Illa J is preternaturally gifted. As a rapper, his lyrics help people to feel a deeper emotional connection. As a singer, the rich texture in his voice possesses an undeniable quality that nurtures the soul. As a songwriter, his relationship with words reveal a profound intelligence, but also a relatable vulnerability. As a multi-instrumentalist, his innate skill set marries melody and heart. As a producer, his beats synchronize to the rhythm of love; a reverence for the culture of music. But above all, he’s an all-encompassing prolific musician.
Born and raised in working-class Detroit, Illa J grew up in a household that placed a great emphasis on values such as community, dedication and excellence, which drove him to have an undeniable creative focus in his professional pursuits. He mastered the piano by learning how to read music at an early age however being musically-inclined was baked into his DNA. On any given day, there would be records spinning from Motown icons like James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, to exclusive a cappella jazz groups such as The Manhattan Transfer and Les Double Six. These diverse genres would have a significant impact on Illa J’s career, broadening his own musical roots.
The youngest of his collective siblings, Illa J’s childhood was filled with love and music. The family patriarch played the piano and upright bass, while the matriarch was a singer and both sets of Illa J’s paternal grandparents played the piano. His older brother is the late hip-hop visionary J Dilla, hence the semblance in his stage moniker, who was known for his innovative production and prolific mic skills that continue to be dissected and duplicated till this day.
Illa J’s foray into the industry began with a tribute project to his brother not long after he transitioned in 2006 as a way to keep his legacy alive, however it boxed him in artistically. “A lot of people put me in the same age group as my brother and looked at me as an artist from his era instead of me being a new, young artist in my late teens with my own style and perspective. I’ll always rep my bro no matter what, but I’m also my own person.” Over the years, Illa J has erected a solid reputation for pushing musicianship forward and bridging the gap between Gen Xers and Millennials. An electrifying and uncompromising live entertainer, the brilliant MC’s gifts have taken him all over the globe making him a transatlantic success with a loyal fan base that spans from London and Italy to Germany and Japan. Yet despite his credentialed resume, headlining his own tours as well as touring with Slum Village and opening for Talib Kweli and having his name appear alongside Miles Davis on the collaborative Robert Glasper single “They Can’t Hold Me Down,” Illa J wants the same respect on his brand of genius in the states. That desire began to manifest itself in 2017 when he delivered the album Home that featured the single “Sam Cook.” Illa J performed the Motown-esque arrangement for his COLORS BERLIN segment where he flexed his singing and rapping chops over a pre-recorded instrumental.
Music isn’t the only thing Illa J has centered his life around, sports has been a foundational building block throughout the standout creative’s life. “In basketball, the main thing is if you’re not practicing someone else is practicing. My favorite player was Jordan and he always worked on every part of his game. I approach music with the same mindset as an athlete. Anything that’s a weakness, I work on it.” When Illa J wanted to improve his voice, he hired a vocal coach who was an acclaimed Opera singer and that was prior to the release of his debut album. Despite his natural proclivity to play the piano, when he wanted to unlock a new level of musicianship, he worked with an instructor on a weekly basis.
This artistic fine-tuning and attention to detail can be experienced on his latest offering No Traffic, which references how he feels about his place in hip-hop. “I’ve created my own lane in hip-hop, even though my reach extends far beyond the genre. I play all of the instruments you hear; I don’t sample anything. I come from a well-respected legacy and I authentically care about the music. I follow my gut and keep it pushing.” On the lead single of the same name, what started out as simply an intro by Dank of Frank-N-Dank talking his talk, Illa J was inspired by his vocal contribution that he felt compelled to build a beat around it and add his own lyrical heat. “I’ve been trying to escape this underground, conscious rapper category and this record displays my lighter side where I don’t come across as trying to preach.” The song “OG Funk” also showcases the silly part of Illa J’s personality. “When I was younger, my music was very serious but now I feel much freer to do what I love and being that I embrace all types of music, all of that is reflected on this album.” No Traffic is an exquisite, magical and spiritual sound revolution that’s delivered with authenticity at the highest level. It’s equally inspirational and vibey with Illa J dropping clever gems that are guaranteed to produce smiles and an aura of feel-good positivity. An amalgamation of soul, jazz, funk, rap and everything in between, Illa J is reintroducing himself as the anomaly he’s always known himself to be.
Intent on keeping his artwork pure while also drawing inspiration from his heritage, which includes pushing boundaries, Illa J is and will always be all about the music. “I’m a rare, true solo artist that makes dope funky music with a soulful swing that you can feel. For me, music is a vibe; a universal language that everybody can relate to. That’s how it should be defined.”