Photo: Pete Ambrose
More than two years after his untimely passing, J Dilla's production still lives on. The Detroit-bred beatsmith born James Yancey has continued to gain fans through his own acclaimed albums such as Welcome 2 Detroit, but also by his gritty yet soulful production heard on recent hip-hop tracks from acts like Guilty Simpson and Common. But one of Dilla's truest fans can be found right within his own family — the youngest of the Yancey siblings, John, aka Illa J.
Since he was a little kid, the now 21-year-old MC/vocalist/producer keenly observed his older brother's creative process at home in the D. So when Dilla passed away in Los Angeles on Feb. 10, 2006, Illa J took it upon himself to leave behind what he felt was a creatively stifling environment in Detroit to move out West and pick up where his brother left off. “My brother being out here [in L.A.], I feel it was meant for me to come out this way,” he says.
In less than a year of living in L.A., Illa J met one of Dilla's old industry contacts — Delicious Vinyl owner Michael Ross. At that time, in spring of 2007, Ross was trying to organize a tribute compilation, which would feature various artists performing atop Dilla's beats. Ross selected Illa J as one of the participants and handed him a CD with 38 unused Dilla beats from the mid-'90s.
While the Dilla compilation never panned out, almost a year later Illa J caught up with Mike Ross and played him a song he had written on his girlfriend's Yamaha Motif XS — his first number on which he played the keys. In turn, Ross invited him to perform at a club in L.A. During that performance, the young multitalent unveiled new tracks he had written to those old beats his brother had produced more than a decade ago. Ross was impressed enough to push for a full album featuring Illa J flowing over Dilla's production.
Like his brother and Detroit affiliates such as Frank n Dank, Illa J is capable of creating songs at a lightning pace, so after he selected tracks from that fated beat CD, the LP Yancey Boys (Delicious Vinyl, 2008) was on a roll. Within a weekend, he had eight songs recorded, and the rest of the album was done in another two weeks.
In the confines of his home studio — aptly named Yancey Boys Studios — Illa J worked with engineer Geoff Schroer in bringing Dilla's lost work back to life. Having inherited some of Dilla's old equipment, Illa J and Schroer found themselves recording primarily on passed-down gear, such as a 32-channel Digidesign Pro Control board. While the youngest Yancey also inherited synths, including the Moog Voyager, he didn't use them for his album because he didn't want to noticeably alter his brother's original beats.
“Of course we had to tweak [them] just to bring a little bit of the bottom out because they were older, but other than that, we didn't do anything to the beats,” he says.
So using Dilla's superlaid-back synthy productions as they were, Illa J flexed his vocal dexterity, alternating between smoothly singing and rapping. Using Dilla's AKG C 12 mic and Avalon Vt-737sp mic pre, Illa J let loose about a gamut of themes, from rising above everyday artistic stress (“Strugglin'”) to bedroom-ready material (“DTFT”).
Aside from capturing Illa J's personality and voice, the aim of these songs was to live up to the raw soul of J Dilla's music.
“We didn't want to make it too polished,” Schroer says. “I really wanted his vocals to cut through 'cause if you listen to the sonics of it, they're very gritty. We wanted to match it up perfectly without having to use a whole bunch of plug-ins to process his vocals.”
Even amid the lack of new production on Yancey Boys, Schroer says, “Creatively speaking, it was the most organic project I've ever worked on and the most meaningful.”
For Illa J, his seminal album was a chance to simultaneously introduce himself while keeping Dilla's name alive.
“I feel like I got my brother still here with me,” he says. “I'm just happy to help keep his legacy going.”