael Jackson “Wanna Be Starting Something” in her room, my mom and dad with their acapella jazz group rehearsing in our living room.  My dad was vocal training singers from time to time, at church, all of us were in the choir. Fun times, and it still is to this very day. RIP to my dad, all my songwriting and my strong passion for melodies and singing comes from him.

Was it a difficult decision to postpone your University studies and pursue music full time?

University studies, lol! I spent most of my time in college either record shopping, in my dorm listening to music, and once I got my own apartment, and I had my truck, it was over. I would just drive around campus listening to my music, not even realizing yet at that time, that music is what I was supposed to be doing anyway. But Iike I said, it was always such a natural thing, that at that time I hadn’t really thought about a career in it, especially since my brother had already succeeded in it.  I didn’t know if I would be able to handle the pressure of being a younger sibling in this industry, all the comparisons, it’s hard. But once my brother died, it just made me realize how short this life is, and I’d rather spend it doing what I love, which is music. Which ironically, I was already spending most of my time listening to music, or playing it, cause while in college I started taking bass lessons. All that’s to say, it was an easy decision, the hardest part was having the courage to do it, to take that leap of faith, and I did it, I dropped out like “Fuck it” I’m going for it, and I feel blessed to be still doing it right now. Cause I had no idea where to start, but I had faith, and I just went for it.

How do you feel growing up in Detroit has shaped your sound?

I can simplify it with one Guilty Simpson line, “Raps come easy, live it, see it, and write it…” Growing up surrounded by that motown sound, and just the grind of the City. That’s where that edge comes from in the music, cause if anything, Detroit is a working class City, a City of Hustlers.  You just get that extra drive, cause you wanna figure out a way to make it out. So you put in that extra work, walk that extra mile to make it happen, and no matter where I go, I take that Detroit grind with me. I do overtime in the studio like I’m working at a factory lol.

Rapper, singer, producer… is there any priority to these or are they all equally important? 
They all have their time when their in the forefront. I have my time when I just wanna get better as a rapper, then I have my time where I just wanna be a better singer. For me, growing up as a huge Jordan fan, it’s about strengthening every part of my game. But if I had to choose one that I’m the most passionate about, it would be singing. I’m crazy about melodies, and what you can do with your voice, especially once you realize it’s also an instrument. Singing is also athletic in a way, when you learn the proper technique, and begin to master it, I can talk about singing for hours and hours. So yeah, I guess, I do prefer singing after all lol

Where does your inspiration for writing music come from?
Everything, my surroundings, conversations, other music that inspires me, tv, movies, literally everything. It’s never a specific formula, it kinda just flows, and you ride that wave of creativity, as it flows so infinitely.

I’ve heard you’ve been focusing on singing and vocals more lately, is this a direction you’d like your music to head?
Well I’ve always been singing and recording music where I’m mostly singing, I just haven’t released a lot of it, besides “Timeless”. I’m actually a singer first before a rapper. I started writing around 8 years old, singing has always been my passion, but now I just have a lot more confidence in my voice.  Early in my career, I wanted to sing more, but everyone around me would say,”you should rap more”.  I kinda felt pressured, though I don’t regret it, cause rapping has made me a better writer. Honestly though, S/O to my vocal coach Betty Lane, she helped bring out the best in my voice, she literally freed my voice. I’ve never felt more confident singing. And you’ll hear it in a lot of the new music I’m going to release in this coming year.

Talk to us a bit about the music you have for us? Any specific inspiration or message behind the tunes?
Well recently I just dropped some new music on my Soundcloud as I mentioned earlier. #Cannonball in particular hints at the direction I’m heading musically, yet it doesn’t give up the whole story. But little things, like you’ll hear a new found confidence in my voice while rapping and singing. Also, no production by my brother. I love my brother so much, but I had to step away from his music, to create my own identity. Cause no matter how good I perform vocally, I’ll always be overshadowed if my brother produces.  People end up only focusing on the fact that it’s an unreleased “J Dilla” beat. Nothing against my brother, but that’s the truth. And this is me writing my own story in the history books. Establishing myself as a artist in my own right, and this is just the beginning, got a lot of new music coming in this next year. I’m super excited as I turn the page to this new chapter in my career.

Big thanks to Illa J for stopping by, hear more from the man below!

Connect with Illa J on Twitter, Soundcloud, and Instagram