When J Dilla passed away in 2006 many mourned both the man and what they thought was the end of his musical legacy. In 2008 his brother, Illa J, made sure that the music would live on. He released Yancey Boys, an album that featured Illa J’s rhymes over J Dilla’s beats, and just last month he followed it up with the instrumental version of the album. This week RapReviews caught up with Illa J to find out more about the albums, what it was like working with his brother’s music, and why he actively searches for negative feedback.

Adam Bernard: Last year you released Yancey Boys and this year you have the instrumental version of that album. What kinds of emotions run through you when you’re working with your brother’s music?
Illa J: It’s kind of a weird feeling because it’s like even though he’s not here I kind of feel his presence with me anyway when I’m working with certain tracks just because they’re his tracks. It definitely was a fun experience writing to them because as soon as I listened to the tracks for the first time it took me right back to ’95. I remember seeing the “Drop” video for Pharcyde. I was on the couch and I was geeked because I was like yo, my brother did that track! It was just crazy for me to be doing the album with Delicious Vinyl thirteen years after that with tracks that my brother was making during that time. It’s hard to even explain, but I’m definitely excited to be putting out albums with Delicious Vinyl, where my brother kind of started out his career.

AB: Was it hard to come to the decision to make the Yancey Boys album? Was it something you racked your brain over?
IJ: No, it was pretty much good. Basically (Delicious Vinyl founder) Michael Ross gave me 38 tracks that my brother had produced from 95-98. This was in early ’07. At that time he just wanted me to pick a track. I didn’t talk to him again until January ’08 and when I talked to him I was actually hitting him up like yo, you gotta hear this song I just wrote. I wasn’t really thinking I was gonna end up doing the album with Delicious Vinyl, it was more, I figured he could help guide me to the right people. We met up in February of ’08, he came over to the house and I finally got a chance to play him the song I was talking about and he liked my voice and the way I write. I ended up performing at a club a couple of days after that, on my brother’s birthday, and after my performance he came up to me like “yo, why don’t you just do the whole album,” and it just went from there.

AB: Was that totally unexpected for you?
IJ: Yeah, it definitely was unexpected. When he came over to hear the song and asked me to perform at this club a couple days after that I was thinking maybe some people might be there that will see me that might want to help me as an artist. It’s funny that he ended up coming up to me like “yo, why don’t you do the album?” It was really fun doing the album and in the album I grew a lot as an artist.

AB: When it comes to Hip-Hop your brother casts a fairly large shadow. Do you feel any pressure to get out of his shadow, or is this something you really don’t mind at all?
IJ: I really don’t even think about it. I don’t feel any pressure. I just see it as me having a great brother and I feel honored to be able to represent his name and lift up his legacy and show what he’s done. Honestly, to me there’s not really a shadow there, that’s just what people put there because as a new artist that’s the only thing they can connect me to. When you come out as a new artist the first thing people want to know is “where does this dude come from?” The biggest misconception is that this guy just came out of nowhere. It starts way before that. Music started for me when I was brought into this world, from just being in the playpen in the living room while my parents would be singing jazz. Jazz was my introduction to music, that’s how I learned and kind of trained my musical ear, hearing all those chords and stuff. Actually it was one of the things that made recording the album a lot easier because I was used to a lot of the chord changes from my parents singing jazz a lot. But as far as that, as long as I continue to stay on my craft and keep my level of work ethic up I know that I will be successful. It’s about opportunity + preparation = success. As long as I continue to prepare day by day, 100%, when the opportunity arises then I will deliver. I know coming into the game as an artist, some people may like it, some people may not, but that’s a part of being an artist, you gotta have that balance. I get a lot of positive feedback, but I go check out the blogs to see the negative feedback sometimes just to keep me balanced. I’m comfortable, but I never let myself get too comfortable. Even though I have an album out I always work like an artist that’s trying to get his first album out.

AB: Wait a minute, I haven’t seen a single bad review of Yancey Boys, so how many blogs did you have to go through before you found negative feedback?
IJ: {laughs} I don’t know, but I remember reading somebody said that “Timeless” sounded bad without the Auto-Tune and I was like that’s funny. When I see these comments I don’t really take it to heart because it is funny to me. My brother was the same way, because at the end of the day that’s just a part of it. Everyone has an opinion and they’re entitled to their opinion. That’s cool. It would almost be weird if every single person liked it. I like when people are real, like “I liked that joint, but that joint right there, uhhhh, I’m not necessarily cool about that one.” For me as an artist that’s cool with because at least you’re being honest with me.

AB: I’m gonna backtrack a little bit because when we talked about your musical history you started talking about chord changes. It makes me think you really know music. How many instruments do you play?
IJ: I play bass guitar and piano. I started off with piano way back, but when you’re younger sometimes you feel like you’re forced to play it so you don’t have the same work ethic as far as getting better at it. Before I went back to piano I picked up the bass. It actually helped me a lot and it gave me a better perspective so when I finally came to piano it was like… I just fell in love with piano once I started playing it again because it’s a whole ‘nother musical world.

AB: At what point did you decide you wanted to become an emcee?
IJ: As far as lyric writing, I’ve been writing since I was like eight. I’ve always been writing. In my beginning writing, from when I was eight, nine, ten, I didn’t know what to call it at that point, whether it was poetry or songs, I just loved to write and eventually all that writing started to turn into songs and at a certain point I was like alright, I’m a songwriter. My sister writes poetry and her writing had a big influence on me. Even this year I went all the way back to the basics of songwriting, because as an artist it’s natural to write from within yourself and from your personal vault, but I’ve gotten better as a writer to the point now where I can write outside of myself. But the emcee part, I’ve been writing for a long time, I just didn’t know how to deliver it. Writing something and then recording it are two whole different things. I learned that the first time I got into the studio. It’s like once you really get comfortable in the booth then you’re ready to deliver it. Once I got comfortable it went on from there. It’s weird, I’m like signer/songwriter first, but the emcee side has always been there, I just didn’t necessarily know how to deliver it.

AB: What are your plans for your next project?
IJ: I’m working on it right now. At first I was thinking about who I wanted to produce it, and I still might work with certain other producers like Focus and people around my camp. It’s not that I didn’t want to produce it myself, it’s just that I take my craft really seriously and one of my weaknesses when I first started off in production was my drums and I’ve been studying for a long time trying to get my drums right. Now I got my drums where I want em, so I’m gonna produce my next album myself. I might have a few outside tracks, but the majority of production I will do myself. I’ve been writing a lot of songs. Like I said, I fell in love with the piano and I wrote a lot of my songs on the piano. Also, lately I’ve been writing songs on my bass, too, so it’s kind of a mixture of both. Sometimes I’ll actually make the track first and then write to the track. That’s how I’m coming up with a lot of my songs. As a songwriting it’s easier to write to the music so a lot of times I’ll just be at the piano and a certain chord will come up and it’ll spark and idea and I’ll just take it from there. It’s the same with the bass and with actually producing and making a track and writing to it.

AB: Sound-wise is this going to be radically different from Yancey Boys?
IJ: The sound, I can’t really explain it because I’m in the beginning stages. I know next week I’ll probably be on something totally different than I’m on this week. Right now I’m just bangin em out track by track and once I get up to so many tracks then I’ll start narrowing em down to the tracks that I like. So far, though, all the tracks I’ve made are definitely… it’s hard to really say, I’ll just say I’m working on it right now.

AB: So there’s still potential for an Illa J Miami bass sound booty track?
IJ: {laughs} I’m not really sure. I don’t know about that.

AB: Is there anything else you think people should know about you that they may not know already?
IJ: I love basketball. Music has always been a part of me, so it’s just natural, I don’t really have to think about it, it’s literally in my blood. My first love was basketball. I remember I actually wrote a paper and I made state honorable mention back in, I believe it was fifth grade, about my brother and Michael Jordan, how those were my two biggest idols, the two people I admired the most. I was a huge Jordan fan and a lot of my competitive drive was developed from playing basketball, being out on the court every day battlin. I had a court in my backyard so everybody in the neighborhood would be over at my crib and you just had like 20 people like “yo, I got next.”