Even superheroes can get burned out. It seems like an odd thing to imagine, a caped crusader exhausted from a lifetime of hard work, needing to take a break, considering removing the mask forever.

This is the case with Connecticut hip-hop artist Illus.

Illus has been working tirelessly in the independent hip-hop world for over two decades, and now he’s ready to hang up his proverbial cape. Before this happens, however, he has some revelations to share, which is why his just released penultimate album is titled Behind The Mask.

The revelations on Behind The Mask (which can be streamed in full at DJBooth.net) aren’t necessarily about him, but instead focus on the eyes through which we choose to see the world. RapReviews caught up with Illus to find out more about those revelations, and why he’s choosing to not release any more albums after his next effort, the appropriately titled The Final Chapter. Illus also discussed which artists he feels have the ability to lead hip-hop into the next phase of its existence if given the opportunity to be heard.

Adam Bernard: When I hear the phrase Behind The Mask I think of something being revealed. Your work has always been deeply personal, but is there something about this album that you feel is especially revealing?

Illus: I think maybe I let a little bit more of the anger out, the frustration. The other albums, maybe the acapellas expressed some of that, but not many of the songs. I think this one, especially with songs like “Plan B,” “Affluenza,” and obviously the acapella “Seduction of the Innocent,” maybe there’s a little bit more of the frustrated side of Illus peeking through.

I always try to speak honestly, and just speak from the heart, and give as much of myself as possible. You’re not gonna find out anything really bad about me, because hopefully there isn’t too much, except I like to dress up in tights at night and go out and fight crime, but most people know that anyway.

AB: Just at night?

Illus: I’m usually tired during the day.

AB: You mentioned frustrations, and I know you put this album together over a number of years. What were some of the things that were going on in your life, or that were concerning you, during that time?

Illus: I’m raising my son full time, and top of that, paying bills, working as an illustrator, and just life in general. When we started out, The Final Chapter was supposed to be the final project. Johnny Juice and I were working on it, and life just kept getting in the way of us finishing our project together. I had done the Kickstarter project, it was successful, and I didn’t want to let people down. People were waiting for the album, and usually I’m very punctual. I hate being late for projects, and it was extremely late. So I had some songs I was working on with ICBM, out of France, and first it was gonna be an EP, then it came together as an album, and he did some extra remixes, so this album just kind of came out of nowhere. It developed unexpectedly, and we decided to put it out before The Final Chapter, which made sense.

It took a long time, and like I said, life in general just gets in the way, and for me, I come up with an idea, I work on the project, I get it done, I put it out there. If it takes too long, and I have to keep picking at it, and picking at it, then I start worrying about it, and judging it, then the self doubt comes in, and all that stuff from a lingering project that just takes too long. To me an album is like a snapshot in time, you take the picture and you put it out there. When you stare at the picture in the developing room… {*laughs*} of course, people have no idea what I’m talking about now with developing photos.

AB: I’m sure there are 15 people out there who are die hard hip-hop and old school photography heads.

Illus: That remember when photos would actually be printed out in darkrooms.

AB: Yes, darkrooms, and sometimes turning your bathroom into one.

Illus: Right. I’m dating myself, as usual. So yeah, it’s just when things take too long I get really frustrated, then you start to realize, “What am I gonna do with this project? I have limited resources, can I shoot videos?”

You’re working so hard, and everybody involved in the project, ICBM busted his butt on the beats, and the features that I got, the guys worked hard writing, and who knows how many people are actually gonna hear the album because of my limited resources and capabilities, so that becomes frustrating.

AB: Did you have any especially memorable moments, good or bad, from the recording process?

Illus: Yes. Working with ICBM, this guy is extremely professional. We met through the internet. He contacted me… I forget how long ago. We worked on “Son of a Beat,” and we did the “Make Some Noize” remix together. He’s always sending me beats, and this guy is just so amazingly talented that even when I was kinda getting down on myself, and frustrated, he would send me beats and I couldn’t help but write. I love that feeling, when somebody inspires you to be creative even when you feel like you can’t be.

Working with him was amazing, and I have a feeling once people really start hearing what he does he won’t want to work with me anymore. {*laughs*} He’ll be too busy making good money to mess with me.

Hearing all the features come in, that’s always exciting. Working with those guys, from Blueprint, to Craig G. Also, my man Roxxxteady… I put a call out on Twitter, I believe, looking for someone to do a hook or two, and he contacted me and said he was down, and he did one and I was like, “Wow, this is amazing! Can you do another?” He ended up doing three altogether, and just hearing those come in, it’s always nice adding that little bit of flavor to the mix that makes it a complete song.

There were certain songs that were memorable to me because I’d been wanting to do them for so long. “Grapes of Wrath” with Craig G, that was an idea I had wanted to express for a long time. Whenever something like that happens, when you can actually get that idea out that’s been in your head for a long time, it’s always pleasurable.

The only negative thing was just how long it took. Having to keep trying to promise people, “It’s coming, it’s coming,” and feeling like a self-promoting whore without anything to actually offer, or give to the people.

At the same time it was reassuring, and it was a great feeling knowing that people were telling me, “Don’t worry about it. Take your time,” or, “We’re looking forward to it.”

Like I said, I pride myself on being a punctual person, so the fact that the project was like a year late was really embarrassing for me personally, not that anybody cares, because it’s hip-hop, and albums are always late. I still got it out before Detox, and whatever Jay Electronica is working on, so I win. Of course, they could release their albums ten years from now and they’ll still sell ten million albums and I’ll still be trying to sell the last few copies of mine. {*laughs*}

AB: Hey, don’t say that! Bringing things back to the music, what do you hope people understand about you, or hip-hop, or life in general, when they listen to Behind The Mask?

Illus: That’s a great question. I hope they see me as a diverse artist that can pretty much touch on any topic, and, just like with the other albums, I hope they connect with the songs. It’s not so much about me. That’s weird saying that as a rapper, but I really try to write songs that affect people other than me rapping at them, or me rapping to rappers. I really want people to connect with the songs, especially something like “Grapes of Wrath,” or “Affluenza,” or “Change the World.” With these types of songs I feel like it’s not so much about revealing who Illus is, it’s revealing there is positivity in the world, there is hope

“Affluenza” is a pretty topical, political song, and that’s kind of how I feel about the justice system, but at the same time I want people to come away with it that they can fix things, we can become involved, and be active, and it doesn’t have to be like this. There are people who are suffering, that are falsely accused of things, they’re locking children up in jail, and we have to be aware of that, and become involved, so we can protect the children.

Songs like “Change the World,” one person can actually have an effect on another person, who has an effect on another person. While we feel like we’re not doing much, we are. Every little good deed, every time we go out of our way to help someone, even when we’re down, and I certainly get down plenty of times, whether it’s depression, or frustration, or whatever, you kind of just have to fight it, and get through it, and see the beauty in the world. That would segue into “Beautiful Thing” with Blueprint. That’s another song that I love that we did together. Just seeing the little things that inspire us, and affect us.

I want people to take that away from the album. Not so much Illus feels like this, or Illus thinks this, I want them to come away feeling good from the album, and feeling like they could do something good. Maybe if they’re depressed when they listen to the album, it can make them feel better, so they walk out of the house with a smile on their face, or drive around with a smile on their face, rather than dwelling on the pain, or the misery, or anything that they may be feeling like that.

AB: You have an entire song, “The Seduction of the Innocent,” where you explain that you’re not planning on recording any more albums. Why, after so many years, would you want to stop doing this? You mentioned when you heard those ICBM beats you were inspired to write, so I gotta assume the enjoyment factor is still there.

Illus: Yeah, absolutely. There’s nothing that can stop me from writing. I will definitely write, and maybe even record if ICBM wants me to do something on one of his albums, or any of the other guys ask me, or friends (ask me). Most likely, I will do stuff like that. It’s the process that has become so exhausting, and frustrating, and depressing, because what people fail to realize is it takes all this time to record the music, and now, if I want the album to be successful I have to go out and do shows, I have to be online, I have to promote the hell out of it. That takes so much time, and there’s often, in my position of resources, you can do all that work and there’s still very little return.

Like I said on the song, it’s not about money, it’s about time, and it’s time away from my family. I also said, with Family First, I thought that would be probably the last big project I did because I want to focus on my family, then I got the bug, and it’s hard to let go. You just keep doing it and doing it, then you realize, oh, I’m missing days with my son, and I’m taking time away from spending time with my wife, because I’m in the studio recording, or promoting the album.

That’s the struggle right there. What’s more important? I love the art form, I love the craft, the culture, but I don’t necessarily love all of the business aspects of it, and that’s such a big part, and to work on something like this, if it was just me, and I was making all the beats myself, and I was doing the mixing, and I could take five years to work on it, maybe a project like that could manifest, but when I have other people involved I want to make it as successful as possible, not just for me, but for everybody. I don’t want them wasting their time.

The Johnny Juice album is almost done. I have not recorded anything new (since then), I am not working on anything new at the moment, and I don’t plan on doing anything new. I’m looking forward to not promoting an album, or doing anything like this again… at the moment.

AB: When do you think you’re gonna miss it?

Illus: {*laughs*} I don’t think I’m gonna miss that aspect of it. Like I said earlier, I will write, because I’m partly a writer, so I always have ideas, but I don’t really enjoy the business aspect of it all.

AB: If you’re not around, who do you feel are the torch bearers who can lead hip-hop into the next phase of its existence?

Illus: Ah, that’s a great question. I talked about that (on “Seduction of the Innocent”), too. I want to be an advocate for other people, because there are a lot of great artists out there.

A torch bearer for me? Hopefully they excel, because I don’t want anyone to carry my torch of working hard and not being able to break through, but as far as the idea behind making positive music, and hopefully inspiring people, you know Homeboy Sandman is already there, and even though I was making music before I knew of Homeboy Sandman, he’s still helped to inspire me to continue to do what I have been doing, so I love what he does.

My boy Phashara, who’s on the album, I’m a huge fan of what he does, although he has a hard time, I think, like me, with resources, getting projects out there, but I’m really hoping I can inspire him to put out more music, cuz he’s so incredibly talented.

There’s this guy from Connecticut, godAWFUL, who we all know and love, who really needs to put out an album immediately. I would love to have some hand in inspiring him to get his project out, even though I think he’s like, “Get off my jock Illus,” because I’m always sending him messages and telling him we need a godAWFUL album. I think he has the ability to break through and be an artist that can do the positive, meaningful, passionate songs, but also do pop, and just entertainment, and fun songs. He has that thing, that charm, and that charisma that people like when it comes to breaking through mainstream and pop, but then he also, obviously, is skilled, and intelligent enough to do meaningful songs, as well. I think that if someone other than myself could recognize that, if someone that has resources, and money, would notice him, I think he would be huge.

Brash is another local Connecticut artist who I really think has extreme talent. Headnsack, he’s another super talented guy who’s finding a new voice and creating music that I think could be huge. Venomous 2000, all the guys on the “Extraordinary League Of Hip Hop Dads.” I had originally wanted to do an album with all those guys; one, because they’re super talented, and two, because it would be great to not have to write every verse for every song, so having four or five other guys on an album would be awesome.

That idea had come together before The Final Chapter album with Johnny Juice. There’s a little bit of Behind The Mask history. That was actually one of the first songs written, other than the remixes, because I was trying to do an album with those guys.

I’ve always wanted to do a real group album, but being that we’re all dads…

AB: It could take ten years to get out.

Illus: It would take us probably, yeah, at least ten years to get out, and we’d probably end up divorced dads all living together in an apartment. That’s a sitcom right there, a bunch of guys who pissed off their wives because they were hanging out with other guys in studios recording music.

AB: That IS a great idea for a sitcom!

Illus: I want a cut of that. {*laughs*} And a job. So if anyone makes that, contact me, I got some stories.