Live at Amoeba Records: Illa J and the Timelessness of J Dilla
Los Angeles is always hot, but it's rarely warm. And cold, cavernous Amoeba Records is hardly an emotional bastion, unless you're talking caustic clerks castigating a moldering collection of Chicago records. But behind me, a group of saucer-eyed sophomore girls, eyebrow rings and flannel-flanked, are alternately chanting J Dilla's name and singing along to every word of the songs from Yancey Boys--as rendered by J's 22-year old brother, John, on a small stage in the rear of the store. To my right, a babel of backpackers boast Bose headphones and tilted Yankee and Dodger brims. Their fists are pumping, eyes shut, bereaved heads bobbing to the beat.
It's exactly three years and one day since James Yancey passed from complications related to lupus, and his memory still monopolizes minds. Clad in blue jeans, black J Dilla shirt and modest silver rope chain, Illa J relates the meaningfulness of performing here, as his first trip to the record warehouse was with his elder brother. Of course, the beats he's rhyming over tonight--from the November-released Yancey Boys--were composed by Dilla in the mid-90s, and bequeathed to the youngest Yancey sibling when Michael Ross, Delicious Vinyl's owner, discovered them on an long-lost hard drive.
In the thousand-plus days since Dilla departed, scores of artists (Erykah Badu, Common, Madlib, The Roots, Q-Tip, et. al), have honored Dilla's unassailable influence, but none boast the same blood. Accordingly, Yancey is received as the legitimate heir, a vessel to carry on his brother's spirit and legacy. So with reverent remembrance, 200 hip-hop heads have gathered to pay tribute to one of the greatest to ever do it.
Had Illa J not inherited any of his brother's musical gifts, this would be tantamount to watching The Blues Brothers starring Jim Belushi. Instead, the younger Yancey is blessed with an innate understanding of how to handle his brother's blunted, wide-open canvases: a deluge of dirt-caked drums, slow-roasting jazz pianos and equatorially humid synths and organs. The taxonomy of the 45-minute set is consumed by Yancey Boys, and an impromptu encore of impressive freestyles over old Dilla beats. At one point, someone shouts, "LA loves the Yancey Boys," and the store shakes with a paroxysm of applause. Tens of thousands of artists release records each year, but few amount to anything more than hype machine minutiae--Dilla was the rare exception, now deified in death for his ability to express the entire gamut of human emotion. Sure, for the carpet-bagger fringe, he's just an idea, but even so, he's a damned good one.
After the show, Illa J signs autographs for the adoring fans, who offer stories about his brother with apostolic fervor. They pose for photos, shake hands, ask for autographs, the winsome younger Yancey happily complies. Dilla's swan song, Donuts, softly soars from the store speakers and everyone nods along, blithe and bittersweet. A decade younger than any of his brethren, Yancey takes it all in stride, imbued with a maturity often found in the last born. Though his brother's spirit is salient to the scene, the lesson is gleaned from the hook of the first song that Illa J performed. "Time just keeps on movin...I just keep on movin...Life just, keeps on movin." J Dilla's lucky to have his little brother moving things forward; so are we.
This week marked the three-year anniversary of Dilla's passing. Did the family do anything to commemorate the event?
I ain't even gonna' lie...that stuff about the alien family on the album was true, we're just a super laid back family. I've been just working straight away in the studio. That's what I did immediately when my brother passed--I got busy right away making music. Music has been really cathartic in helping me get over it and keep things moving forward.
There's been a lot of blogs and online magazines paying tribute to Dilla over the past few weeks (in particular, this one is highly recommended). Have you been reading any of them?
From time to time, I catch things. A friend of mine, back in Detroit, hit me up to let me know that they were having a party in Dilla's memory. It's dope to see the love, it helps brings a sort of closure for me, to see people showing Dilla love...knowing that he really appreciated all the love that people always showed to his music.
What do you think it was about Dilla's music that meant so much, to so many people?
For one thing, he put his heart into his music. Energy is a real thing, you can really feel that in the music and when you listen to his tracks, you feel his vibe. The different pockets of sound, how the drums hit, you can feel the love he put.
I went to Paris for the first time on the J Dilla Changed My Life Tour, with Aloe Blacc, House Shoes and Exile. I did some of my own tracks and some of my brother's and it was amazing to see the reception. People who didn't even speak English, but who knew every word to the 'Welcome to Detroit Intro.' At the time, my voice was hoarse and I put the mic out to the crowd and they started chanting , "J Dilla."
That kind of bugged me out. Here's this dude from Detroit, in Timbos and completely laid back, who didn't care about any of the flashy stuff. He was just a dude who loved music and loved it from his heart. In a weird way, that's kind of the American dream, loving what you do and having people appreciate it.
One of things that makes Yancey Boys so unique is that you seemed like you had an inherent connection to the music, as though you intuitively knew how to rock those beats--which is easier than it sounds, because Dilla beats are notoriously tricky to rhyme over because of all the wide-open space?
Funny you say that. On this album, I know that you couldn't write a certain type of lyric. I just wanted to put vocals on the stories that these beats had in them. As soon as I heard them for the first time, it took me back to '95. It's strange to think that Dilla then, was where I am now, just breaking into the game and honing his craft.
What was it like for you then, just being a little kid and watching your brother's career take off?
I've been surrounded by talented musicians my entire life. In my house, my other brother would play bass all night long, my sister would be in her room writing, my mom and my dad would sing jazz. They'd have a Jazz acapella group and everyone would go into their room knowing they were going to be singing all day. I learned my musical ear from that, so I take it back to moms and pops, that's where I got my musical ear from. Just hearing their jazz records: Manhattan Transfer, Four freshmen. Understanding jazz first made it easier to understand and fall in love with other genres.
That influence is pretty notable in Yancey Boys.
Definitely, having the sharing background made it easier for me to record over. I'd I heard all the jazz choruses and was so familiar with it, I already had a natural instinct for what I wanted to do. It took me back to being a kid again, sitting on the stairs hearing my brother's beats. I wasn't thinking that one day, I'd do an album with Delicious Vinyl. That's just bugged out to me...being 9 years old, watching the "Drop" video on the box, seeing them spin the car around backwards and thinking how crazy it was that Jay made that beat. Being the same age now as he was then, making music for the same label, is pretty wild.
Video of Illa J's encore at Amoeba courtesy of Delicious Vinyl