new music: with his new solo album, illa j comes from behind the shadows of his brother (the late j dilla)

October 22, 2015

Rich rhythmic drums, slow-cooked jazz pianos, savory synths and organs took over intimate room of underground hip hop heads. John Derek Yancey, better known by his stage name Illa J fed us some of that good cookin. He performed hits from his recently released self-titled solo album “Illa J LP.” “This album is like a new chapter in the sense that I want to show people the other types of music I can make. Because I feel like I box myself in because of the stuff they think I can and should make,” Illa J said.  Since putting out his debut album in 2008 he’s been working hard on his follow up, which we finally got to listen to.

By Priscilla Ward, AFROPUNK Contributor


His LP was producer by Canadian hip hop/electronic producer duo Potatohead People under the Brooklyn based record label Bastard Jazz. The love of all things Dilla J is what brought the duo together. And it’s certainly what keeps those in tune to the Detroit singer, songwriter and producer watching him move from the shadows of his brother the late genius producer J Dilla.



After his brother passed away back in 2006 due complication from lupus lla J was prompted to drop out of college and follow his family’s musical notes. Illa J and his brother grew up in the Conant Gardens section of Detroit’s Eastside surrounded by music, the sons of Maureen and Beverly Yancey who both happened to be musicians. Their parents had a jazz a Capella group. His dad played the piano and upright bass. His mom sang. The gift runs in the family and Illa J is blessed with it.  

“I knew I wanted to do music like all of my life. But when I was younger I didn’t want to do it as much because of the comparison [to my brother]. But then I realized that I wanted to do what I love for a living,” he said.

Illa J worked to define himself as a solo artist and was an interim member of Slum Village, a hip hop group birth in the 90’s and playing an intricate part in Detroit’s underground hip hop scene. His brother was once a part of the group and it too played a critical role in his development a solo artist.


He released his first album “Yancey Boys” in 2008, which was his official reveal as an artist apart from his brother. And while Illa J may be continually working to create his own space as a musician he remembers the musical and life lessons his brother left him with.



“My brother definitely influenced how I listen to music and how I listen to certain beats and stuff—that work ethic though it’s like you got to work hard for it. If you are not going to put your all into it, then it’s not worth doing it. You know what I mean…It was like he was always on top of his craft,” he recounts.  

While his brother played a critical role in his development as a musician he noted the special place his father had in his development as an artist.

“Like my Dad played the upright bass and he is a songwriter and he sings melodies. Like I love singing because of my Dad. He really inspired my songwriting and how I write melodies.”

The young musician harkens back to an era when hip hop was about artistry and less about swag rapping. Illa J’s music keeps us wondering how he’s going to switch it up for us—while pushing the rawness of hip hop.

* Priscilla Ward is a writer whose work has been featured on,, as well as in Essence and Ammo magazine. She’s obsessed with natural hair, bell hooks, sandwiches and really cool art shows. You can find her tweeting about running one moment and being black the next @Macaronifro