Simon Illa wasn’t voted most likely to do anything at all back in high school in Paris, Illinois. He’s barely three feet tall. He’s stuck to a wheelchair. His voice evokes jokes about sucking on a helium tank. The antithesis of a cool kid, he was an easy target for bullies.
But today, as he sits in a recording studio at Miami’s Hit Factory, where the Bee Gees, Paul Simon, R.E.M., Beyoncé, Missy Elliott and countless others have birthed multi-platinum albums, Simon has comfortably assumed the impossibly hip image that’s supposed to accompany his status as an up-and-coming music producer — "Philadelphia’s hottest producer," according to Blender, a national music magazine adjacent to Rolling Stone on the racks. Simon can legitimately name-drop A-list acquaintances like Kenny Gamble and red-hot hip-hop moguls Scott Storch and Timbaland.
Decked out in Dolce & Gabbana shades, a way-oversized Sean John shirt, and one of his 30 or so pairs of kid-size sneakers, Simon is bobbing his head — he’s all head and hands, the only parts of his body that are of relatively normal size and seem to work effectively — to the Latin-spiked hip-hop tunes of Velez, a Tampa boy band that wants to be the Next Big Thing. The members of Velez drove four hours for a one-hour meeting with Simon because they think he’s the guy who can get them there. Their tracks consist of lots of electronic beats, three-part vocal harmonies, and lyrics about getting into girls’ pants. What Velez needs is direction, tighter songs, and someone to tell them that "The Flute," a not-so-wittily-masked instruction in fellatio, is just plain dumb — all part of a producer’s job.
Simon listens intently to the tracks. The stylish clothes look slightly ridiculous on him, and the sunglasses swallow his face, but as he starts interjecting words like "cats" and "joint" (as in "That song’s my joint") into his conversation with Velez, you realize it’s all just part of the act everyone plays in this particular branch of show business. He knows what he’s doing. Illa suggests shortening some of the tunes ("After four minutes, I’m sleepin’") and working with the vocal arrangements, because, he says, they aren’t predictable enough for radio. He strokes the band members’ egos with lots of compliments, and they return the respect, calling him "sir" a few too many times. Simon’s longtime friend Kehinde, a Brooklyn-based rapper who on this trip is serving as driver and guy who makes sure no one gives Simon any shit, tosses in a few criticisms.
The strange thing is, no one in the room appears to be conscious of the fact that the man with the plan is a major hiccup in the genetic code.
Because of his size and voice, you’re not quite sure if Simon’s a boy or a man. (He’s 30.) He has to be carried, all 40 pounds of him, onto an airplane — sans his bulky electric wheelchair — and placed in his seat. There’s what appears to be a large goiter protruding from his torso. He can dial a cell phone (he has three) and deftly work a laptop, but if a glass of water is more than a foot away, he needs help.
Somehow, against all odds, this guy is making his way in an industry defined by Cristal, Cribs, and an excess of bling. What’s also noticeably absent from Simon’s facade is any hint of the self-absorption and egotism that tend to go hand-in-hand with this crowd. "Man, I don’t have time for games," Illa will tell me later. "I’ve got work to do." Something else: Illa is the kind of guy who asks you to call him when you get home and let him know you made it okay. He asks how your family is doing, how the job goes. He wants to know how he can help you.
Back at the Hit Factory, Velez gets on the road for the long drive back to Tampa, while Simon heads off to track down the studio’s owner to thank him for the use of the space. "He’s been so good to me, and I just want to show my appreciation," says Simon. But the owner is in a meeting. So Simon waits, and waits. More than an hour later, he’s still waiting. Kehinde looks like he’s about to pass out, so Simon finally gives up and heads out. In the parking lot, he points out the placard "RESERVED FOR SIMON ILLA" and jokes, "They’ve got the big spot reserved for my Bentley" as he whizzes up the ramp into the rented van.
That’s one more thing about Simon — he doesn’t take any of it too seriously. It’s another quality that’s rare in his business. All of this, I’ll realize later, is part and parcel of what the guy has been through, what makes him tick — and Illa’s physical problems aren’t even half of it.
FIRST, THOUGH, HIS disability: Illa has osteogenesis imperfecta, a bone disease caused by a lack of collagen in the skeletal system, making the bones weak and susceptible to fracture. What would be a minor bump to anyone else can be literally bone-shattering to Simon; he’s had well over 100 fractures, most before he was 18. A variety of treatment options exist. One of the most popular — and painful-sounding — is rodding, where long steel rods are inserted through the length of a bone to reinforce it, though Simon’s family opted out of the surgery, unsure of its benefits. Simon’s parents were well aware of OI, though, because Simon’s older brother, Brian, was born with it. What they didn’t know — what no one realized back in the mid-’70s — is that the disease is congenital. When they tried again, to have a "normal" kid, they got Simon, who back then went by the decidedly unhip name of Eric Bradley Gilbert.
It got worse.
Simon’s father divided his time between operating machinery at a local factory and downing vast quantities of beer, and shortly after Simon was born, he left the family. A few years later, as Simon’s mother prepared dinner for her wheelchair-bound sons, an estranged ex barged into the house and shot her dead, right in front of Simon, who was three, and Brian, eight. Simon’s maternal grandmother found out about the murder when her daughter’s body was wheeled in as she was working her nursing shift in the local emergency room that night.
The grandmother took the boys in, which was a mixed blessing: She sheltered and overprotected them, making it clear she felt they would never lead normal lives — that the "Gilbert Boys," as they were known around Paris, would never live on their own. Simon didn’t buy it. "I don’t really remember my mother," he says. "But I was told that she was stubborn, and I guess I got that from her."
Though Simon’s father was generally absent, he was a musician, and he bought Simon his first guitar — a shortened child’s version — when he was 13. "I was like the kid in that movie A Christmas Story, with his nose pressed up to the glass, drooling over that BB gun," Simon remembers. "I just had to have it." Next came a drum machine, and then a four-track cassette recorder. Simon spent most of high school in his room, alone, writing and recording pop tunes.
By the time he graduated, Simon had decided he wanted to major in music at Indiana State in Terre Haute. Even though the school is only 30 minutes from Paris, his grandmother didn’t think he could handle it. Simon insisted. He was accepted, but not to the music program. "Apparently, you had to actually be able to read music," he says — Simon couldn’t decipher a note (and barely can now). No problem: Given that he "had a thing for cumulus clouds," Simon enrolled in Physical Geography & Climatology. He found the kids a bit more evolved at college, and he was able to make friends. He even joined a hip-hop band. But what the hell would a hip-hop band, intent on partying and picking up girls, want with a guy like Simon? "I was the shit," he says. Sure. Here’s a better answer, in the form of Kehinde, who was then rapping with another group in Terre Haute. Mini-Me and a black rapper built like an NFL tight end both saw the people beyond the clichés and got tight. That’s what they’d want with a guy like Simon.
Then it got worse, again.
Throughout college, Simon attempted to patch things up with his father. He invited him to gigs, but his dad never showed. Just after graduation, Simon called to say that his band would be interviewed live on the radio that night. His dad promised to listen. The next morning, Simon’s grandmother got a phone call: His dad had placed a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. No note. No explanation.
And just like that, Simon knew he had to move on. "I went through more by the age of 23 than most people will ever have to in their entire lives," he says. "Both of my parents were dead, but this taught me that you don’t live forever, and that’s a very empowering thing that most people don’t really embrace."
EVEN WITHOUT PHYSICAL and family problems, making it in the music business is rough, and Illa had a predictable bare-bones start. His father’s suicide meant an increase in his monthly Social Security payments (he currently gets about $1,000), and the extra money helped him buy some cheap recording equipment and set up his own label, Paranormal, in Terre Haute. Over two years, he recorded 30 bands, none of which made it anywhere, but that’s how he grew his chops. Good producers — like Storch, like Timbaland, and like Simon Illa — develop a knack for taking raw talent and sculpting it, through a rare combination of musicianship, sound engineering and feel, into something that will play endlessly on radio stations throughout the country and make everyone mad amounts of money. Since Illa didn’t party (he’s never smoked, drunk or done drugs — "I’m so small, they’d kill me"), he would stay up night after night, working 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., taking short naps on the studio couch. Perfection became his obsession.
Around this time, Kehinde decided that if Simon was going to make it in the music business, "Eric Bradley Gilbert" would never do. So Illa took the name "Simon" from the 1998 film Simon Birch, about a boy with stunted growth who kills his best friend’s mother (albeit accidentally) and then helps the friend find his real father. And "Illa"? "Because I’m so illin’, of course," says Simon.
Meanwhile, Illa had been coming to Philadelphia once a year for the now defunct Philadelphia Music Conference. Compared to Paris and Terre Haute, Philly was daunting. But by 2001, at 25, Simon was ready for a fresh start in a bigger place. "My grandmother said, ‘Be sensible, you can’t,’" Simon says. "So I bought a one-way ticket."
He got a room at a Chinatown hotel and quickly ran out of money, but the Illa charm kept the staff sneaking him keys to vacant rooms. When no rooms were available, he’d sleep at 30th Street Station. Illa didn’t see even that as a big deal: "The security guards there loved me," he remembers. "They even charged my wheelchair battery for me on occasion."
But breaking into the local music business — that was a challenge. One day, Illa rolled his wheelchair down Broad Street from his room in Chinatown to stake out the offices of Philadelphia International Records, home to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their legendary Sound of Philadelphia. He waited in the rain for more than two hours for someone to show; eventually the head of A&R arrived, only to tell Simon he was busy and to come back the next day. So Simon rolled right back up Broad Street. And down again the next day. He got the A&R rep to play a CD for Kenny Gamble. Within a week, Simon had work in Gamble’s studio.
Not long after that, a producer Simon had befriended during his previous trips to Philly for the music conferences hooked him up with Warner Brothers in New York, which signed him to a publishing administration contract. It’s a type of contract that doesn’t really mean jack in terms of money or stardom, but it did let Simon say he was a Warner Brothers artist (everybody in this business exaggerates, including Simon — it’s just part of the deal) and provided some resources, like access to the New York studio. Another friend introduced Simon to Nox, a North Philly rapper who just happened to be close friends with Scott Storch, the white-Lamborghini-driving, Paris-Hilton-and-Lil’-Kim-dating Philly native who is one of hip-hop’s biggest names — and worth about $70 million. Over the next year or so, Simon co-wrote and produced 30 songs with Nox, who earlier this year played them for Storch, and Simon found himself hanging out with Storch in Miami last May.
Success seems to be coming to Simon Illa from Illinois, and there’s no doubt pity plays into it in some way. Kenny Gamble’s A&R rep couldn’t really have refused to take a CD from a cripple. But for Storch to invite Simon to Miami — repeatedly — that’s not about pity. And even talent isn’t the complete answer. "Before I met Simon, I heard he was handicapped," says music executive Bill Pettaway, who manages producer Timbaland (see: Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado, Ludacris) and was introduced to Simon in Miami during one of his visits with Storch. "But when I met him, I just didn’t see him as handicapped. He has so much drive and determination. He just never gives up." (Soon after they met, Pettaway played Simon’s tracks for Timbaland in his limousine, and a week later, Simon signed a contract with Timbaland’s production company.) It’s a simple thing, really: What you expect Simon to be capable of, based on what he looks like, is so far removed from who he is. The contradiction is powerful. And that’s our limitation.
Pity may have opened a few doors for Simon. Once inside, he had to have the musical chops. But it’s his other qualities, his centeredness and self-effacement — so unusual in the industry — that will keep Storch and Gamble and Timbaland from saying, "Quick, Simon Illa’s comin’ — turn out the lights!," and might get him a gold, or maybe platinum, plaque on his wall. As Kenny Gamble puts it, "Not only is Simon talented, but he’s very humble and incredibly hardworking. He’s just an amazing man in every way."
It’s true. And when you hang out with Illa, you realize quickly how it all could have gone in a different direction, that anyone in his condition, his parents dead, could easily have become the pathetic guy most people see in that wheelchair. In Miami, outside the cushy boundaries of the Hit Factory compound — from South Beach to Bal Harbour to Miami International — everyone looks. Everyone stares. Some people laugh. Some make jokes. There’s a Mini-Me reference from a random guy on the street. Simon shrugs it all off, occasionally throwing out an Austin Powers line. On the plane back to Philly, a flight attendant, thinking she’s sweet, refers to Simon as "my little friend." Simon whispers, "I’m taking her home later."
A couple of Village-of-the-Damned brats in a Starbucks stand a foot away from Illa in his wheelchair and just stare for a very long 15 seconds, while their clueless khaki-dad sits nearby, sipping his drink. "My fans," jokes Simon when they finally walk away. "I owe it all to them." To come to terms with a world that thinks he’s a freak, as Illa does — that is an empowering thing that most people wouldn’t be able to embrace.
THESE DAYS, SIMON — who still lives in the same Chinatown hotel, which has been converted into condos — keeps working with almost anyone he can, waiting for more good news to roll his way. At a Dairy Queen in Miami, just after dinner at Red Lobster (Simon blames his uncultured palate on the fact he’s from the Midwest), a Hispanic woman steps right in front of Simon and places her order. "Damn, I forgot to turn off my invisibility shield," remarks Simon. And then his phone rings. He finds out that both Timbaland and Storch are out of town and can’t meet with him on this trip. It’s a temporary setback, quickly negated by another call, this one informing him that Nox has just signed with Atlantic, for an album to be produced by Scott Storch. Of course, Simon would love to produce the album himself, but he realizes that anything Storch touches turns to pink-diamond-encrusted platinum. And if any of Simon’s songs wind up on the album, and they probably will, some big money will be rolling his way.
It’s a strange thing to say about somebody in Simon Illa’s blinged-up business, but there it is: It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.