Who rocks the body in the party? It’s always the DJ. For a long time, Disc Jockeys or DJs were the silent rock stars who kept in the background providing the music that allowed us to escape to another world.

A b-boy from the South Side of Chicago, Jay Illa tried to master all five elements of hip-hop. From break dancing to tagging and mastering his skills at rapping—he simply loved hip-hop and all it encompassed. In the 1990’s, Chicago was going through a transformation where House music ruled the clubs and the mixshows—rap music was taking over the streets, and underground hip-hop was becoming part of the club playlist.

Jay Illa watched the scene play out, working as a part-time clerk at K’s Music in Hyde Park and admiring hometown DJs make a name for themselves. Under the guidance of his former baseball coach, DJ Shaun T, he didn’t realize one fateful trip to the Chicago DJ’s home would be the turning point of his professional path.

The Chicago Defender had a candid and open conversation with Chicago’s own Jay Illa as we discussed his transition into becoming a DJ, influences, and formula for success.

What inspired you to become a DJ?

I’m the original b-boy. I used to tag on buses and break dance. I would have the sagging pants that were way too big and a book bag for no reason—kicking it in the plaza in Ford City. I would tag on buses, but I couldn’t draw. Hebru Brantley, now the biggest artist in Chicago, would also be on the 3 King Drive bus tagging. Back then, he was in a crew called NOS.

DJing is one of the five elements of hip-hop, and it was the last thing I wanted to do. I was working at a mom and pop store in Hyde Park right out of high school called K’s Music, and I used to host their open mic showcases. When the DJ stopped coming to the open mics, I began spinning, and I eventually liked it.

You began DJing at the record store, but when did you begin to take it seriously—as a working skill?

I used to freestyle on Shaun T’s mixtapes in high school. He eventually took me under his wing. Similar to how Timbuk2 was mentored by The Twilite Tone. I met Tone when I was 16 years old through Shaun T. It was the most amazing thing. We went to his apartment and Tone had records everywhere. He would open up the cabinet; records were there. He literally would open up the stove, and there were records there. I wondered, how did he cook? [laughs] I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Soon after, I left the mic alone and started DJing. I graduated from high school in 1999. In early 2000, everybody wanted to rap, but no one wanted to DJ. I would say, I’m the last era of DJs who actually dig through records properly. I spent hours upon hours at local stores such as Second Hand Tunes, Beverly Records and Gramophone Records. Back then, it was about buying a record before everyone had it.

Jay Illa spinning at the Hyde Park Brew Fest in Hyde Park. PHOTO: Mary L. Datcher

Today, we see so many people claiming to be a DJ or celebrity-turned DJ with more branding than skills. What’s more important as a working DJ in Chicago?

Chicago is the home of the best DJs in the world. I say that unbiased because we’re the home of House music. You have to know how to blend House music, which means you have to know how to work the pitch control, which controls the tempo of the record. New York has a lot of scratching and slamming so being able to blend a record seamlessly keeps the party going and keeps a certain groove within the pocket. This is why Chicago DJs are the best.

I’ve seen the evolution of DJing. To quote one of the best DJs of all time, DJ Jazzy Jeff, ‘Technology would never affect hired hands work.’ Either you know how to do it or you don’t. Because two records are together doesn’t mean they should blend.

Over the years, we’ve heard complaints from DJs with party promoters not paying or paying little to nothing. What is your formula for maintaining a successful career in Chicago?

Although, promoters provide the people—eventually, if you’re a good DJ, the people will follow the DJ. Market yourself and be your own person. I don’t really work for promoters a lot because promoters are a very interesting breed. They like to show you they’re living some type of lifestyle but at the end of the night they want to come to you and say, ‘Oh man, the bar only rang this amount.’ Maybe that last bottle you bought was the reason, there’s no budget. It’s a party, but it’s also a business. If the DJs respect themselves it would be different. There are DJs who will undercut other DJs who just do it for the look. There are DJs who only make $50. This is a touchy subject. I’m an independent contractor, if you want me to spin for two hours, you’re not going to tell me what you’re going to pay me—I’m going to tell you what I expect. Now, it’s up to me to negotiate if I want to meet you half-way.

How has the party scene changed compared to when you started as a DJ nearly 16 years ago?

In Chicago, the club scene is trap dominated. So, if anybody wants to play ‘nostalgia’ hip-hop, we have to transcend from House music like [Twilight]Tone did years ago. People don’t realize that many of these so-called older hip-hop DJs started out as House DJs. Both DJ Pharris and V-Dub, known as Vaughn Woods, were House DJs. This is no diss if you want to stay relevant because they had to transition with the times. But, they wouldn’t have played hip-hop if it wasn’t for Twilite Tone playing it first on the party scene.

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Jay Illa’s Top Five Favorite Hip-Hop Artists

  1.   Notorious B.I.G.
  2.   Jay-Z
  3.   Common
  4.   Kanye West
  5.   Rakim

Jay Illa’s Top Five Favorite Slow Jams

  1.   Prince, “Pink Cashmere”
  2.   Michael Jackson, “Baby Be Mine”
  3.   Donny Hathaway, “Love Love Love”
  4.   Marsha Ambrosius, “Biggest Part of Me”
  5.   Semisonic “Closing Time”

Follow Mary L. Datcher on Twitter