Illa Styles: The Hero Richmond Hip Hop Didn’t Know It Needed

by | Dec 9, 2019 | MUSIC

The latest album by Richmond’s Illa Styles is a tale of love, personal growth, and navigating the ever-changing dynamics of life in America in 2019.

A Quarter Til A Mil by Richmond-based rapper Illa Styles is the latest in the River City scene. Pressing play on the album, listeners are greeted by the voice of the late Nipsey Hussle, and it becomes clear that this isn’t your average rap record.

With a gritty sound and life instruction manual-style lyrics, A Quarter Til A Mil finds Illa Styles rapping over high-energy jazz and carefully-crafted production from Michael Millions, with skits and features as versatile and well-made as the album itself.

Styles isn’t new to the game. Much like a carpenter goes to trade school to learn their craft, he graduated from the school of hard knocks in order to create this new record. It’s a refreshing guide to navigating street life while maintaining personal growth, and even when it comes to the dirty details, Styles doesn’t shy away. If anything, it is through his transparency that he finds his power.

“I am not glorifying this,” Styles said. “I am just documenting things that went down during the course of my time here.”

Styles has lived in Richmond for many years, yet it’s obvious he refers to more than just this area on the album. 

“I’ve lived through many dark fringes of society. I used to manage strippers… and some other things I’d rather not talk about. I was still a slime ball, bouncing from house to house every season depending on who I was dating at the time,” Styles said. “I wasn’t paying bills. Once I had my daughter, I fell back for a year.” 

Under pressure to provide for his newborn and her mother, Styles strove to live for her rather than continuing the life he had known before.

“She put the humanity in my music. She listens to it. I have to be a little more cautious about certain things I put in there, while still giving authentic highlights and certain pitfalls in life to avoid.”

In its sound, A Quarter Til A Mil is well-suited for the present. However, it’s clear that Styles found inspiration for his lyrical “fashion tips” from many different places and experiences unique to no decade.

“Everything in life inspires me,” Styles said. “I can ride down the street and see the clouds cascading over the sun in a certain way, and that inspires me. I try to take inspiration from everything in life. Never let it be wasted — what you consume is what should drive your inspiration.” 

Styles refuses to be limited. He notes that artists should continue to be versatile in all walks of life, acknowledging that there are many different ways to express yourself in the music industry. 

“Why limit it?” he said. “Why pigeon-hole yourself, put yourself in a box… Good music is just good music. It’s not even about a genre anymore. As long as it feels good to you, then it’s music.” 

Photo by Branden Wilson

Pulling from many different genres, Styles has found inspiration from artists over the years with various styles and sounds. He cites Snoop Dogg as the first rapper he found a real connection with. Doggystyle, released in 1993, was the first album Styles ever bought. Although he was always a fan of hip-hop, he was reluctant to dive straight into the culture.

“I didn’t always feel like I could do it, because there wasn’t a whole lot of new life being breathed into the music,” Styles said. “It just wasn’t my kind of vibe. When Snoop came in, even though he’s from California, it was something familiar — the stories he was telling, the music.” 

Across the continent in Philadelphia, Styles found a sense of familiarity in Snoop’s music. Growing up on opposite ends of the nation, the two artists lived different lives with similar battles while Styles navigated his days in West Philly. 

“Philly is a rough place,” Styles said. “I’ve seen a man get killed with a bat right in front of my house when I was just seven years old. That’s one of the reasons I got the tattoo ‘Life Is Priceless.’ You never know; you’ve got to treat your life with the utmost sincerity and respect… You’ve really got to put the time in to make sure you’re living life to the fullest.” 

Styles left Philadelphia to move to Richmond in his junior year of high school. It’s no surprise to hear that classic artists like Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, Donnie Hathaway, and Marvin Gaye were the songs playing in the background of his household growing up.

Today, Styles listens to a broad array of music, from hip hop and blues to Linkin Park and Creed. Noting John Mayer as a major inspiration of his artistic life, he is far more complicated than his laid-back exterior comes across. His blunt but confident inflection shows that Styles only raps about what he knows; and he’s waited years to finally load all of his experience and prowess into one album.

Styles worked through 60 original songs in the process of creating A Quarter Til A Mil‘s current track list of 16 hip-hop gems. Each track displays a different mood in hip-hop, but can all be tied together by jazz. Having lived in Richmond for most of his life, he felt it would be wrong not to pay homage to the city’s rich history of jazz talent.

“Richmond is all about live instrumentation,” Styles said. “A lot of stuff here has that soul, that grit… When you think of Richmond, it’s live jazz.”

But more than just jazz went into informing the live-instrument sound of A Quarter Til A Mil — and a lot of the inspiration for the album has a local basis.

“The rock scene is crazy here,” Styles said. “D’angelo — those sounds are akin to Richmond. They are married to Richmond. A lot of people try to chase that digital synth sound, but that’s not a Richmond sound.”

His reason behind wanting to use real instruments for the album was a practical one: he wants you to listen.

“For most people, just hearing [analog instruments] brings about an experience much larger than any sound waves moving around the air aimlessly,” Styles said. “Those sounds are emotional triggers that plant themselves in your head, like seeds tossed into reality; when they sprout, they combine the past and present, making what you’re listening to become attached to a specific feeling, smell, or idea.”

Photo by Branden Wilson

Although he possesses a very classic aura about him, Styles’ views of the world are modern. The more you hear his music, the more he shares his world and his perspective. One can’t help but resonate with him.

Styles is the new “classic man.” The man we need now — especially during this time of social change and battle for a mass enlightenment within America. As time goes on, the role of manhood encompasses more than its traditional roles, and brings in a new, nurturing scope of the world.

“I feel like the universe is a feminine energy,” Styles said. “The energy of creation, of motherhood. They hammer into our heads ‘The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost,’ but where’s the woman that’s present in that situation? Anything that comes to you after you start leading with love, that’s the universe bringing it to you.”

In his song “Long As The Villain Win,” Styles raps lyrics like “love leads and the universe follows.” His words are heroic coming from a man who claims to be the villain of his story, but perhaps Styles is onto something — perhaps the world is changing so much that our definition of a “hero” needs to accompany the new face of justice; one that is more representative of the people as a whole.

Styles is challenging old world perspectives with A Quarter Til A Mil, displaying the courageous message of a new generation of American men. His latest album is a jazzy self-reflection as much as it is a guide to self-actualization in the modern world. Underground voices often speak truth in a society of oppression, and Styles uses his words to express his thoughts during this era of American life. 

Top Photo by Branden Wilson

Music Sponsored By Graduate Richmond

Ethan Malamud

Ethan Malamud

Ethan is a VCU arts graduate with a concentration in theatre performance. He has a passion for culture, music, and people.

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