Revisiting Illa J's 'Yancey Boys'

A look back at how early, unused Dilla production turned into his younger brother's debut record.

In late 1995 The Pharcyde released their sophomore album Labcabincalifornia on Delicious Vinyl. Late super-producer J Dilla crafted the lead singles “Drop” and “Runnin’” as well as several impressive album cuts like “Bullshit.” Delicious Vinyl founder and owner Michael Ross subsequently reached out to Dilla whenever he needed production as a result of his stellar work on Labcab. “From ‘95 through ‘98 Jay Dee was my go-to guy for hot beats and remixes,” he said on the Delicious Vinyl website.

Dilla was known for cranking out quality instrumentals at a remarkable clip from the very beginning of his career. This meant that Ross and the folks at Delicious Vinyl soon amassed an impressive cache of his work - some of which never saw the light of day. “He was always making beats, always,” Ross said. “So there was a select amount of tracks that he composed for me during that time, tracks as good as anything he’d done, only they never got used.”

In 2007 Ross met Dilla’s younger brother Illa J and decided to give him the unreleased treasure trove of Dilla beats. Those instrumentals eventually turned into Illa J’s 2008 debut album Yancey Boys.

I remember being aware of Yancey Boys at the time of its release, but if I’m being honest I slept on it when the record first dropped and didn’t give it that close a listen at first. For some reason I’ve come back to it recently. It is by no means a classic record, but it definitely deserves some serious time and attention. It also features some of my all-time favorite Dilla tracks.

“Sounds Like Love” is one of those Dilla emotional gut punches that he created so effortlessly during his lifetime. It’s understated in a way but very captivating and beautiful at the same time. The song samples late Filipino composer, jazz pianist, and vocalist Joseph "Flip" Nuñez, who passed away in November of 1995. Given the fact that this beat dates back to that time, one has to wonder if Dilla was inspired to sample the late artist after his passing or if the matching timeline is mere coincidence.

The Guilty Simpson-assisted “R U Listening?” is another standout moment which sounds like a sonic sister to Dilla’s 1997 remix of Crustation’s “Purple.” In fact, both songs utilize the same sample source at different tempos. Accentuated by a perfectly paired bassline and drums, the track features some expert scratches from J. Rocc of The Beat Junkies that cut up “Much More” - a Dilla-produced De La Soul cut from The Grind Date.

Yancey Boys features a somewhat less-polished iteration of Illa J on the mic than we hear on some of his later work, but his style and flow feels like the right fit for the selected songs given his brotherly bond with Dilla and the unique genesis of the project. And he’s absolutely perfect on songs like the easygoing, abstract “All Good.” The beat sound custom made for Illa J and he brings just the right approach with his delivery, flow, and lyrics.

With a discography as vast and diverse as Dilla’s, it’s easy to forget about his projects that range to good from very good and don’t quite hit the level of great or classic. Perhaps Yancey Boys is one such record, but it’s still prime for revisiting. With the album and the instrumental version easily accessible, I recommend giving both a full listen for the optimal experience.

If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to the Micro-Chop newsletter to support independent music journalism.