Upon first introduction to The Boy Illinois, some may think that they have this Chi-town rapper all figured out. His particularly descriptive name may provide from obvious allusions about him, but don’t be fooled. Illi, as he is commonly known, prides himself upon being more than just the smooth culmination of the virtues and vices of the infamous Chicago. After decidedly ending his short-lived college career at University of Illinois at Urbana Champlain to pursue hip-hop on a full time basis, Illi has already made strides within the industry that indicate a promising claim to fame in the near future.
So what gives this lyrical brother from the east side of Chicago his mass appeal? With a style all his own, which he credits to his Motown upbringing, strong familial support system, and a self-taught realistic perspective, Illi has created a steadily growing niche for himself. After XXL caught up with this nonchalantly talented rapper, we found out just what the hype is all about.
The adage “never forget where you came from” carries the hard bravado that characterizes the image put out by many in hip-hop. While most lyricists find this image to be solidified by decorated resumes of street credibility and lengthened rap sheets, The Boy Illinois seems to have an almost instinctive mastery of this, yet in a way that instead begets a multidimensional image. While he acknowledges the rugged edges of Chicago’s East Side, he speaks of it with realistic romanticism. “We didn’t know we didn’t have a lot, because all we grew up with was us … I feel like my childhood was pretty decent.” Music has always been a part of his appeal, due to his main influence, and number one fan, his father. “My dad is a singer. He had a band. He listened to a lot of Al Jarreau, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sade—that’s what I was raised on.” A quality that is reflected through his music, Illi acknowledges his past with reverent hindsight, so much so that it seems to be ideal. Don’t be mistaken—the man is well-versed with the streets. “Yeah,” Illi acquiesces, “I’ve seen some things I wasn’t supposed to see because of them. But, you take the good with the bad.”
And that he has. His debut mixtape Inhale Part 1: State Representative, the first of what would become a 4-part series of Inhales, introduced us to the lyricist with a very raw and very familiar Chicago-style of rap and pronunciation, mixed in with the quirk of his non-conventional persona. With each “part” of the Inhale series, an obvious progression can be seen in Illi’s rap style and subject matter, as both continued to mature and develop. This progression is most recognizable in his Memoirs of Gilbert Gaston release, a mixtape he fittingly considers to be the “exhale,” per sé, of the Inhale series. Illi definitely found his sound and image with Memoirs, citing it as “a project [he] wanted to put out because I had stuff to say [about] stuff going on in the world!”
In the midst of developing his identity as an artist, Illi also discovered more about himself as a person, after finding out around the age of 17 that he is of Haitian descent. “Ever since I learned that, I’ve been reppin’ Haiti.” Though Memoirs of Gilbert Gaston was his initial ode to his Haitian grandfather, Gilbert Gaston, his new found pride continues to serve as one of the greatest inspirations of his latest project, Jean Baptiste. Jean Baptiste, while being a notable allusion to his Haitian roots, is concurrently homage to his Chi-town upbringing: “John Baptiste is also the founder of Chicago, and he was a Haitian man, so I’m just keeping the theme together.” Working closely with producer Coop, of the Baron Boys, who have worked with the likes of Drake, Bow Wow and BET, Illi may be ready to sound the clarion call of his official arrival to the scene with Jean Baptiste.
While he’s modest about it, its clear that Illi is really beginning to make a name for himself. From freestyling and being featured on ‘Sway in the Morning,’ to collaborating with Wyclef Jean’s team on Jean Baptiste, performing at this year’s popular SXSW Music Festival, to even being invited to perform at the Native American Music Awards, which earned him the precedent of being the first Black performer at the event, it’s apparent that several in the industry have begun to recognize the aura and talent that is The Boy Illinois. But really, the man is just out to do what he loves. “I just like making music, whatever sounds good to me,” he said. “The best thing I get out of this is somebody coming up to me and saying ‘You’re an inspiration.’ You can’t pay for that, that’s the best shit ever.” Only time will tell what The Boy Illinois has up his sleeve next. But his growth as an artist and impressive work with Jean Baptiste—which he describes as “old school playa shit”—is a sign that there’s something worth looking forward to.—Christina Kelly