Who rocks the body in the party? Itâs 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 rappingâhe simply loved hip-hop and all it encompassed. In the 1990âs, Chicago was going through a transformation where House music ruled the clubs and the mixshowsârap 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 Kâs 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 didnât realize one fateful trip to the Chicago DJâs home would be the turning point of his professional path.
The Chicago Defender had a candid and open conversation with Chicagoâs own Jay Illa as we discussed his transition into becoming a DJ, influences, and formula for success.
What inspired you to become a DJ?
Iâm 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 reasonâkicking it in the plaza in Ford City. I would tag on buses, but I couldnât 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 Kâs 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 seriouslyâas a working skill?
I used to freestyle on Shaun Tâs 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, Iâm 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.
Today, we see so many people claiming to be a DJ or celebrity-turned DJ with more branding than skills. Whatâs more important as a working DJ in Chicago?
Chicago is the home of the best DJs in the world. I say that unbiased because weâre 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.
Iâve seen the evolution of DJing. To quote one of the best DJs of all time, DJ Jazzy Jeff, âTechnology would never affect hired hands work.â Either you know how to do it or you donât. Because two records are together doesnât mean they should blend.
Over the years, weâve 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 peopleâeventually, if youâre a good DJ, the people will follow the DJ. Market yourself and be your own person. I donât really work for promoters a lot because promoters are a very interesting breed. They like to show you theyâre living some type of lifestyle but at the end of the night they want to come to you and say, âOh man, the bar only rang this amount.â Maybe that last bottle you bought was the reason, thereâs no budget. Itâs a party, but itâs 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. Iâm an independent contractor, if you want me to spin for two hours, youâre not going to tell me what youâre going to pay meâIâm going to tell you what I expect. Now, itâs 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 ânostalgiaâ hip-hop, we have to transcend from House music like [Twilight]Tone did years ago. People donât 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 wouldnât have played hip-hop if it wasnât for Twilite Tone playing it first on the party scene.
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Jay Illaâs Top Five Favorite Hip-Hop Artists
- Â Notorious B.I.G.
- Â Jay-Z
- Â Common
- Â Kanye West
- Â Rakim
Jay Illaâs Top Five Favorite Slow Jams
- Â Prince, âPink Cashmereâ
- Â Michael Jackson, âBaby Be Mineâ
- Â Donny Hathaway, âLove Love Loveâ
- Â Marsha Ambrosius, âBiggest Part of Meâ
- Â Semisonic âClosing Timeâ