iLLism on Black Love, Black Vulnerability and Mental Health, Black Magic and Celebrating 10 years of Marriage

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iLLism in Los Angeles
Envy and Fancy of iLLism in Los Angeles. (courtesy the artists)

As one of the rare couple duos in the Twin Cities, iLLism have been killing the local Hip-Hop scene for many years now. Their latest album, Illuminate, which debuted last spring, reflected their growth as both individuals and as a couple, as well as the beauty of black love.

I had the distinct honor of sitting down with frontman and rapper Envy and lead vocalist Fancy of iLLism earlier this summer, ahead of their 10-year marriage anniversary — which they capped off by performing at the Minnesota State Fair — in August.

How did you meet? Like, folks see you on stage and are like, "Are they actually together or are they really good friends?" But y'all actually together together, and it's about to be 10 years.

Envy: That's just 10 marriage years. Thirteen years together. We both got hired at AT&T, a call center for a cell phone division, and we both started the same day.

Fancy: We had the same training class together … we had to go around and introduce ourselves. So, I share who I am, and I'm like, "Yeah, I'm a mom," and I didn't say anything about my interests or anything like that. And they get to him and he's like, "I'm a rapper. I got a show," and he had a flyer and everything.
So, I went to him … and said I can actually do music, too. He was like, "Yeah, huh, aight." And then he gave me his mixtape and I'm like, "Yeah, aight." I thought I was going to get that really bad recording, like everything is distorted or really loud. And I put it in and I was like, "Oh hey, this is smooth."

Envy: Then, she wanted to holler after that pretty much. [Laughs].

So, basically, you weren't paying her no mind?

Envy: You know I was just in player mode, like, "Have your people call my people."

Fancy: You know at first, we weren't like cool cool, but it was like, "Oh, we're co-workers." I started hanging out with the photographer, the guy that takes all of our pictures. He was in that same training class, actually. I got really cool with him and a couple other people that were part of that training class. We all would hang out and I would invite him to come. He'd be like, "No," and would beeline to the door every day, just so he could get home to the studio.

Envy: Man, you know how the feeling is...I'm ready to clock out and I got to go home I gotta get out of here.

So, what made you recognize her presence, like "Huh, she actually kind dope, maybe I should let one of these shots hit."

Envy: One time we went to lunch. I think it was probably even McDonald's.

Fancy I think it was Wendy's … I was bumpin' some fire in my car. And he was like, "Ooh, what's that?" It was a song he had never heard before.

Envy: Then one of the songs had like a loop in the beginning, super dope part, and I took that and looped it … then made a song off of it.

Fancy: And we kinda just kicked it after that. We would go to lunch together. But it was, like, cool we were like friends. I didn't actually have the intention of wanting to date. I had the intention of trying to be cool. I had just got out of the relationship with my son's dad … It was hella abusive and sh*t like that. So, to me, I was just like, "Man, I'm just trying to find new cool people good energy to be around."

So, how did you go from just kicking it to making music and dating?

Envy: I think it was over a phone. We finally exchanged numbers and she had this MacBook she had won from the radio station.

Fancy: It was when B-96 was around.

Envy: So, she called in and sang. And they were like, "You won." … And so, I was like, "Well, let me know what you got," and she had sang Alicia Keys, right?

Fancy: No, Mary J Blige.

Envy Yep, yep … I knew that she definitely had talent, but it still didn't really connect, until after we were dating … Right before we started dating, I left that job [at AT&T] and then moved to Atlanta to pursue music, and we stayed in contact. Then, shortly after, I wanted to come on back [to Minnesota]. And then from there, that's when we started stuff.

Fancy: It was more official in our relationship, and then we actually came out with an album together after we got married. It's under "Envy and Fancy," it's not called iLLism. It's called, He Say, She Say. It was a 10-track album with lots of autotune &hellipi We recreated a lot of them same songs from that album with new beats and just new flavor and switched up the lyrics a little bit.

Envy: Actually, one of the songs on Illuminate, "Sugar."

Fancy: It was originally called, "Careful with My Heart," but the verses we kept and a little bit of the hook.

Envy, how do you feel that experience down in ATL changed you from both a musical and relationship standpoint? Do you feel that that experience made you ready for something more serious, as far as a relationship with Fancy, when you got back?

Envy: I think I kind of had two opportunities in my face. One was, you know, stay down there and pursue music. You know, Atlanta, they were already kind of established as kind of like a music hub in the South, but being there, it was like a different energy. Also, just the way people were with their business, to me, compared to other places that I've been, especially like [Minnesota]. The process of getting discovered would have been a lot easier, but I had a lot of unresolved personal stuff that brought me back. And when I did get back, I kind of went into a funk for a little bit, because I'm like, "Dang, I just let this opportunity [go]." But, a few weeks later, I'm back at it — back in the studio. And then at that point, you know, me and her started doing stuff.

Fancy: I started singing hooks for him and stuff like that. I wasn't really doing music. I had my son when I was a teenager, so that scared me. First off, I'm like, "Am I going to be like one of them girls who don't graduate high school and just be with her baby daddy and they got drama, or am I going to have a different narrative?" And so, I left music alone.

Because I grew up in the church, I was a part of the adult choir. I would sometimes be in the youth choir, but I mainly really enjoyed being in the adult choir, and I gave all the sh*t up, so I could figure out what it means to be a mom, and focus on my schoolwork. I was on bed rest in the hospital for the first three months of my senior year [of high school]. And so, I was really afraid that that would set me back too. But, luckily, I have a really great support system in my family, and my dad would go to the school and he would get all my work from my teacher and drop it off to me. And I ended up graduating on time with high honors. I tried getting back into doing music and stuff like that. But my son's dad was jealous … So, when I met [Envy], I'm like, "Oh, I wonder if I can really get back into this." My mom was hella encouraging, and both my parents like him more than they like me.

Envy, what was it like from your perspective? Obviously, there's this huge narrative with black men not really trying to be in relationships with, first and foremost, black women, especially black women that already have young kids … Was this something of a barrier for you?

Envy: No, it wasn't, because I got a daughter as well. So, at the time, I was a single dad and she was a single mom, and it just kind of worked. For me, I wasn't afraid of it, because our kids are special. A lot of people get afraid of that stuff … Both our kids are almost a year apart, so, it was pretty much just like a streamlined process.

What is it like making music together? Fancy talked about making hooks, but obviously building chemistry takes time. Were those early moments rough?

Fancy: They're rough even now.

Envy: A lot of people hear our songs say, "Man, how did y'all come up with that?"

Fancy: Go to all the session files and listen to all the audio that's in there and you can hear me like, "F*ck, why would you do that?! I didn't tell you to press stop!" It is frustrating and it has its moments. I think that's what gives this relationship character. And it's not even fighting. It's just like passion — I want to get this done and we want it to be perfect.

Envy: Yeah, I think that's definitely what it is.

Fancy: The process is great. When we're in that creative mode and we're not even recording yet, we go.

Envy: For us now, I do think as the chemistry built, when we get in there it's kind of like we just know what we want. The writing process is fairly easy, once we get the wheels turning.

Fancy: One of the things I'd say that we both brought over from our previous relationships … it's just human for us to have an idea of how we think things work, and then go into a new relationship thinking it works the same in that relationship; and not understanding that you're with a completely new individual, with different traumas or he got brought up a completely different way. The early part of our relationship, which I know a lot of black men are not into at all, just black people, but counseling therapy and stuff like that. And we did that and I think that really helped us on how to communicate.

But I think one of the biggest things that Hip-Hop groups or just groups of people in general have a hard time with, when they are bumping heads, is a communication thing. And so, even though sometimes we get hotheaded a little bit, we bring it back because I think we've learned how to argue.

Envy: It's not really arguing.

Fancy: It's just he has an opinion, as his own individual, as am I. So, you're not always going to agree on sh*t, and that's cool.

Envy: Five minutes later we're back to, "Aight, great!".

Fancy: Twerking on each other...Well, he don't twerk on me. [Laughs].

Also, in the musical process, communication's important, because then you can get to those levels where you're comfortable critiquing one another. So, Envy, what are you saying to communicate to Fancy, "I see where you're going with this, but maybe you could tweak it this way." And then vice versa, "You know, that verse was all right, but it might be better at the end as opposed to the intro." In those moments, how do you have that conversation?

Envy: When we're writing I think we kind of hit each other there. Like, let's not even waste time. Like, if that second half of your verse is bad, let's just cut it right there. Let's start from the good stuff and let's keep building from there. And we both know when something is just as right, it's eye contact. It's a feeling.

Fancy: I imagine I'm like the drill sergeant — I'm the hardcore one, apparently. He's way more soft with me. I'm a little hard on him. But, it's because a lot of time, you see potential that a lot of time people don't see in themselves. Lyrically, I feel like he's a beast — I don't think a lot of people hear what he's saying and give him the respect that it deserves. And so, the reason his lyrics come out the way that they do, I think is partially, obviously, because of him and his experiences. But when it gets to that point where I'm like, "Oh, I feel like you could come harder," I stop the whole thing and say, "Hey, that line is whack. Why would you say that?" or "That wasn't hard enough" or "You're surfacing, tell the truth, say what needs to be said."

You have to expose yourself a little bit to people because that's how they trust you. That's how they find a relation, they need something to relate to. So, I be like, "Hey man, what we got to do? Do I got to punch you in your face, or what? I got to get you mad? Do you got to take a run? Want me to go pick you up something to eat? Like, what's up? What you need?"

So, what does help you get in the zone?

Envy: I think it's kinda more absorbing what she's saying. Sometimes it could be taking a moment to think. To rehearse all the way up to the point, where it didn't sound good and trying to see what I can do to fill in the gaps. But really, for both of us, we don't take offense to each other's critiques, because we both know that it's for the greater good.

Fancy: We have this song on our album, Love and Loyalty, called "Weather." It's a very personal experience that we have with the loss of a pregnancy. And he wrote two whack-ass verses. Them verses were so whack. I was like, "OH MY GOD!!"

Envy: Them verses weren't whack, it was more so surface.

Fancy: Which is why it was whack. So, I kept saying, "This ain't it." And we would have lots of conversations about it, and I was like you really have to find whatever that is in your heart. And then eventually he did, and the whole thing made me cry and I was like, "That was it." [Claps]

Illism
Fancy (front) and Envy of iLLism. (courtesy the artists)

So, 10 years of marriage … There are some individuals that have a hard time being in a relationship for two months, but you have been together for 13 years and 10 years of a beautiful, melanated marriage. Congratulations. What does reaching that milestone feel like?

Fancy: I think it feels like, what's next? I feel like when I reflect on the last 10 years, I'm kinda like, "Wow." First off, it went by hella fast. Thirteen years even longer. But 10 years of marriage went by fairly quickly, and I think about what it took just to get to the actual wedding day. Like the work that it took just to get there. I think it took a lot of experience. I think it took sometimes feeling lost in that relationship.

I think sometimes it took feeling wins … most importantly was for our families to see us grow, because we grew as individuals in our marriage. I think a lot of people, when they get into a relationship, they forget who they were. When it's like you started the relationship together as your own person, and so you have to continue that way … I think that's what got us through the 10 years is being able to be who we are. I get to go out with my home girls and I ain't got to worry about him commenting, "Where you at" or "You can't go out with them, cause they single." … My friends love him. My family loves him and vice versa.

Envy: Even just outside of the marriage, it was like a 13-year-adventure. I mean we've definitely done a lot of traveling. A lot of my firsts in a lot of things have been experienced with her. Even some just as simple as like, I've told her I know I'll never ride a horse. I told her, "I'm cool on a horse." It's something I can't control, you got to get on the thing and then it takes off…

Fancy: And they gave him the oldest and slowest, fattest horse they could find. This man was so scared. They were like, "Do you want to ride?" I was like, "Hell yeah, I want to gallop." I asked him if he wanted to gallop and he's like, "Nope." So, I was like, "Well the rest of us is gonna go."

Envy: But, just overall, I feel like I am a better artist, a better person, a better father just by being together. It definitely helped me grow up, even with her, because we both have our own children previous [to our relationship], even just being in her son's life and vice versa, definitely helped me kind of learn the other side of the tracks, because I have a daughter.

Do you both have a child together?

iLLism: No, not one together. Not yet.

Going back to what Fancy was saying about this perception that you can't grow as an individual, while also growing together. How does that look like for you, Envy? Do you feel that you've grown as much individually, as you've grown together?

Envy: I definitely needed that, in order for me to like even just be the person I am right now. It's very important to be an individual. You don't want to be losing yourself in any relationship. If you're not able to be yourself, you're not going to be happy, and having our individuality has definitely helped shape who we are. So, I never wanted her to be like the housewife. I've always viewed her as like an equal.

Throughout your 10 years, what has been the highest moment thus as performers? This can be a moment — whether it be in studio or a concert that you did — just a moment where you're like, "That right there was dope."

Envy: I think the moment that we did Paisley Park.

Fancy: We did we did a battle with bands.

Fancy: I say that and the Super Bowl.

Illism perform during Super Bowl Live
iLLism, Fancy (at left) and Envy (at right) perform at Super Bowl Live at First Avenue. (courtesy the artists)

Envy: Yeah, those two. Yeah. 2017. They had a battle of the bands. We got selected. And not only did we get selected, but Star Tribune did an article about it and The Current talked about it.

Fancy: That was the first time The Current ever talked about us. And we were like, "The Current, really?"

Envy: And then, just to go into Paisley feeling that energy, feeling like, "Wow, this is where Prince made all his hits." This is where this dude was walking around in his pajamas. This where all these other great awesome artists have passed through.

Fancy: Yeah, to get up on that stage, to be in those green rooms … it was an amazing experience. And to be able to do it not once, but twice.

Envy: Yeah, because when we did perform, we won our night. So, we're like, "Oh my God, this is even crazier." We were runners-up, but we survived a lot of the other bands, so that automatically gave us like, "Oh man, this is for real."

Fancy: … because a year prior to that was our very first show as iLLism, which was over at Honey. So, to go from Honey to Paisley Park was like … wow … all that work we did … we didn't have a manager. We still don't. We had a manager at one point in time but we don't anymore. But at the time we did not have a manager yet and we had been booking all of our shows. So, we were the ones calling Icehouse and The Cabooze and all these other places, like, "Can we get in there," and by God's grace, everyone said, "Yeah." … So, we spent the winter and summer leading up to the end of August to perform at Paisley, gigging probably twice a month everywhere in the city and Saint Paul.

Envy: Sometimes we had shows when nobody was there, or we had lots of people — almost sold out.

Fancy: Actually, one night leading up, it was one of them empty shows and the guy was like, "You guys technically, after like tech fees and all that, only made 17 dollars, but I got change so here goes a 20-dollar bill." And we still had to pay our band, we still had to pay the DJ. So, we had to go pull out money from the bank account and had to go pay people that way...You know there there's a thing about passion and purpose that just make you be like, "Oh well."

Envy: Got to pay your dues.

And of course, since then you've gone on to perform at a few colleges, one of them being my Alma Mater, Carleton College. You are doing a whole bunch of random shows throughout the city. You're gonna be performing at the State Fair in August to cap off the 10 years. [Editor's note: This performance has taken place] Are you planning something special for the 10 years?

Envy: We're trying to plan like a little shindig. We're gonna have some close friends and colleagues and family, before the [State Fair] show.

Between you and me, you got something surprise special lined up for her?

Envy Nah. [Laughs and winks].

You had your most recent album, Illuminate, earlier this year. I love that project — and I think the two things I loved about it is the realness in it. The authenticity of it and being a black man myself. Messages that had to do with my own life. I really felt both of you speaking on your experiences as black individuals going through the world about love; about police brutality in some of these lyrics, and generally the urban life. How do you dig down and get to that place when you can just really speak upon what for many people is very traumatic?

Fancy: When we first started the album, we didn't know we were starting an album. We knew that we were creating … we didn't have any direction. With our previous project Love and Loyalty, we had an idea of where we were going to. We were like, "Let's just tell our story." So, with that project we wrote down our stories individually and then we chose certain parts of our story that were kind of parallel and we made tracks around them. But with Illuminate

Envy: We were thinking, "How do we top that?"

Fancy: Love and Loyalty did so well like in college and community radio charts. It was number 34 on [The Current's Top 89 local songs of 2017]. So, with Illuminate, there was no direction. But that entire year was filled with so many experiences, negative and positive. And I think that those experiences are what created them songs … You have to be able to talk your lyrics and sing your lyrics, so that people can connect and just be vulnerable, which is really hard for [Envy] to do. And I think it's hard for black men in general to be vulnerable, because black men are the structure of the household, if they're in the household. And when they're not in the household, there is this dark cloud that looms over black people that we can't have structure, or that the two can't be together. Like, a Black man and Black woman can't be together.

Envy: Or a black man showing weakness.

Fancy: Pulling that out of him was a struggle, but I feel like in the end it gave us a project that's really beautiful. There's a lot of truth in it. There's love. There's just like this raw human emotion you know that everybody feels…

Envy: There's a song in there called "Out of My Head" … everybody's in their head at some point. Sometimes every day.

Fancy: Especially, when you think about Black men. If I go out here, they might get shot and killed. If go out here with my kids or whatever, like, what can happen to me? Or you know, I'm supposed to be the strong man right now in my relationship, but I'm not. Maybe I lost the homeboy, but he was killed. Maybe, my mom died or whatever … and one of the most important parts and [Envy's] lyrics is when he says, "She can tell something's wrong with me. But I gotta keep this persona that I'm strong and that I don't have emotion."

I wish that black men knew how important it was for them to have emotion. I wish that they knew how important it was to be vulnerable and find those parts of them, because trauma in our community is real and it's very deep inside and it's suppressed … It's almost like it's become a part of our evolution, like it's a part of our DNA to suppress those things.

Envy, how did it feel, after you finally were willing to go there? What was it like after it was out?

Envy: I think for me it was it was liberating … Especially some of the responses that I got from some of the homeboys or other people who heard. Like, "Man. What y'all said on this song, in particular, man, it spoke to me," or "I relate to it." … It made me feel really good for one, but [it also] solidified my purpose a little more. Like, it's OK to be vulnerable.

Fancy: It ain't weak. it's human.

In Illuminate, not only are you going for the raw emotion of everything, but also the black male experience, the black woman experience, the black love experience. My favorite song off the album was "Black Magic," because you go through the first few tracks and you're being hit by this very upbeat tempo, yet the lyrics cut deep. By the time you get to "Black Magic," not only do you want to start bopping, you're also like, "Sometimes it does suck to be Black, but goodness it feels good to be a Black." You know what I'm saying?

Fancy: Absolutely. Sometimes, I'll be sitting there, and I'll watch people and I be like, "Oh man, like I am so glad I'm Black in this moment," because it's just so beautiful. Being black is liberating, even though sometimes we don't feel like we're free, it is. It's so liberating because … we literally have created everything. Like when you really think about it, like so much comes from black people, from our culture: from music and clothing, and lifestyle and ideas and things that have been invented.

"Black Magic" is one of our top play songs. We love performing that song. So, our homeboy, at the end of it, was our dedication to him. Our homie, Tyrone Williams, who was murdered a year ago — he was very, very for the people. He grew up being very, very for the people.

Envy: He was involved in a lot of activist stuff. He also worked for the people who weren't of color as well. Anybody who's just being treated wrong, even like some of the Natives.

Fancy: He went to Standing Rock. He did all of that. And so, to put his voice at the end of that song was like the cherry on top. Like, a lot of people don't even know what Juneteenth is, so to put that in there to educate people even further.

Illism in the Ice Palace
Fancy and Envy of iLLism. (courtesy the artists)

So, after Illuminate, what are you most looking forward to?

Envy: I think for me, for us, probably both of us is getting into it, like touring, getting on the road, going to different places and let other people hear what we got. Just growing, connecting with other people, maybe find a manager, finding things that are gonna just elevate us. Obviously, we're still celebrating life with each other...

Fancy: I mean the goal always is to grow, but I think the next goal is definitely tour. I think this is probably the same for all artists … I mean imagine, like a huge stadium, filled with people and they be like, "Everybody put your lights on your phone," and it looks like floating stars everywhere. That's literally what I envision constantly. I'm just waiting for that moment. I love the journey that we're on. I'm appreciative of the journey we're on. But, I've never lost sight of them floating damn stars … Like, I always wonder what Beyoncé feels when she get up on stage and she gets to experience that, and then she gets to experience that with her husband also.

Envy: That is crazy, when people know your lyrics … there's times where we've seen people do that and I'm like, "Damn, this ain't even been out that long. How you know that?!"

To close this out, I want both of you to say one thing that you love about one another. I know there's more than one thing, but what is that one thing that they do that makes you go, "I love you so much for this."

Envy: One thing I love about her is her drive and her organizational skills, because I think I can do it, but I feel like she does it just so well to where it makes so much sense. I would say, lastly, her thoroughness. There's times where I'm just like, "Let's go. Let's go." I'm the lab rat, I'm the studio rat. Let's do this. Let's do this. Let's do this. And she's like, "Wait hold on, let's bring it back" … In all things, people have said you're the creative one, she's the business one. So, this it all just coincides, it goes perfectly.

Fancy: I would say he's hilarious. I don't know how many people actually get a chance to see how funny he actually is. I think sometimes he's a more reserved onstage, and I think that's my next goal for him is to come out that shell a little bit. But he's funny and I can appreciate his humor a lot … I have never laughed so much in my life, honestly.

I think that I also really, really, really love how much he loves. So, there's so many different people in our life that all have different needs. They all have, you know, different things that they want out of life. And he's always right there to be like, "Well, I can do this for you," or, "I got this for you," or "You know just let me know, I got it."

From the guys in our band to sometimes people that we don't even know that well yet, if he sees potential, he supports it: "You need a laptop, I can find one for you. You want to be a photographer, I can help you find a camera. Or, matter of fact I'm tryna upgrade mine and get rid of mine, so I can sell you mine."

Envy: Resourceful [Laughs].

Fancy: And his willingness to just love without limits, it's incredible and anyone who gets to experience that from him is very, very blessed lucky.

You're a very fortunate woman and you a very fortunate man. Envy, Fancy, iLLism, appreciate you both for you time and congratulations again on 10 beautiful years of marriage.

iLLism: Thank you!

Jeffrey Bissoy is an assistant producer at MPR News. Born in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and raised in The Twin Cities, Jeffrey has grown a passion for representation and identity, Hip-Hop, and the impact of sports on society. He's also the host of the podcast — The Come-Up — which stays current with the weekly drama of the NBA and also covered the Women's World Cup.

External Link

iLLism - official site