In Conversation With: iLL BLU
Operating for over a decade in the music business is no small feat. When the volatile nature of how quickly popular sounds rise and fall is added to the equation, what James and Darius of iLL BLU have achieved, as well as contributed to the scene is insurmountable. The producer duo hailing from North London may have an abundance of iconic songs and moments already under their belt but their debut mixtape, THE BLUPRiNT, is proof that they have no plans of slowing down whatsoever.
The Floor: When I look at your music, a prominent factor is that you're able to shift from genre to genre. Is there a particular genre that inspired you throughout lockdown?
James: I wouldn't say we’re actively producing certain genres that inspire us but the newness and the freshness of music I’ve listened to over the past year has helped. I'll tell you what I like, Amapiano. That's been really inspiring and refreshing. It's been unfortunate that we haven't been able to rave to it and go clubbing - to really see how it affects people. We’ve made tracks with that sound but it's just encouraged us to think back to some of our early days, some of our Funky days. It might not even be to make that kind of music, we may just take the way a certain vocal hits or the soulfulness of the vibe. Like we should do something with this in a Hip-Hop or a Drill way. That’s how we take our inspiration.
Would you say that's one of the tricks to consistently being in the game for a long period of time?
Darius: Yes. 100% because where we're coming from, we blended from so many genres that the kids of today don't even know about. And with us we’re very good at taking something from old and making it feel new with what's current, what's popular, as you can see with the Magic record, even Dumpa, and when you listen to our tape, you're going to hear, you know, bits from different eras. And likes James said, in regards to the lockdown period we’ve been doing a lot of that. We go back, we reminisce on what was popping and what was big back in the days where we were just able to rave and even before that, how we confuse those elements and bring them into the new times to make things feel a little bit different.
I love that, especially because I can see a lot of elements including Funky and even Electronic sounds, I can see a lot of it in present music that you've done, which is really nice to see. It feels like it blends, you know, like people listening today, like a lot of younger people and gives them like a throwback to a lot of sounds that they might not be aware of. So I redo it, enjoy that music. There’s a quote from a recent press release of yours that I’d like to get into. You said when it comes to production, “it's more feeling rather than thinking”. Is there a set process to your production style? Or does it change depending on who you're working with or the vision that you have in mind?
James: For us, when we're creating our own music, it's always feeling first. It’s that heart feeling over the head. ‘This pattern is in now so this is why it’s going to work’ - no. Does it feel right? Does that pattern make sense because it makes you feel right or because it’s popular right now? Are you using that kick-snare pattern because it’s popularised now? Sometimes you have to play the game. Sometimes certain demographics or certain people will respond to a sound because it's familiar to them. But at the same time you got to do what's right for the track so with us, wholeheartedly, we can say it's feeling. And when you start to collaborate with outsiders, artists producing for their own projects, although you want to present what you think is new and fresh and what you want to go with, sometimes everybody doesn't always operate from that space. They may operate from, ‘Oh, I did this last time,’ so that's what I want to do. Or ‘I want this person to do this’ and they do. I mean, they may be looking outside, but it's looking at what really moves them. So sometimes you have to compromise in those scenarios. So, you know, in that space that you're producing for that artist but at the same time we want to get that artistic vision and energy and creative energy out. But when you’re working with an artist, you have to compromise. So I think it's a bit of both sometimes, but when we’re working on all projects specifically, it's all about, I guess, feeling what's right for the track.
You spoke about compromise actually. Would you say that there's an artist where you haven't necessarily felt like you've had to compromise? Like you've been on the same wavelength all the way through the process? A bit of a tough question, I know.
James: Yeah, there are moments where you work with artists and you're just singing from the same hymn sheet. You're in tune with each other. I would just say where there's always a compromise when it comes to working with an artist. If you're producing for them, even if they decide to use a flow that you think could be a bit better or go in a different direction. So it's always a compromise. When we did the Magic record the OFB boys were good at listening to the way we wanted it to structure the track. When it comes to specific lyrics or writing, we can kind of suggest that sometimes their space, where we give them the room to express themselves.
Darius: And that comes down to relationships as well. Because of the age difference, there are a lot of artists that we’re not really friend friends with like that. Anyone that we feel hasn’t delivered correctly or that we could change the way they’ve done something, it depends on the relationship and depends on how the mood is and how old they are. We might suggest one thing and they might just shut it down like no, I know what I'm doing. Some MCs just get in their zone, in their corner, they deliver what they're delivering. What we like to do is let them listen to it. And then the things that we thought, you know, they could change, they normally come back in and change anyway. It's about giving them the freedom to express themselves without even jumping in. And then we reassess what we have afterwards. Like James said, it’s definitely a collaborative situation.
So your debut mixtape, how would you describe it in one word or what it means to you in one word?
Darius: Ooo. Eclectic
Why would you go for that word?
Darius: Because there are so many different bits and pieces- genres that we've produced over the years on the tape. Obviously there are dominant genres on there but it's an eclectic mix of records I would say.
I think it fits really well. There might be a bit of a difference between, what it means to you and then what you want it to mean to other people. Listening to the songs that have already come out and then looking at the full track list, I'd say it definitely sums up Black British music from over the past decade, maybe even a bit further. So what do you want people to get out of listening to this mixtape?
James: It might not be intentional but when we sample records it's a reaffirmation of what we’ve done and what we’ve lived through in terms of UK Black music. Like we are only sampling records that are UK Black British or have had a big impact in the UK music - whether that’s an American track or Dancehall. It's not like... This is big in America, so we sampled it. I guess you could say it's a celebration of the journey in Black music that we've lived through and grown up in. Also, it's an eclectic journey along British Black music and obviously our own journey. Mine and Darius’ shared love for music. From the way it's even instructed to the sense that it's a party, it's a celebration. When we DJ out like that is a type of vibe we try to bring like at carnival, it's not one tempo that we play. It's not just one style. It's high energy and its various styles and genres of music that we play. So I think that's what we want people to get from it. It might be a bit of… Where’s that tune from? Or where’s that melody from? And it helps people to go back. Because one thing that I found when I was growing up, listening to a lot of the Ba Boy releases for example, and they’d use a lot of 70s Disco and 80s records, it made me go back. Like I didn't realise, um, Notorious B.I.G.’s tune was from Diana Ross or whatever. It's so expanded and opened up my taste in music. While like a lot of the kids now know about Drill, they might not know the true impact that Garage had or the true impact Drum and Bass or House had on music. Because that's not the prominent sound right now. But a track like Magic or Never Let Go will send people back. So it's just more a discovery of music.
That brings me to Routine Check 2.0. It’s a favourite because giving the Mitchell Brothers their flowers is important to me. There was even a documentary off the back of it. Could you tell me a little bit about how that happened?
Darius: It’s funny because we had a show in Elephant and Castle and we met Tony at an afterparty. We didn't think of anything of it at the time. You know, there was that common acknowledgement and small talk. And then it wasn't until a few months later, well maybe a year later a colleague of ours reached out and had the idea for us maybe redoing the Routine Check. So we just had the conversation and thought this would be a great idea. This was just after the BLM movement and I said on the documentary that we're not the ones to be walking around and throwing our flags up and boards up in the air marching. So how can we do our bit? Tony wrote the hook and did his verse, then Teddy came and did his verse. Next, we thought embodies and represents the youthful side of being suppressed by the police and for us, Sneakbo was the common denominator. Because it was more than just a record coming out, we decided to do a documentary just to get the views of the people in and around the scene. So we gave it (the record and documentary) to the people as a package. It was more than just a single. It was an awareness that we can give our take of the situation to the people.
James: Even this tune links into the discovery of music. It links back younger listeners ‘discovering’ who the Mitchell Brothers are. I remember this Routine Check chorus, where is that from? What was happening to music in 2007? What is Channel U? So it links into our mantra. It's a way to discover music from the past whilst also refreshing the present. That’s what a lot of Hip-Hop is, it’s sampling different areas and it brings you to discover new sounds.
Almost adding an educational element to it.
Both: Yeah, definitely.
I like that idea a lot, especially because you’ve worked with a range of artists, with this project being an example. You have veterans on here like Wretch, Loick Essien, Krept and Konan but then you’ve got newer emerging talents, like Central C and Dolapo. I noticed that even if it's not necessarily their sound that they're coming with on this project, they sound very comfortable in it. And I don't think a lot of producers consciously make that possible. So what would you say your secret is in terms of blending an artist to a sound that they aren’t particularly familiar with?
James: Hm. When we think about that, where we've made a production we don't just think about, oh yeah, who's the hottest guy to jump on this tune? It has to make sense stylistically. Even if the style that we've produced might be a little bit different, maybe to what they're known for but essentially when we're thinking about artists to feature on our track. It's always about why did this make sense creatively? And what haven't they done and where do we envision them going? What could we imagine them on? That’s our job as producers - we’re the guys that create the sound, we’re the guys that are essentially pushing the sound forward. So if we keep making the same thing over and over again, and we make the same song that they've already made or similar styles that they've already made, then what are we actually contributing? We're not pushing the sound forward. So I think to answer your question, how we make them feel comfortable... It's when we present it to them. We feel like this is something that would be good for you. We heard you do something like this on this record and we thought that this is the next step forward. Maybe not specifically in those terms but just trying to get them to understand the vision because a lot of times I feel like as producers, me and Darius anyway, we're thinking two years ahead. I’ll use Magic, for example - and Chop My Money. We made the Magic instrumental or the idea to fuse Garage and Drill in 2018. And it just came out last year. A lot more people are doing different things with Drill, fusing it with more musical elements. It's not as dreary and dark as it once was. So we're seeing like Headie, Central C and Tion Wayne push the envelope with the musicality of it. And obviously it's working now, but we've done that two years ago, you know? So it just took time because certain artists, when we approached them in the beginning, some weren't too sure, which is quite different from what's happening now, but we've got the vision to acknowledge we're pushing the sound forward. And we've seen it living through genres coming and going. There's a point where things get overly saturated or they don't creatively do anything new and then things die. So because we've lived through those cycles we can question how a sound is sustained and we've learnt from just being consumers of music. That's why we push sounds forward and try to use different things to keep people interested and excited.
You mentioned how listeners basically weren’t ready for the evolution of Drill when you had the idea years prior. So would you say that, you know, THE BLUPRiNT has been a long time in the making? Because there are some tracks on it from 2018.
James: Yeah. Chop My Money is on there, which was released in 2018, I believe.
Darius: But you gotta remember as well with THE BLUPRiNT, it's a mixtape. I think our approach to an album would be a very much focused one. Our ethos has been the same. Our records and what we’ve been making has been a mix from here and we bring it here. We could easily have put 50 tracks together and it would all be cohesive because of where our heads are at in regards to creating records and trying to push boundaries - merging the old sound with the new. That's why, you know, rather than putting an album out, putting a mixtape out as a first, you showing as far as projects go, made sense to us. So, rather than letting records stay on the computer and no one ever seeing them, we thought let’s make that available for people to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
If you do end up making that mixtape with 50 tracks, let me know.
James: We might even make a Lost Tapes Edition, so be on the lookout for that.