SF Exclusive Interview With ILLA (of THEBLKHANDS)
For the second time since August, THEBLKHANDS and purpVarsity producer ILLA joins Straight Fresh for an exclusive Q&A. In a revealing interview, ILLA opens up about recent success, how he secured big name features for THEBLKHANDS, what inspires his beats, the events surrounding the “hardest time” of his life, and much more. Read the interview after the break.
Straight Fresh: The last time you sat down with Straight Fresh was in August (Interview With ILLA). Congrats on being the first person interviewed by the site twice. What has changed for you since then? Personally, musically, etc.
ILLA: Yeah, it’s an honor to be featured on the Straight Fresh site, y’all fam! But yeah, personally, not much changed really. Still trying to hustle in school and get music done. It’s really hard to focus on school and focus on music at the same time, sometimes I unbalance the two and don’t produce for 2 weeks or absolutely fail on tests because I’m staying up till 4am producing. Musically, I’ve been trying to experiment a lot…trying to get into the electro/dubstep side of music but mixing it up with hip/hop and my usual stuff of course.
Straight Fresh: You, and the rest of purpVarsity and THEBLKHANDS, have seemingly been busting your asses making music. And it has paid off – Cazzie performed at Made in America, “Downtown” was immediately picked up by all the blogs (after SF premiered it). Do you feel successful? And either way, what’s it been like for you?
ILLA: Well, right now yeah I do, but I always feel like there’s room for more. When I was in NYC with the rest of THEBLKHANDS and Kush Kelz, we actually got spotted by a few fans on the street, which was dope. It was a good feel to be recognized, but of course, there’s always room for more success I believe.
Straight Fresh: You’ll never be satisfied with the level you’re at. Beyond the quality of the music you’ve been a part of, that attitude will only help you achieve more. So that’s good to hear. Alright, I know the answers to these, but for the readers who don’t know, and because the answers blow my mind, how old are you and how long have you been making beats?
ILLA: Haha, I’m 16 years old, I’ll be 17 next month actually, and I’ve been making beats since November 2011, exactly one year ago.
Straight Fresh: Happy anniversary man. It’s crazy to think though, based on the quality of music you’ve created and the serious moves you’ve made, that you’re so young with only a year of experience. Do you feel people might hear your age and assume you’re not worth dealing with? Like, “Oh, he’s only 16? Fuck it, I’m not working with this kid.”
ILLA: Man, I’m always worried about that. But honestly, sometimes I stay low-key and don’t reveal my age unless they ask me, but most of the time they go, “Oh man, that’s dope. You got huge potential”. So it’s not really a problem.
Straight Fresh: Cool, honestly that answer surprises me. But at the same time, I guess it shouldn’t. You’ve managed to get quite a few big names to drop a verse on your beats, particularly with THEBLKHANDS. Can you explain how you, with now just barely a year of experience, managed to get features from artists like Big K.R.I.T., Skyzoo, XV, and now Three 6 Mafia?
ILLA: Well, honestly, the K.R.I.T. story was mad motivational to me. I decided to hit up Big K.R.I.T.’s manager and told him the deal and who Dominic Serendip and Cazzie Jetson were – this was before we formed THEBLKHANDS – and that we have a beat that we want K.R.I.T. to hear and all. Then his manager showed K.R.I.T. the beat and next day I get an email from his manager all like, “Yo K.R.I.T. said the beat motivated him and so he recorded a verse on it”, and it all started like that. Then from there, K.R.I.T. manager hooked us up with DZA’s manager and I managed to get in touch with Skyzoo’s manager and that’s how we met Anthony, who now does all of our videos. It’s just connecting man. It all started from K.R.I.T. I’d say. I’d love to meet him one day – apparently he gave a lot of praise to that beat.
(Cazzie Jetson & Big K.R.I.T.)
With Three 6 Mafia, it was pretty simple, yet hard to believe. I got Juicy J’s manager’s phone number and I contacted him about a Three 6 feature, and he was all like “no, no” at first ‘cause they don’t do songs anymore. Then after an hour of negotiating with DJ Paul’s manager and Juicy’s manager, in the end, they were down for it. It was kind of luck I thought.
Straight Fresh: Damn, that’s an awesome story. Crazy cosign for K.R.I.T. to be so moved by a beat that he just up and recorded a verse. Luck perhaps, but seems more like a testament to your talent, potential, etc. And for that matter, the talent and potential of Cazzie and Dom as well. You have a set date for that release yet? It’s BLKNOV so it must be coming soon.
ILLA: Hopefully on November 20th. It should be finished by this weekend.
Straight Fresh: Nice, looking forward to that obviously. What else does THEBLKHANDS have in store for us this month?
ILLA: The “I’m Gone (Remix)”…we’re waiting on eXquire for his verse but other than that, the track is finished. Then, the “Dreamscape” video. It’s actually a different version from the one everybody heard on Live Lucid. Also, the “Rich & Famous” music video, which is our 4th single, and the Lucid Gang single featuring Willie HEX of Tanboys, which is on some trill shit.
Straight Fresh: Sounds like it’s going to be a productive month for you all. Is there a certain project/song/video/etc. you’re most excited to release to the public?
ILLA: “Smoke Good, Live Good (Remix)” for sure. I wanna see the people’s reaction about that one! Also, I’m excited to work on my solo project too…I’ve been secretly working on that…
Straight Fresh: Which conveniently brings me to my next question. You recently released nyc, an instrumental EP. I wanted to know if you had any plans to put out more, longer, beat albums. From the sounds of it you are, haha. Any details you don’t mind revealing?
ILLA: Haha, beats album? Nah. I’m releasing a full album with vocals and everything. I wrote it all down one day in math class, the whole theme and idea for it. Its going to be an album where I’ll recording live instruments like the guitar – I’ve been secretly learning how to play – and incorporate it with my usual sounds and add vocals to it. You’ll expect features too. Major influence by The xx. I’m still crafting it though.
Straight Fresh: Oh wow, not what I expected. That’s dope though, nice info to know. When you say vocals, are you going to be singing or rapping?
ILLA: No idea yet, definitely not rapping, you don’t want to hear my drunken rap songs, they’re ugllllyyyy lmfao. Ask Cazzie or anybody in purpVarsity and they will tell you about them. It will probably be ambient singing or something like that.
Straight Fresh: Haha, cool. You’ll hear plenty of ugly drunken ugly raps in December and January in NYC and Boston, respectfully. I’m sure of that. Hopefully then you take part.
When we interviewed Cazzie (SF Exclusive Interview With Cazzie Jetson – purpleHearted Veteran), he said he met you through KTT and decided to bring you in because you reminded him of a younger version of himself. Can we get your thoughts on that? And do you have any other details to share regarding how you and Cazzie linked up?
ILLA: Oh yeah definitely. I was a HUGE Kanye fan back in the day, so I use to DJ parties and stuff too. So I was trying to make a remix for one of Kanye’s tracks and Cazzie volunteered to do it. And actually, we just talked on Facebook after that and he told me he wanted me to host his mixtape Jetsonia, so I did. Then he originally brought me in pV as a DJ and then I learned how to produce and here we are now.
Straight Fresh: And the rest is history in the making. How’d you begin working with Dom?
ILLA: Well, Dom and I really never worked on anything till October – before I started producing – he asked me to help him on Live Lucid and in the end I produced most of it.
Straight Fresh: I had the pleasure of reviewing Live Lucid, and loved it. Such a unique sound all the way through. What was your favorite track from that?
ILLA: “Melancholy Hill” definitely, even though I didn’t produce it. Shoutout to JayBeatz for that beat.
Straight Fresh: What’s it been like working with the rest of purpVarsity? Cazzie has seen success lately, Dom’s been doing his thing with THEBLKHANDS. Is there anyone in particular you think has the chance to make a name for themself soon?
ILLA: LH has definitely been hustling a lot…but I think it could definitely be SirPhresh. He has some serious raw talent. I hope people recognize him soon.
Straight Fresh: Any word on upcoming Presh projects? I’ve only heard a limited amount of music from her, but I’d love to hear more.
ILLA: Oh man, I have no idea. She will be a lot on the purpAnarchy album. I don’t have beats on that though. Been way to busy to contribute to that project. Cazzie is taking care of that one.
Straight Fresh: Despite you not producing for purpAnarchy, do you have any insight into what we should expect?
ILLA: Experimental stuff. There’s all types of stuff on it. I think the next single is this month actually. Can’t reveal too much though.
Straight Fresh: I feel you, gotta keep the fans wanting more.
I don’t know if you want to touch on this at all, but I want to ask. You produced “Calm Before the Storm”, Fenix’s track featuring XV. When we interviewed Fenix he said he was upset about how that track was released. XV has yet to promote it at all, not even a RT on Twitter. How do you feel about that? Not what Fenix said, but the fact Vizzy hasn’t shown it any love.
ILLA: Man, honestly I expected that too. DZA didn’t show any love to the “Smoke Good, Live Good” song. Some artists are just like that. But I would expect XV to at least RT it or something. He was mad nice and chill on the phone with me. Shame that he didn’t pull through with promoting the track.
Straight Fresh: For sure, it had the potential to be a great look for Fenix and you. Do you have any idea why he chose to ignore it? I mean, that track is still dope, both Fenix and Vizzy did their thing. But some promotion from XV would have ten fold increased the number of listeners.
ILLA: True, but right now I have no idea. It looked like he was mad busy when we were on the phone so it might have just been that. Mad strange.
Straight Fresh: Back to pV quickly – when there’s a disagreement amongst the members of purpVarsity and/or THEBLKHANDS, how do you all settle those disputes? Who has the final say, in terms of how a track should sound?
ILLA: Man, I’m just the producer. I give Dominic and Cazzie the final say with the artistic vision on how they want the track to sound. But unless the beat has a special meaning to it, then I would tell them what I want it to be about. Like our track “In Love”, which features Kembe X, or “Downtown”. I told them the topic and how I wanted it to sound
Straight Fresh: On that “special meaning” note – listening to your music, it’s evident you’re able to create a wide variety of sounds. What inspires you when you’re creating a beat? Can you explain what’s going through your head when you make something like “Downtown” compared to something like “Wolf”?
ILLA: Oh I love these types of questions. Well, anything could inspire me but mainly it has to be an event in my life. Love really affects my beat. Probably 95% of my beats are inspired by love. “Downtown” was inspired by my girlfriend now, when she was talking to me about Lana Del Rey and I decided to sample her. And “Wolf” was inspired by Fenix actually. He told me to sample that. I just think about the events in my life that are currently happening and release it in a beat.
Straight Fresh: How long have you been with your girlfriend for?
ILLA: Since August.
Straight Fresh: How does your family feel about your music? Are they supportive and do they realize the success you’ve already had at such a young age & career?
ILLA: They are supportive but they want me to focus on academics because they think I’m going to fail on music and all. It’s mad stressful for me too. My mom doesn’t even like my music even though she heard it all, and it brings us down sometimes as a group and she really doesn’t understand my artistic vision and all. They have no idea about my success at a young age and a young career, even though people have praised me over and over again in front of her, she just doesn’t get it.
Straight Fresh: I understand why they’d want you to focus on academics, but that goes back to the first response you gave – it’s about finding that balance. But it’s too bad hearing your mom isn’t supportive or a fan. Does that motivate you to prove them wrong?
ILLA: Yeah, it does. I hope this project blows up and proves them wrong. I really hope it does.
Straight Fresh: Does the lack of support come from the fact you associate with rappers? Or is it solely because they don’t think you’ll make it and they don’t want to see you end up without an education and without music?
ILLA: They just don’t like my beats in general. Or even Cazzie or Dominic’s rap. They don’t even know what the song topic is about, so it doesn’t bother me because their opinion is invalid I guess. They just want me to have an education, go to a college, and then do music when I’m 25, but that’s never going to happen. Once I’m 18, I’m dipping.
Straight Fresh: Is this what you meant when you were saying you were worried about your mom reading the interview?
ILLA: Yeah, lol, I mean it’s fine, she knows this.
Straight Fresh: Word, I’m sure it sucks though. But you’ve got a team/family around you who all support each other. That’s got to help.
ILLA: Yeah it does. Without my team, I don’t know where I would be now.
Straight Fresh: Beyond the music, that’s one of my favorite things about following purpVarsity. It’s clear to see how much you all believe in each other as individuals and as a unit. Not once since I’ve become familiar with pV has it seemed like anyone is more in it for their personal success than the success of the entire group.
Ok, if you are able to choose one, what song have you produced that is your absolute favorite?
ILLA: On the album? Or in general?
Straight Fresh: In general, over the course of the year you’ve been producing, which is your personal favorite.
ILLA: Oh tough question. My personal favorite, beat wise, has to be “Emily”. I spent days on that to perfect it. Live instruments and everything. It’s on THEBLKHANDS album as a bonus cut. Our OG fans probably already heard it since it leaked on the internet back in December. My favorite song in general would have to be “The Usual Thing” (Feat. After The Smoke). That’s my favorite song on THEBLKHANDS album.
“Thursday” by Alcohol&Ecstasy makes the cut too. I don’t know if you know about Alcohol&Ecstasy though.
Straight Fresh: Cazzie mentioned that briefly. But I’d love to hear the full story.
ILLA: That’s how I started producing professionally really. My friend Eden and I wanted to produce like The Neptunes so we decided to make beats together. We dropped a song called “Krystal”, which recieved a lot of buzz somehow,and then we started from there. We got lots of fan and everything. We were really big in the indie drug scene. Then my school made me shut everything down because of the name and now everything is gone, but you can still find songs on the internet about it if you Google us. It remains a mystery, which I find pretty cool. All those songs have really special meanings behind them. It’s a name I use when I want to drop a song that means something and have a story behind it.
Straight Fresh: How was your school able to make you shut it all down?
ILLA: By threatening to expel me if I didn’t do it. And of course my mom forced me to do it in the end. Then I changed my name to ILLA. My girlfriend came up with the name back in February when we weren’t dating so that name means a lot to me now.
Straight Fresh: Were you at a public school??
ILLA: Nah, private school. I was actually in a really fucked up one in London.
Straight Fresh: Oh yea, I forgot you weren’t in America. What school were you at?
ILLA: I was at the American School in London
Straight Fresh: Who brought it to the school’s attention?
ILLA: I think they found my Twitter. They were on some real stalker shit.
Straight Fresh: Who came to you originally with the ultimatum of being expelled or stopping what you were doing?
ILLA: The principal, he was a real dick to everyone. He would legit call me in for bullshit reasons and accuse me of selling drugs and shit and they would strip-search me. That school was God-awful. In the end, I just had to leave…it was so bad. This is why I’m in America now. That school was a real toxic environment.
Straight Fresh: What went down from the time he confronted you to the time you shut down Alcohol&Ecstasy? Was there a struggle or were you pretty much shit out of luck?
ILLA: Oh man. That was the hardest time of my life. It was during my dark days. I would get hell in my school, from the kids and everybody. I legit hated everyone around me and especially this one girl, she knows who she is, but we’re all good now. But yeah, back then I hated everyone and didn’t wanna speak to anyone. They all hated on me and shit but I did my thing and man, look at me now. Fuck all the haters for real.
Straight Fresh: What was their hate about?
ILLA: Oh you gonna love this lmfao. Basically, back in October, I went to a party and got really drunk for the first time and all my friends were like anti-drinking and everything. So the next day I woke up and suddenly everybody hated me because I got drunk and they lost all respect for me. Man, I don’t even know, like it was all messed up to me. It was weird because these people were actually chill, but I guess not. Like they could just ditch their best friends because they drank a little too much? Not even drugs or anything. They kept that grudge on for the rest of the year. Then, from that day on, I said fuck it and started drugs and being rebellious and going to strip clubs on the weekends and breaking into apartments to smoke weed…but we off that now. But that was back in the days.
Straight Fresh: I can see why you’d be angry then man. People like that, up on their holier than thou high horses, don’t understand a damn thing about living. Like you said though, look at you now. You have any beats you’ve made, that have been released, that came from that time period? Like ones inspired by the way you felt at that time.
ILLA: Yup. “Emily” was made during that time. “I’m Gone” was too. “Smoke Good, Live Good” too. Basically all the Live Lucid beats too.
Straight Fresh: Interestingly enough, when I was reviewing theMighty and then Live Lucid, I had friends listen a little and give me their thoughts on both albums. One of the first, and most frequent, things I heard from them about Live Lucid was it sounded much darker than theMighty. Obviously you produced more on Live Lucid, so I guess that makes sense now.
ILLA: Yeah, but “Emily” is probably the darkest song I ever made
Straight Fresh: What school are you at now? And besides the fact that it’s school, how does it compare to your previous school? Teacher wise, student wise, overall environment.
ILLA: I’m at Cushing Academy and it’s great. The people here are great and their not judgmental or anything about my old school. Teachers are much better here. It’s def much better than my old school. The environment is very friendly.
Straight Fresh: Are you getting a lot of support from people there in regards to your music?
ILLA: Nobody actually knows I make music here. I keep it real low-key.
Straight Fresh: Oh wow, that’s actually dope to hear. So when you all get even more recognition, they’ll be like “wtf, I knew that kid”. It’s cool you’re staying level headed. With your talent and accomplishments, I’m surprised your not letting people know.
ILLA: I rather just separate my music from my social life. Keeps it easier.
Straight Fresh: Five years from now, where do you realistically see yourself, in relation to music and in general? And I’m not talking ideally or whatever, but realistically what do you think you’ll be doing, where will your career be, five years from now?
ILLA: I would see myself in New York City living there in my home studio and working with THEBLKHANDS and hopefully other artists. I’d also have a house in Paris and Rome lol. That’s my dream. To live in NYC and work with THEBLKHANDS
Straight Fresh: Word, nothing unrealistic about that. Any last words or thoughts you’d like to leave the readers with?
ILLA: Look out for our new tracks this November. Don’t sleep on them. Don’t sleep on us. We appreciate all the love and support so far. Free Lacy.
Straight Fresh: Thanks for taking the time to talk with Straight Fresh, it’s much appreciated.
Find ILLA on Twitter:
Interview By: Zach Humphrey (@Zach_pusAfella)