Illson's Blue Collar Blues

the cleaners
Illson and Jon Conner

originally published in the Delaware News Journal

"East Coast" Illson (J. Hollett) is a product of Delaware's working-class culture.

A veteran of the local rap scene, he was catching international acclaim with outstanding guest appearances on songs like "The Cleaners" as early as the 1990s, and his freestyle prowess has been well documented. Illson takes a union break to discuss his new album and the release party tonight in Dover.

Where were you born?

Delaware has my heart. I was born and raised in Wilmington, grew up next door to Delaware Park.

When did you first get into making music?

I first got into making music professionally in 1995. My partner, Jon Conner, was making music at the time and asked me if I wanted to go to the studio with him. I was hooked.

What type of job do you work?

I've worked so many jobs over the years. I've been a maintenance man, janitor, cashier, mover, roofer, mailman, mechanic and truck driver. Anything to pay the bills.

Do you own your house or rent?

In 1994 I was very fortunate to buy my first home in the Bear area. I guess working all those jobs paid off.

Are you a family man?

I'm very much a family-oriented person. I grew up without my mother or father and was raised by my grandmother. One of the most important lessons she has taught me is, at the end of the day, family is really all that you have. Now I'm blessed with an awesome son who is my heart and soul. I hope to be an inspiration to him like my grandmother was and still is to me.

Why do you make hip-hop and not rock or country?

If I had to label the type of music I make, I would call it hip-rock. I have been influenced by so many different types of music. I feel you can hear many of them when you listen. I think in some ways you could call my music rock. This new album has some really heavy guitar riffs and driving drums, which is all a part of rock and roll. I recorded half of my album at Big Boyz Studio that I co-own with Jon Conner, here in Delaware. The rest was recorded in Nashville, the home of country music, and a lot of the players we had were mainly country musicians. Who knows what kind of music I will be making a year from now. Maybe Illson will drop a country album (laughs). Prolly not.

How important is freestyling (rap improvisation)?

To me, for many years freestyling was all I had and it is what I excelled at. It's rap in its purest form. You don't need a studio, a mic or anything else. All you need is a beat, a crowd, and a good imagination.

What's missing in music today?

Music with a message. Music nowadays is a lot more superficial. Growing up in the era that I did, we had rappers like KRS-One, Rakim and Chuck D. They not only made awesome music, but their music had a message. Now it's all about business, and that type of music is not as marketable as music about gold chains, cars and girls. I think that over the years, rappers have not placed as much emphasis on the art of emceeing.

Tell us about the new album.

The new album is a little peek into my life over the past few years. All the hard work, all the late nights, and all the time away from my family and friends. I wanted to make an album for the working man, the 9-to-5er. The regular guy who keeps everything going, just like me. I feel they can relate. That's why I chose the title "Blue Collar Blues."

Are you releasing a DVD also?

Yes, we put together a really good DVD with this album. A lot of freestyles, some battles, and some show footage we have collected over the past year. I'm very excited with the DVD, it's very entertaining and fun to watch.

Did any record label help you record this one?

No. I learned that, for us, owning our own music and investing in our own equipment was the way to go. So now we create our own music and DVDs, package them ourselves and ship it to the distributor. My partners JC, Steve C and I run our own record company, Hellaware Records. This will be our 10th release.

Who did the production?

All of the production on this album was done by Big Boyz Beatz Inc., led by Jon Conner and a talented group of producers that work for him including Myc Mystro and Proper T.

How did you hook up with Jon Conner?

I have known Jon Conner for over 20 years. His father coached our baseball teams when we were kids. We both went to the same high school. After we graduated, we linked a few years after that and have been making music together ever since. Big Boyz Beats is the most underrated production company in the business. I couldn't be more happy with the production work on my album.

What other projects are you working on?

I have been recording for almost two years straight, so I am taking a small break to promote the album. Then I will be right back in the studio making another album and DVD. We have an incredible group of artists just waiting their turn. So stay tuned to see who's coming next.

Illson can be reached through illson4life, or contacted directly at


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