Detroit hip-hop artist Illingsworth has been serious about music for quite some time, yet he's never been afraid to add some levity to his songs. While he has gained the most notoriety as a producer, he's also an accomplished MC. His beats are glitchy, off-kilter, and always seem to find the pocket. Meanwhile, his raps are complex, multi-layered, and also sharply comedic.
"My aim musically, as far as production goes, is to always meld the forms of sampling and additional instrumentation," he says on a recent warm day outside Cass Café.
Illingsworth's extensive discography includes beat tapes, solo records, and music with the group Detroit CYDI (which consists of longtime friends Rufio Jones, Sean Uppercut, and sometimes Stryfe). In 2016, Illingsworth dropped Worth the Wait, an instrumental album on Street Corner Music. Other than some single releases, EPs, and a beat on Phonte's 2018 record, No News Is Good News, Illingsworth has been relatively quiet. Until now.
On Friday, Illingsworth will release You're No Fun — his debut record on indie-rap heavyweight Mello Music Group. At 17 tracks, the album is a brisk collection of carefully selected songs that highlight Illingsworth's sound. As a producer, Illingsworth is an expert at communicating feeling and theme without words.
For example, the fifth track, "all live (part one)," harks back to the early days of Dilla — when St. Andrew's was overflowing with hip-hop heads eager for the latest banger. Utilizing a keyboard and bass sample, "time machine" has the vibe of a dreary fall day. The second to last beat, "EVERSE," is a harrowing ballad that seems to convey fear, tension, and hope all in one.
As an MC, Illingsworth never seems to break a sweat. There are funny moments such as on the title track where Illingsworth comes out swinging. "Isn't it funny when your name is adjacent?" he observes. "People suddenly have a prior pressing engagement." On "Peeves," which features frequent collaborator Open Mike Eagle, Illingsworth is loath to tip "waiters whose simple labors/ didn't cater to my whims and favor." On a more somber note, "Wind (no clues)" recounts the journey of "a young man who didn't have a clue/ Who he wanted to be/ What he wanted to do."
Out of the 17 songs on the record, Illingsworth only raps on four. This is because You're No Fun showcases the artist Illingsworth has been for the bulk of his career, which has typically meant more beats than raps. "Anybody who's been a fan of stuff that I've been doing, they're not going to be disappointed," he says. "My hope is that anybody who's newly introduced to my stuff will be able to get a feel for where I'm at."
Even so, he's already planning next steps. "The thing I'm always trying to do is think ahead," he says. Moving forward, the goal is to rap more — something he's wanted to do ever since he first got into music. "I've been super heavy into all types of music since I was very young, mostly due to my mom and my older brother," he says. "Growing up, my older brother actually had a rap group in high school. Seeing him and hearing the stuff that they were doing and getting into his vinyl collection all inspired me to want to rap."
As they grew older, Illingworth's brother got involved in "the life of crime" and was locked up for a decade. "When that happened, most of my brother's stuff was still at our parents' house," he says. "His records, comic books, his old rap notebooks. It was through all the stuff that he left at my parents' house that I developed a lot of my early inspirations and interests." The other major influence was comedy, which also came from his mom and brother. "My mom had a lot of comedy albums," he says.
For Illingsworth, the interest in making beats came from freestyling and rapping with high school friends over instrumentals that already existed. "I started gaining interest in wanting to make beats so that we could actually make our own stuff," he says. Keep in mind, this was in the early '00s, when "the internet was not very good for contacting people for the purposes of collaboration. Just the act of sending a zip file back in those days," he chuckles, "We're talking hours of commitment of what we could now send in two minutes."
At that time, it was a necessity to get a computer and learn how to make beats. "I had a bunch of money saved up from this paper route I had at the time," he recalls. "My mom offered to give me a little more money so I could buy this computer. It was supposed to be for school, but I was using it to make beats and music. I just developed a love for production while I was trying to figure out how to make stuff for myself and my friends to rap on."
Illingsworth continued to make music and collab with friends throughout high school and into college at Wayne State, where he studied math. After years of making music on the side, Illingsworth eventually decided to pursue music full time. "One of the biggest things in my life back then was realizing that I was going to school not because I wanted to at all," he says. "It was because my parents thought I should pursue some kind of STEM career and the people that I was around for decades in this mathematics program thought that I had some level of talent at math. Instead of me really taking an inventory of what I truly wanted to do in my heart, I was just following what these other people wanted me to do. I know they weren't doing that maliciously, but the result was still that I was a follower."
Leaving school was a difficult decision to make, but it ultimately helped Illingsworth find himself artistically. "When I left school there was a shift in my thinking," he says. "I started making music that was more honest to how I truly feel about things. Being a full-time artist has been a struggle, but it's been far more rewarding for my peace of mind. Before I dropped out of school I was just drifting, doing what people wanted me to do. I was half in and half out of everything. Some people can pursue their arts at a high level while also doing a multitude of things. I'm the type of person that needs to be focused on a smaller amount of things at a time."
Ultimately, Illingsworth's You're No Fun is the culmination of years spent making beats, writing raps, and learning what it takes to be an artist. It is also a testimony from a musician committed to honing his craft.
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