Posts Tagged 'J Dilla'

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 12

For the new music recommended in March, click here.

Hard to believe it, but this is the 1 year anniversary of the “What I’m Hearing” posts. Last April, I embarked on a mission to bring quality music, both mainstream and not, to readers looking to expand their musical vocabulary beyond the monosyllabic songs pumped ad nauseum from radio towers across the nation. As has been the trend, this month is no exception to the rule as I found a good number of fantastic new artists. As always, all of these artists can be found on iTunes for purchase. This month’s iPod update consisted of 63 songs spanning hip-hop, DIY and electronic. Enjoy!

Brother Ali, The Truth is Here: Originally introduced to the underground hip-hop scene by Slug of Atmosphere, Brother Ali has worked with producer Ant and had his albums released by hip-hop stalwart Rhymesayers. A converted Muslim and Caucasian albino, Ali frequently faced questions of his race early on due to voice, delivery and moniker. On The Truth is Here, his fourth studio album, Ali uses alternatively jazzy and bumping Ant produced beats to explore issues of race, social and economic divides and his adjustments to life in light of his growing success. While 9 full length tracks, this album is billed as an EP preceeding a full album release to come this fall. One thing is certain, the disc doesn’t listen like an EP. Thoughtful, introspective and lyrically deft lyrics keep the listener entertained while Ant’s production of top-notch songs outshines the cookie-cutter beats saturating mainstream hip-hop. Ali’s style varies from aggressive spitting on tracks like “Philistine David ” to laid back delivery on the album’s opener, “Real As Can Be.” Beyond all of this, Ali’s scope encompasses a variety of questions with universal significance. When he asks, “Can you tell me, what language do you laugh in?/The human reaction of smiles and cries/what language are the tears when they’re falling from your eyes?” it is not a question intended to divide in the style of Babel, but rather to point out the similarities we share as humans. An intelligent, varied and musical foray into hip-hop. Don’t Sleep On: “As Real As Can Be,” “The Believers” (feat. Slug) and “Good Lord.”

Filastine, Dirty Bomb: Formerly a member of ¡Tchkung! out of Seattle, Grey Filastine, upon the break-up of the group, has gone on to explore global sounds in experimental electronica. On his February release, Dirty Bomb, Filastine mashes glitch, hip-hop and industrial with sounds from Asia, Europe and the Middle East, including cameos from overseas musicians. The textures are dense and layered, sheets of sound that have no one city of origin, making this album a true global citizen. Hand drums, zithers and traditional chants find themselves side by side with throbbing bass lines and electric blips, all finding their places here in the hands of a producer adept at finding harmony between cross-cultural sounds. While some of the tracks can become repetitive, the majority are well fleshed out and driving. In “Singularities,” the beat is built up, deconstructed and then slammed back down in grimy fashion, an example of excellent production that runs throughout the album. Don’t Sleep On: “Singularities,” “Strategy of Tension,” and “Bitrate Sneers.”

Harmonic 313, When Machines Exceed Human Intelligence: Under the pseudonym Harmonic 313, producer Mark Pritchard has released an album of spacey and electronic music. Interesting about the tracks here is that they range greatly from straight ahead ambient electronica to tracks that sound like J Dilla beats blended with Kraftwerk’s Trans-Atlantic Express on acid. Using sonic pulses, computer blips and beeps and thick bass, Pritchard crafts an album that sounds almost entirely machine created, as if a hard drive rather than a human is behind the composition. Even vocals go hardwired on “Word Problems,” where a children’s spelling computer game serves as the spoken medium. Don’t Sleep On: “Call to Arms,” “Falling Away” (feat. Steve Spacek) and “Köln”

Peter Björn and John, Living Thing: Following a two year hiatus after 2005’s Writer’s Block, punctuated only by a digital only release limited to 5,000 US copies in 2006 (Seaside Rock), PB&J have returned with the March release of their 5th full length album. It has been a busy 4 years for the group as they climbed the ladder of musical notoriety through the ubiquitous hit “Young Folks.” They’ve gone on to be featured on hip-hop mixtapes and make all sorts of late night talk show rounds. While there are no comparable tracks on this album, it nonetheless provides more of the same feel. Tracks range from optimistic up-tempo to slow and melancholy utilizing various levels of production quality. The positive is that the success of “Young Folks” hasn’t spawned an album of copycats. These are original and show the trio expanding their sound, bringing in slightly more electronic drum programming at points. The album’s clear winner, “Nothing to Worry About,” is an about-face from “Young Folks,” female vocalist replaced with a chorus of distorted children at full volume and a funky bass line complimented by drums echoing off the inside walls of the song. A solid outing without going stale. Don’t Sleep On: “Nothing to Worry About,” “Just the Past,” and “It Don’t Move Me.”

Röyksopp, Junior: Big since their debut album in 2001, the fittingly titled Junior is only the 3rd release from Röyksopp in 8 years. And, given the shift in style between Melody A.M. and The Understanding, what happened next was of a great deal of interest. Turns out, the duo has managed to find a middle ground between the two, with various tracks exemplifying the more mellow and sugary aspects of Melody (“Happy Up Here”) and the more polished and electro-heavy Understanding (“Röyksopp Forever.”) The album retains the precision and vision of the duo’s work, bringing in female vocalists, chill melodies at times and electric tweaks that made “Eple” so popular. Don’t Sleep On: “Happy Up Here,” “Vision One,” and “Silver Cruiser.”

The tUnE-YaRds, Bird Brains: DIY. A term that, in an age of bloggers, home studios, and rising costs in all sectors has come to be a badge of honor and distinction. But there’s DIY music, and then there’s the unreal, experimental and phenomenal Bird Brains from The Tune-Yards (capitalization varies depending on site), aka Merrill Garbus. If what I’ve heard is true, Garbus crafted this entire album using small recorders and computer programs available through shareware. The result is a gritty, honest and surprising album that takes lo-fi to a new level. With a distinct and quirky voice, Garbus backs herself with drums and percussion sounds like something being slammed against a hard surface, ukulele and an entire arsenal of found sounds like kids playing in a park, birds chirping outside a window and conversations with a child. At times, the recording equipment’s range is tested as you can hear it clip, but this only adds to the allure of the tracks. Take Björk, mix her with Seu Jorge’s acoustic live recordings for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and then juice the entire blend with a sense of creativity large enough to view the world around it as an instrument and you have the Tune-Yards. Nothing is out of bounds here. Spoons on glasses, discussions of blueberries, and steps on wooden stairs are just some of the interesting sounds turned music. One can only hope that follow up efforts will be equally beautiful in their range and direction. Don’t Sleep On: “For You,” “News,” and “Little Tiger.”

So that’s it for April. Chubb Rock and Wordsmith, new Del the Funky Homosapien and a ton of other new music is coming in May, so stay tuned, and keep your listening intelligent.

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What I’m Hearing, Vol. 8

For a taste of October’s music, click here.

November’s update comes with over 100 tracks spanning both new and old albums, and quite a bit in terms of the Yancey family. We’ve got hip-hop and indie rock, R&B and rap. Enjoy!

Black Milk, Tronic: An album that pushes the traditional boundaries of hip-hop with futuristic synths and musical approaches, Black Milk still puts out several songs that utilize nostalgic samples. I won’t say much more because I’ve already written a full album review, but in my recent interview with Hieroglyphics members Opio and Tajai, they named Black Milk as one of the hip-hop producers they were liking the sound of recently. Read the full album review here. Don’t Sleep On: “Long Story Short,” “Bounce,” and “Losing Out” featuring Royce da 5’9″

Bloc Party, Intimacy: When Bloc Party released their initial effort, Silent Alarm in 2005, it brought a distinct sound to the indie rock arena with Kele Okereke’s emotional British accent and their hard charging guitars on songs like “Banquet.” That album spawned a remix album before the release of what I viewed to be a lackluster sophomore effort on 2007’s A Weekend in the City, an album that had three, maybe four really solid songs, tops. Thankfully though, Intimacy not only serves to take some of the band’s music in another direction, but returns the indie sound on their rock songs to the top-notch form that looked possible from their debut. Intimacy still has driving drums and screaming guitars, but the band has started to utilize more in the way of drum machines and electronic flourishes that create a new dimension for them to explore and in some cases creates some of the most musically advanced songs the band has produced to date. Okereke’s use of his voice is showing maturity, commanding more range of both pitch and emotion here. In some songs, it feels like the input they had on their work from Silent Alarm Remixes has prompted them to explore in new directions. A very solid album. Don’t Sleep On: “Signs,” “One Month Off,” and “Talons.”

Illa J, Yancey Boys: I’ve read a few reviews of this album that basically mock Illa J’s approach and state that he only made this album because he got posthumously released tracks from his big brother J Dilla. I think these reviews miss the point of the album in that Illa J doesn’t fancy himself a rapper or hip-hopper, he’s a self-described singer/songwriter, so it only makes sense that what he does over Dilla beats is going to be different from Dilla’s output when he was alive. On this album, the younger Yancey proves himself musically diverse and extremely relaxed, while also recognizing the importance of respecting Dilla’s production. The tracks here are laid back and jazzy, and Illa takes no effort to listen to, he’s that easy. Click here for the full album review, and click here for my interview with Illa J. Don’t Sleep On: “R U Listenin’?” feat. Guity Simpson, “We Here,” and “DTFT” feat. Affion Crockett

J Dilla, Welcome 2 Detroit: With the way underground hip-hop is structured and feeds into the mainstream, it’s often possible for fans to miss an initial classic album from an artist, and then never check it out once they’ve gotten big because it gets lost in the new music. With Illa J’s debut album dropping this month featuring almost exclusive production from Dilla, it only made sense to make sure people were aware of J Dilla’s initial solo offering and the way it intersects with the rest of the hip-hop genre. On Welcome 2 Detroit, Dilla’s signature melodic and stoned out beats are in fine form with lyrical help from other Detroit rappers such as eLZhi (WIH6) and Phat Kat. The album, released in 2001, still sounds fresh and innovative today and features several tracks that showcase Dilla’s ability to fuse other sounds into his hip-hop such as the co-produced (Karriem Riggins) “Rico Suave Bossa Nova” and “B.B.E. (Big Booty Express)” which Dilla seems to have created in order to slip onto future releases of the 1977 Kraftwerk album Trans-Europe Express. Don’t Sleep On: “Shake It Down,” “It’s Like That,” feat. Hodge Podge and Lacks, and “Pause” feat. Frank-N-Dank.

Jedi Mind Tricks, A History of Violence: Underground hip-hop mainstays Jedi Mind Tricks return for their 6th studio album with more hard hitting tracks, masterful production and intricate lyrics. The conspiracy themes from previous albums remain here, and the production draws from interesting samples such as the strings and haunting foreign lyrics on “Monolith” and the sparse flute in “Trail of Lies.” The lyrical deliveries on these tracks are tight, concise and deep in content, and on the whole, the album is a display of exceptional craft from artists working together with a common musical vision and knowledge of their strengths. Don’t Sleep On: “Trail of Lies,” “Death Messiah,” and “Heavy Artillery.”

Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreaks: Following the death of his mother, I was wondering what the latest output from an artist so in touch with his emotions and personal experiences would sound like. On the one hand, I could see West shaking off the events of the last year or so and putting out his most bouncy and sample-laden disc to date. On the opposite end of that, I could imagine West delving deep into what was going on and producing an intensely personal album. On 808s, West moves in a direction completely opposite of the roads he’s traveled before, and comes out all the better for it. Let’s be clear. 808s is not an album for anyone expecting the continuation of sound and work from West’s previous three albums, and it’s not an album that everyone is going to enjoy musically. Using an 808 drum machine and extensively using Auto-Tune to sing rather than rap, West has produced a stripped down and emotionally raw album. Heavy on synths and in points retro-80s sounds (tracks here could have made an Aphex Twin or Tricky album), West lays bare what’s going on with him and refuses to apologize for the new direction of his music. What’s amazing is that while I think the roster of musicians today who could completely change course from one album to the next and do so successfully is small, Kanye does make that list with this album. Dark, personal and musically adventurous, 808s and Heartbreaks exposes West as the musician he is rather than the hip-pop clone machine he’s often typecast as. Don’t Sleep On: “Paranoid,” feat. Mr. Hudson, ” “Bad News” (which features a sample from Nina Simone‘s “See Line Woman”) and “Street Lights.”

Ludacris, Theater of the Mind: While some artists are out to create philosophically moving pieces, or to in some way further the hip-hop culture, Ludacris doesn’t concern himself with such lofty ideals. He’s about making money. A lot of it. On his 6th studio album, Ludacris returns with the formula that has made him the hottest rapper in the South’s history… pulsing and grimy beats full of horns and deep bass kicks meet with quick delivery lyrics touching on sex, violence, money and his ability to outsell other rappers. Keep in mind, I’m not saying that this formula doesn’t work for him and doesn’t have its place within rap and hip-hop, but it is without any sort of creative growth that Luda moves forward. If there’s any doubt about the kind of sales Ludacris would like to see, this album is the most saturated rap album I’ve seen in years in terms of cameo appearances. Ludacris is the lone rapper on only 2 of the 15 tracks, getting guest appearances from Floyd Mayweather (yes, the boxer), Chris Rock (yes, that comedian), Jamie Foxx (still an actor?), Common and Spike Lee (one of them is a rapper, right?), Nas, Jay-Z and current Top 40 mainstays T.I., The Game, T-Pain and Lil Wayne. This approach either means that he intends to make a lot of money based on name recognition of his guests or he realizes that to put out an album that only has him on it, he’d need to come up with full lyrics to all of his songs, a task that might seem daunting (I mean, how many times can you really come up with new raps about rims and Cadillacs?) While musically and lyrically this album isn’t challenging, it has certainly produced some tracks that we’re sure to be hearing in clubs and parties very soon. Don’t Sleep On: “Intro” (only a minute of rapping, but well worth it, and one of only 2 songs with just Luda on it), “Undisputed” feat. Floyd Mayweather, and “Wish You Would” feat. T.I.

Opio, Vuture’s Wisdom, Vol. 1: The first in a trilogy of albums to be released by Opio from Hieroglyphics with production by Architect. The idea behind the albums is that people are saying hip-hop is dead, or at least that’s the popular expression lately. Vulture’s Wisdom refers to the ability to pick what’s left of life from the bones of the deceased, and this album shows that Opio hasn’t lost any of the edge that has carried him through more than a decade in the industry as a part of the Hiero Imperium. Be on the lookout for my interview with Opio and Tajai, where they discuss their plans to release a new single every week in 2009. Don’t Sleep On: “Don Julio,” “Mind, Body and Soul,” and “Some Superfly Shit.”

Singles… these are the songs where the full album just didn’t cut it, but the songs deserve their time in your ears. Check out “4 Wind,” a multi-lingual remix of the cut from Breez Evahflowin and Dirt E. Dutch’s Troublemakers album, and the radio ready hip-pop of T-Pain songs “Can’t Believe It” featuring L’il Wayne and “Karaoke” featuring DJ Khaled where T-Pain goes off on the rest of the industry (funny coming from the guy who did “Bartender”) and claims the only cool rappers are Kanye West and L’il Wayne. Well, at least he’s consistent. There you have it, the November update… up next is the second installment of last year’s 11 Songs to Be Thankful For.

Illa J Interview

Illa J

Illa J, the younger brother of hip-hop legend J Dilla, has stepped out on his own into the world of music with last week’s release of his debut album on Delicious Vinyl, Yancey Boys. I had a chance to catch up with Illa J last week and discuss his musical influences, working with Delicious Vinyl, making a recording studio from J Dilla’s equipment, and the importance of originality in music. Here’s what he had to say.

AC: What were you initial musical influences and where do you find most of the inspiration for your work?

IJ: Growing up, the first music I ever listened to was jazz. My Dad would always be playing the Manhattan Transfers and the Four Freshmen, so I got into it early. My early influences were Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder and a lot of Soul early on.

AC: Is it true your parents were in a jazz a cappella group?

IJ: Yea, they had their own group. They used to practice in our living room at home for hours and hours, and that’s how I got my musical ear, because they sang so much I had no choice but to learn all the jazz chords.

AC: Talk about growing up the younger brother of one of hip-hop’s most well known producers. How did this hurt you and how did it help you?

IJ: I don’t think it hurt me in anyway. If anything, people because of that, the first thing they want to do is compare me to my brother. Honestly, I don’t even think about that. When I’m in the studio, I’m in the zone, it’s all about the music. At the end of the day, I was brought up around nothing but music and that’s in my blood lines. In my immediate family, pretty much everyone sings and everybody writes songs and are musicians, so it’s pretty normal in my household that someone can sing or play an instrument. So it’s really no pressure to me, I’m just doing my thing, having fun.

AC: So when did you first start formally performing in front of audiences and when did you actually make the decision that music was going to be your career?

IJ: I always knew from a young age that I was going to do music. I’d be in front of the TV, a video or something would be on and I’d act like I was singing, and I’d always be singing around the house. I always knew I was going to do music, I just didn’t know when. And after my brother passed, when you have a big loss like that, a lot of people when they have big losses, in a sense it gives them a whole new perspective on life. That’s what happened with me. To lose my bigger brother that soon, cause I didn’t expect to lose him at 32, that definitely changed my life from that day on. I knew before that, even midway through college, I kinda knew I was going to work in music, but after he passed, that’s when I dedicated my life to music, just do what’s in my blood, do my craft, and that’s pretty much how it started.

AC: I read in another interview you did that you liked Los Angeles because people were always getting stuff done. Do you still feel that way about the city and what in your mind stands out as the brightest part about LA?

IJ: Not necessarily getting things done… people get stuff done in Detroit too, but right now, Detroit is kinda crazy, especially with how the economy is. Out here, I feel that it’s a whole new city for me, and I feel a lot more relaxed. When I’m in Detroit, I feel that there’s a lot going on and so many distractions, but when I’m out here, I’m free to just stick to my craft.

AC: In terms of music that you created in Detroit vs. music that you created in Los Angeles, do you feel that there’s a big difference there in terms of what you’ve done with the different atmospheres?

IJ: Out here, I really got the chance to practice in the studio. Back in Detroit, at that time I didn’t have a studio, so I didn’t get the chance to be in the vocal booth to practice. I recorded a track in the studio with my brother when I was 13, but other than that I hadn’t recorded anything. When I’m in Detroit, I have a whole different mind state. In Detroit, it’s almost like walking down the street you’re watching your back every so many minutes. People can tell that I moved out here because I’m a lot more relaxed than I was in my music. When I first started recording, I was a lot more aggressive because in a sense it was like I wanted to get out. Now I’m a lot more relaxed in my music, and you can feel that I’m just letting go, not really forcing it and letting it flow in a sense.

AC: I heard that you built your own studio out in LA using your brother’s equipment. Talk about that studio, what of his equipment you’ve used, and how that process has worked for you.

IJ: I have my brother’s Digidesign Pro Control board, I have some of the racks, his C12 mic, and his MPC 3000 and of my own, I have a Motif and bass guitar. I’m working on getting another guitar and a drum set. (7:10)

AC: You’re signed to Delicious Vinyl which is known for producing some of the most well known hip-hop of the early ‘90s. Talk about your introduction to Mike Ross and what joining Delicious Vinyl was like for you.

IJ: The first time I met Mike Ross was in ’06 and the next time I met him after that was in March ’07. Around that time is when he gave me a CD with 38 tracks on it that my brother produced from ’95 to ’98. These were tracks that he was making while he was working with Pharcyde and also just doing remix stuff, Delicious Vinyl puts out a lot of remixes. Pretty much, at that time, he told me to just pick a track from there just to see what it sounded like because he was going to try to do a compilation of various artists that worked with my brother.

The next time I talked to him after that was in January of ’08. I was hitting him up cause I wrote this song and I was like, “You gotta hear this song.” At that time, I wasn’t even thinking of making an album with Delicious Vinyl, I was just gonna see if he could help me out in a sense and get out there and try to jump start my career, I just wanted him to hear the song. At that time I didn’t think I was going to do an album with him. He came over in February of ’08 and I played him the song on the Motif and he was like, “I like your voice,” and he wanted to hear some more joints, so I played him some more and he had me perform at this club a couple days after that, and it just happened to be on my brother’s birthday, February 7th, ‘08. After my performance he came up to me and was like, “You killed it, why don’t you just do the whole album?” That’s pretty much how the album started. As far as working with Delicious, it’s definitely dope. Pharcyde is one of my favorite groups, so I’m in the office looking at Pharcyde and Tone Loc and it’s funny to see my album up on the wall with them. Especially Delicious being where my brother kick started his career, it’s almost like everything came full circle.

AC: You mentioned the CD that Ross gave you with all the tracks your brother did from ’95-98. What was hearing this CD for the first time like and when you heard it, did it give you a specific idea of the direction you wanted your album to go in?

IJ: The first time I heard it, I had never heard the tracks before, and I really got a chance to listen to them, they really connected me back to ’95 as soon as I listened to it. It reminded me of the days that I’d sit on the stairs listening to my brother make tracks in the basement, and the sound he was making at that time. I was nine years old, so in a sense I had an instinct for what I wanted to do over them. They also have a lot of jazz chords, and that connected to me well because I was brought up on Jazz first so the minors, D7, changes, things like that I’m used to, so automatically I had a connection with the tracks and they fit my song writing style too. At the end of the day, my brother, even though he could write too, he was known more as a producer and I see myself as a singer/songwriter first before anything.

AC: Let’s talk about Yancey Boys. What was your vision for this album when you started and what was the process like in working on it?

IJ: For one thing, when you listen to the album, you hear the theme of time throughout the album. That’s because the original title for the album was going to be Timeless. I kinda wanted to make a timeless album, for example, so many of the old albums, Off the Wall, or Prince albums, when you listen to their stuff, it was made way back in the ‘80s and it’s still relevant today when you listen to it, you know what I mean? I didn’t want to necessarily try to make anything for the radio, cause there’s not really a single on the album, it’s an album, one complete piece of artwork. The tracks were from ’95, but I’m recording in 2008, so that connection and the fact that the music was still relevant today, that’s the tip I was going on. Mike Ross, he liked the Timeless idea, but he was like, “Yea, it’s timeless, but it’s so much more than that too,” cause he was really feeling it. When I would do shows, and my production company, to pay tribute to my brother and my family, I called it Yancey Boys. He was like, “Why don’t you call it Yancey Boys?” and it didn’t take too long to think about I was like, “Yea, that’s pretty dope.” And we went from there.

AC: What I like about this album is how laid back it is. You sit back and nod to it, you never feel overwhelmed by the album. Would you say that that’s a product of your personality, or were you specifically aiming for that and you see future albums going in a different direction?

IJ: Well the album is definitely laidback. One thing about this album is that when I wrote to it, as a songwriter, the music came first. So the beats and the tracks already had a laidback feel to it, and as a writer, it’s my job to let the music speak to me instead of me just writing my ideas over the beats, let the music speak to me because the tracks were already done.

AC: What’s your favorite track on the album and why?

IJ: My favorite track on the album is “Timeless.” On my Myspace page, I have joints on my page, but that was only stuff because I had nothing else to put up at that time, and I wasn’t going to put up my really good stuff on my page, so I just put up joints to keep stuff moving. At that time, I didn’t know if people were ready to hear where I was really going with the music because this album is really a true representation and my intro. This is truly my introduction and music that I feel represents me. “Timeless” was really an expression of me as an artist. It’s so full and the chords bring out the emotions, and that’s what I liked about it for me when I was writing it.

AC: There’s 14 tracks on Yancey Boys and you said you had 38 on the CD from Ross so are we looking at more albums in your future with other songs produced by your brother?

IJ: Maybe, it all depends on the track. A lot of people think that I just went off this with a lot of Dilla beats and was like, “I’ll do an album.” But I was actually working with other producers and was producing myself. I’ll only use my brother’s tracks if I feel it’s right. It’s gotta be the right track. I know that when he was in studio making tracks, even if you were in the studio with him, if he played a beat, you could like it or whatever, but it didn’t necessarily mean he was making that for you, he might just be making that for himself. I know my brother. By me doing this album, it means that I know my brother would be cool with it.

AC: We talked earlier about your initial musical influences. Who in the industry today, music wise, do you look at as a true talent?

IJ: Definitely Amy Winehouse. Her album, Back to Black, inspired me a lot. That album, in a sense, is timeless. You can’t really fit a particular era to it. You could play it way back in the day and it would still sound right.

AC: How do you see the current scene in hip-hop, what do you think is good about it, and what in your mind needs to be changed?

IJ: My main thing is pretty much when I was growing up, the artists I was looking up to, my favorite thing about artists was how unique his voice was or how unique her voice was. It’s about originality, being original. When Busta came out, it’s like nobody sounds like him, he’s got his own style. As long as it’s about being original, it should alright. At the end of the day, you can only be the best you you can be, I can only be the best Illa J, just like my brother is Dilla and he can only be Dilla, that’s him. As an artist, you can’t be afraid to be original, take a chance, and when I think I’m going super left field, at the same time, who’s to say how far you can go?

AC: One last question for you. I read in another interview that you would have liked to work on Michael Jackson‘s Off the Wall album. What album in the hip-hop genre would you have liked to have worked on and what album in your opinion stands out to you in terms of “greatest of all time?”

IJ: I kinda wish I had been working on it when my brother was making Welcome to Detroit. Also, his work with Slum Village.

AC: Anything you want to plug? Upcoming concert dates, releases?

IJ: I’ve got my release party out in Cali at the Little Temple in Santa Monica. That’s November 20th. I’ll be touring soon and check out my myspace page… Myspace.com/illajmusic. The album’s out in stores, go cop it.

Illa J – Yancey Boys Review

Yancey Boys

For Evolving Music’s interview with Illa J, click here.

When some of the most influential hip-hop over the past 15 years has been created by your older brother, it can sometimes be hard to get out from under that shadow and create on your own. But that’s exactly what Illa J has accomplished on his recently released debut album, Yancey Boys. Active in the hip-hop scene from 1992 to his untimely death arising from medical complications in 2006, Jay Dee, also known as J Dilla, was a mastermind at production, creating music for the likes of Slum Village, Pharcyde, Busta Rhymes, Common, Madlib and Janet Jackson among others. Starting as a DIYer making beats with a tape deck, J Dilla quickly rose among the hip-hop ranks and infused the genre with the soul based inflections that have become so big today, especially in the most recent Common releases.

But most overlooked about J Dilla and his career is the fact that he comes from an extremely talented and musically well educated family. It is this depth of familial music that comes out in vibrant colors on younger brother Illa J’s new release from Delicious Vinyl. Having moved to LA from Detroit and constructing a studio out of his older brother’s equipment, Illa J met Mike Ross who provided him with a CD of unused Dilla beats, which this album draws heavily from. Produced by J Dilla and the legendary Mike Ross, Yancey Boys, while brief (14 tracks, 47 minutes) is one of the most consistent hip-hop albums of the year from start to finish, and succeeds because it never tries to do too much or be more than what it is.

The album starts with “Timeless,” taking lazy piano flourishes into a laid back beat with Illa meandering vocally like D’Angelo. Indeed, the neo-soul and hip-hop hybrid comes through continually on the album, producing the smooth and effortless sound that makes listening to it as easy as bobbing your head. The first single, “We Here” comes next, and immediately steps up the tempo and introduces you to Illa as a rapper. His rhymes are simple in content but complex in rhyme scheme, never sounding forced, but at the same time coming off skillfully crafted. At times however, this is a weakness in the album as it seems that the mellow melodies sometimes leave Illa feeling content and therefore failing to challenge himself to stretch for something a little harder to reach.

“R U Listening” comes next with a low bass rift and a cameo appearance by Guilty Simpson. The lo-fi feel of the beat combined with the under-water sound of the melody leaves this song feeling decidedly retro without sounding cheesy. With a deeper tone to his voice, Simpson on this track provides a nice and slightly more forceful contrast to Illa’s dazed out and light sounding style. On “Alien Family,” Frank Nitty tells the story of the Yancey boys, talking about their family and history. “Strugglin,'” “Showtime,” and “Swagger” follow, all in various forms expanding on the silky and backroom feel of the soul and jazz overtones of the album. “All Good” utilizes the jazz background to the best extent, with simple drums and a melancholy, repetitive horn sample. “Sounds Like Love,” featuring Debi Nova is the ballad on the album, a poppy R&B cut with hip-hop lyrics and steeped in record static that could surely find its way to an after hours radio show.

The album finishes up with “Everytime,” “IllaSoul” and “Air Signs.” “IllaSoul” provides the most moving track on the album, the bass line and spacey synth trills throughout allow Illa to sit back and rap effortlessly. “Air Signs” talks about his family and ends the album on a positive note examining just how much talent exists there. If there is one drawback of this album, it’s that we never get to hear Illa J break out from beyond the chill, soul, jazz, and R&B tinged tracks that make up the entirety of it. With his lyrics and musical knowledge, a track or two that delved more deeply into the harder edges of hip-hop would be welcome, perhaps even a party track. But this shortcoming aside, the lack of these types of songs seems deliberate on the part of Illa. He’s not looking on Yancey Boys to create tracks that find massive radio airplay. He’s set out to create a coherent album, one that you can listen to from start to finish without feeling overwhelmed, allowing you to be absorbed by the mentality of relaxation that exists here. And in this goal, he has succeeded in creating one of the most solid hip-hop albums of the year.

What I’m Hearing, Vol. 7

Did you miss last month’s tasty audio? Never fear, click here.

October’s iPod update is a fantastic affair featuring 79 songs. It had a few older singles that I was recently turned on to, as well as some excellent new music from various genres. As we head towards the end of the year, keep your ears on for some of the huge and blockbuster album that are sure to be coming at us as the holidays approach.

Apollo Sunshine, Shall Noise Upon: This is the 3rd offering from Apollo Sunshine, a northeast trio that has made a habit of infusing new indie and rock music with retro themes. The light melodies and easy vocals go hand in hand with melodic and uplifting musical flourishes. Steely guitar in places, harmonized singing, use of woodwinds and basic drum beats can range in style here from unapologetic roadhouse rock songs (“Brotherhood of Death”) to melancholy drifters that border on an old Western soundtrack (“Fog and Shadow.”) But regardless of the style they employ, from top to bottom Apollo Sunshine has crafted an album that feels right on all levels. Don’t Sleep On: “The Funky Chamberlain (Who Begot Who),” “Money,” and “The Mermaid Angeline” which should find its way to a Wes Anderson film at some point.

Black Milk, Tronic: Rather than repeat anything about this album here, click this link for the album review.

Devin the Dude, Landing Gear: On his 5th album, Devin the Dude takes his recognizable laid back flow and infuses his beats with a bit more pop and energy than in previous outings. Never one to take himself too seriously, though, Devin slides through these tracks with ease, his voice consistently feeling like warm tea to a sore throat. Where other rappers yell, the Dude whispers, and where others bark, he glides. The best parts of this album are where DD doesn’t stray too far from this ideal, keeping mellow beats and silky smooth vocals on tracks you can kick your feet up to. His lyrics are simple and easy to understand, and the delivery makes you feel like DD is rapping right in your living room. Don’t Sleep On: “I Can’t Make it Home,” “Highway,” and “I Need a Song.”

Jake One, White Van Music: On his first solo album, Jake One takes hip-hop by the ears and shakes it around. The beats here are varied and layered, showing fantastic production ranging from deep bass rider tracks to spaced out 90s gangsta rap cuts. Some focus on pleasant vocal samples while others rely on heavy hitting beats. The strongest point of this album is that it never falls too far into one hip-hop genre over another… Jake One uses them all to great effect. Joined by a crew of well known rappers (Busta Rhymes, Black Milk, M.O.P., Brother Ali, Little Brother, Posdnuos, MF Doom, Casual, eLZhi, Pharoahe Monch, Kardinal Offishall, Royce da 5’9″ and Keak da Sneak) Jake One makes his debut album a memorable one that should be considered as one of the best complete hip-hop albums of the year. Don’t Sleep On: “Home,” “Soil Raps,” and “Oh Really.”

Doomtree, Doomtree: Click here for my interview with Doomtree. Doomtree seeks to answer the question, “What do you get when you mix 5 very different MCs with 4 very different DJs?” And it appears from their debut album that the answer is everything. On this lengthy and diverse 21 track freshman album, this group out of Minnesota spans the genre of hip-hop, never afraid to bring in something different or new. While some tracks stick to the straight ahead style, others incorporate sounds of rock or jazz. With the various artists on the mic, you can often forget that you’re still listening to the same album. If there’s one drawback to the diversity here it’s that there is never one coherent image or sound that defines the group, although, one would think from the presentation that that’s exactly how Doomtree likes it. Be on the lookout for solo albums from this collective in the months to come. Don’t Sleep On: “Sadie Hawkins,” “Gameshow Host,” and “Kid Gloves.”

Madlib, WLIBAM – King of the Wigflip: Madlib’s influence in hip-hop over the past decade has been pronounced. Through collaborations with J Dilla, Mos Def and De La Soul among others, Madlib has created a body of work that touches just about every corner of the hip-hop genre. Never afraid to branch out with a new sound, Madlib seems to draw his best work from never settling into one role, and never fearing to tackle all aspects of the production process, from DJing to MCing. This album is the latest in the “Beat Generation Series” from Barely Breaking Even Records which has previously seen incarnations under the hands of J Dilla, Marley Marl, DJ Jazzy Jeff, will.I.am and King Britt, among others. While I honestly couldn’t get into the entirety of this album, there are a few tracks that demonstrate that whether you like everything he does or not, Madlib remains on top of his game and respected by his peers. Don’t Sleep On: “The Thang-Thang,” “Blow the Horns on ‘Em,” and Go!”

Singles: These songs didn’t get full write-ups as part of an artist or album, but they are excellent singles nonetheless. “Electric Feel” by MGMT, “Please Believe” by Longshot and “Paper Planes (DFA Remix)” by MIA.


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