Exclusives Interviews 6 July 2021
Author: Oli Knight

GRM Exclusive: iLL Blu talk their musical journey, Funky House Era & latest tape ‘The BLUPRiNT’

6 July 2021
iLL Blu Architects

Since 2008, iLL Blu have been setting trends in the world of production. Initially making waves with their own unique brand of Funky House, iLL Blu draw on an eclectic range of influences, offering them a sonical palette more diverse than the vast majority of their fellow producers within the UK scene. Having embarked on a relentless hot streak over the last couple of years. From bangers like “Chop My Money” with Krept & Konan, Loski, and Zie Zie, to “Magic” with OFB, iLL Blu have demonstrated how pervasive their unique brand of music really is, returning to their roots of UK rap as the scene itself reaches an unprecedented commercial peak.

It is clear that iLL Blu are wildly talented; their extensive catalogue speaks for itself, with credits on iconic tracks like “Liar Liar” and “Shine Girl” with Mostack to deep album cuts like “Home” on Headie One’s Music X Road. There are no limits to the sonical vision of iLL Blu, and therefore each release of their’s marks a moment in which worlds of different cultures and musical approaches collide. With the release of their first extended project a few months back, it felt necessary to sit down with iLL Blu and gain an insight into the mindset and mentality behind arguably the most artistic duo in the UK production scene at the moment.

First of all, as producers how has lockdown affected you? 

James: “For me, at the beginning it was quite difficult. At first I thought it would be free time, loads of production, most active time ever, but the stresses of life and everything about it made it really hard to be motivated, and just to find the time because everyone was at home. So I would say for me, it was difficult to adjust. I’ve adjusted now, and found a time and a routine that works for me, But I don’t think it’s been my most productive 12 months or however long we’ve been in lockdown now.”

Darius: “For me, when we initially went into Lockdown I just cracked on. I just made records, I was making ideas in the house, and just cracking on. For me, I’m not really out like that, like a normal day for me I can just chill at my house all day long. So it didn’t really affect me too much to be honest.”

What was your original introduction to producing?

Darius: “I went on a holiday in 2006, I went to Ayia Napa, and “The Cure and the Cause” was the biggest record at the time. I just came back saying ‘I want to do Funky House’. It was feel good music, everyone was dancing, no fighting, all love, the energy was lovely. So we came back, it was always at the back of my head to do some Funky, me and J had started doing some records, I won’t say the name, we started doing some house records, Bob Sinclair type Funky records. And then I was rapping, I was part of a group, and James was the producer to that group. One day, out of the blue Princess Nyah wanted to make a record, and thats how James and I collaborated on iLL Blu’s first production. For me, it was inspired by an Island party and just a feeling of really wanting to jump into that scene.” 

James: “We were making music before, it was all based in the hip hop rap stuff, that’s our first love. So when Darius came to me and said we should try some Funky, or some House, I was like…I hadn’t raved at the point, so I hadn’t experienced what he had experienced. So he was showing me the ropes how the structure of house music was different to an 8 bar intro or 4 bar intro on rap. So I was learning as we were producing, and that first tune “Frontline” was just an education. Obviously that song grew, did well in the underground, got our first playlist on radio, it was our first introduction to the music industry. It was like ‘rah this is working, let’s continue doing it’. Funky was still so new, so there wasn’t much competition in that respect, we were bringing all our influences for R&B, Rap, Garage and infusing all of those into our production when making Funky, which I think is why we were able to make such a dent in the scene. That’s the foundation of iLL Blu there.” 

Do you think a key factor in your success has been this diverse musical background, which has given you the tools to be more versatile than most other producers? 

James: “Yes definitely. When we look at our idols across the pond in America, you know your Timbalands, Swizz Beats, Dr Dre etc, they are fortunate coming from America which is such a huge market, where the scene is a lot more mature versus where our scene is. They’re able to produce within their own sound, and continue producing that and putting it out, because hip hop is mature, it’s just there.

“Whereas here, we see things come and go in cycles, we have the Funky era, then we have the Bassline era, we have the Dubstep era, then Grime has a resurgence. So you don’t even get a chance to have a super-producer run, so when you’re in markets that are always moving, to be involved still, you have to switch it up and be versatile. In an ideal world I would love to to just make hip hop vibes all day long, but being in this market has forced us to go ‘this sound is on its way out’, or ‘this sound is coming’, and naturally as we’ve done that, its become something just part of our DNA, we just love fusing things. It keeps things creative and exciting for us as creators” 

Do you think there are specific skills or attributes you learnt in that Funky era which suit you well today in the rap world? 

Darius: “For me, when we were making Funky, obviously we had to understand structure, how records work in the club, how to make those drops so that people feel the records, but the ultimate thing was about feeling. We made quite a few pop records for some artists, and the music was good, but the feeling wasn’t there. Now we’ve come back to hip hop and the music we really love, its all about feeling for us. If I’m going to take anything from the Funky days its about feeling, and actually feeling records more than actually having the right sounds. It’s more about the feelings than the sounds that we use.” 

James: For me, Funky was a big learning curve, as it was my  introduction to how clubs worked. Seeing Darius DJ, seeing how crowds respond, how he chose and sequenced songs when he was playing. There were certain big songs you know that would be big but he wouldn’t draw for those, or where he would put them in a particular sequence. So now, when we’re making our records, or producing for other people, we’re thinking how would the crowd feel, where would this drop in a night, is this executed well enough for a DJ to want to play this riddim. From more of a technical thing, when we started our foray into Afroswing, with the Mostack tracks, the first one we produced was “Murder” and “Liar Liar”. I remember there was no thinking of we need to use these particular drum kits, no formula, just like Darius said it was all about the feeling.

“I remember turning around to Darius and saying how it reminded me of the feeling when we were making Funky. The rhythm of afroswing feels like a slowed down version of Funky to me, I think there is connectivity across all Black music in regards to rhythm and drums. When we were making that, it felt like we were going back to where we started, but in a different way. That’s how I think Funky informed our production.” 

What was the context behind that decision to shift away from Funky and start making rap music then? 

James: “It’s funny because Funky had a great high, where everyone was playing it, clubbing to it, and then it suddenly started to slow down in a commercial sense but got picked up in the cool areas. That’s when we started to play abroad more, it was considered more electronic music. That was cool, we were artists growing, the production was becoming less melodic and more bass heavy, and we were naturally going with where the scene was going at the time. But it came a point where it was all about hard, dark instrumentals at this point, and Darius and I as lovers of R&B wanted to do more melodic stuff with vocals and top lines. So we started making a bit more house and lighter stuff, and our taste just kinda progressed and we wanted to do something different. We still love it, but the scene is moving, music is moving, and we wanted to do other things as well. 

“We were also very aware of where we had come from. That’s why when we released our first single, “Chop My Money”, it was an ode to where we’ve come from, sampling “Cure and the Cause”, showing how we’ve come from Funky and still enjoy it. And thats why iLL Blu was formed, because of our love for that record.” 

You obviously have a close relationship with MoStack, can you give some insight onto the process of making music with him? He seems like one of those wildly talented, but a bit eccentric people who must make studio sessions always interesting. 

James: “Yeah, you can never really plan. You might think I’ve got this beat I’ve worked on for Mo, and he will love it, but it might not be what he goes for. He’s very sporadic, on the spot, he works really quickly so you have to just respond. On top of that, he doesn’t write, he just goes into the booth, so you don’t know what he’s going to say. He almost goes for shock factor at moments, humorous shock factor things so its like “Woah, he just said that”.

“Working with him, in the beginning from “Liar Liar” to “Murder” all the way up to his album, it was always like we don’t know what he’s gonna do. Some tracks never get finished, we forget about them, he rediscovers them. You just don’t know with Mo about what’s going to happen. Something great could happen, and fortunately a lot of those moments where we’ve just made something great have been with him. Our story is definitely intertwined with him, his ascension from just being a known rapper on the internet; to now becoming a household name.” 

What instigated that bond in the first place? How did you meet, how did you develop that trust? 

James: “So Sneakbo, we were involved in his career from the beginning, and so we have a great relationship with Sneakbo. Sneakbo did a track with MoStack and J Spades, a song called “Right Now” which we produced. Thats how we first met MoStack, through that session, that session was fun, I remember we were just drinking and chilling, it was really cool. Off the back of that session, we knew we needed to work him again, we ended up working on “Murder” with him, which went on his first tape Gangster with Banter and from there they shot a video, it did really well, he got his first radio playlist spot for that track, so it just made sense to continue the working relationship.” 

What are your thoughts on the current production scene in the UK? I think you occupy a very unique position within the production scene and I’m interested in your perspective. 

Darius: “I really like what’s going on in the UK production wise. I think there are a lot of good producers, its evident when you look at Spotify playlists, Apple music playlists, jump on GRM, the production value has just gone up. Remember, we’ve been producing since the early 2000s, so you know that I’ve seen a big change in production value. What we have to hand now, is much more than what we used to have. I feel it’s in a very great place, and I can’t wait to see where we take it in the next few years. There’s a lot of success stories of drill producers getting cuts over in America, you also got your JAE5’s, your TSB’s, so yeah there’s a lot of  good production coming out of the UK.” 

What was the initial inspiration to do your own project?

James: “We’ve done Eps before, Funky and House, had some features before. So the concept of being front and centre, the focus, and not just being in the background isn’t new. What made us decide to collide our production for other artists with our own artist project was there was a period of time where we were looking at artists like Diplo, who’s worked in Major Lazer, known for producing electronic music, but was also known for producing loads of different genres. And we thought as iLL Blu, we’re known as House, Funky, electronic producers, and we were toying with the idea of could we make an iLL Blu record a rap record? Would that be seen as turning away or selling out? But then we looked at people like Diplo, who produce loads of things behind the scenes for loads of artists, as well as an artist in his own right, and we were already making rap, so it was like we’re already doing these things, lets bring it all together under our presentation of iLL Blu as an artist.

“Fortunately, we’ve come in, we’ve been welcomed, the music has been received well and we’ve been able to use relationships of producing behind the scenes for other artists to get them to jump on our own records so yeah that’s where the decision kinda came from.”

Was there a particular vision for how this project was going to sound, or was it more of an organic process of just making music and seeing what worked? 

Darius: I think that the records on there are all organic. Our ethos with music anyways is that it will all fit together, so collating a mixtape was relatively easy because we’ve always stuck to a certain ethos. So yeah, it wasn’t really planned, it was very organic. What we tried to capture, was if you came to an iLL Blu party, this is how you would expect it to go. From the intro, high energy, then we bring it down, then we bring it up again for you. Exactly what you would get in an iLL Blu set today. 

The tape has a really intriguing mix of features, from veterans like Wretch 32 to Donae’o, to newcomers like Bandokay and M24. What was the thought process behind this range of artists? 

“We do everything by feeling, and who we like as well. So we were making tracks and thinking “OFB would sound great on this” or “M24 would sound great on this”, or “Wretch 32 would sound great on this”. It wasn’t like we need to get a veteran and we need to get a newcomer. In the same way we approach production in being new and fresh, we are always looking for fresh and exciting artists to work with.

“Especially the prospect of doing something new, which they haven’t done in their own personal careers, a sound which they might not mess with but we think their sound would sound great with this sonic. So when we made the “Burn One” record for example, we were like Wretch 32 does that kinda Jamaican, Bashmenty style, he would sound good on this, 169 would work well with that, we’ve heard them collaborate in that same kinda space, that might fit well. It just happened organically.”

What’s your favourite song on the tape? 

Darius: For me its “Magic”, only for the simple fact that it was something we hold dear in regards to the sample, its a sample I used to rave to. Sticky is a legend within the UK scene, so to take that sample and to make something as good as that, and also to introduce new artists on that record from a totally different place is a great feeling. It was more of a thing where we exec’d that one if that makes sense. So we created the beat, A&Red the record, got it out to the masses, and the response to that record was brilliant. So for me that’s my favourite song on the tape. 

James: I would agree with that. I also like “Burn One”, “Talk to Me” I enjoy as well, it kinda changes for me but “Magic” would be my favourite. 

To me, a lot of the tape has significant mainstream potential, this isn’t to take anything away from the music, because in my opinion it doesn’t come at the expense of the musical integrity at all. Is that in the back of your mind then when you are making music, or is it something you seem to tap into without even trying? 

James: “When we make music, we are always very conscious of it staying ‘true’, and if we like it and dig it then the audience will usually too. I think the commercial appeal comes from all those years of learning, producing pop, especially when we had to compromise our sound a bit to get black music on the radio.

“We learnt a lot in that period of time, in terms of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to crossover records, and that has naturally bled into what we do. So now, we’re making a rap record, and it has to be a rap record and rap fans have to love it, but naturally when we make music we are sensitive to the potential for crossover.”

“Bang Bang Boogie” was a standout track for me, can you give some background to the making of that track?

“Yeah, so making that tune, the sample comes from a Royce Da 5’9” tune with DJ Premier. But growing up, when I first heard the tune I never heard that version, I heard a Craig David remix, which they flipped over that sample. I love that remix, so the idea initially was sparked from there.

“I made the beat, and I knew MoStack would sound cold on this. That was one tune where I made it before and then showed it to MoStack and he was like “Yeah this is kinda hard still”. It’s bright sounding, but its in the middle at the same time; it’s not too dark and menacing but also not too bright and happy. I think it’s the strings on that sample, the way he sounds on it just sounds fresh and it works. I would love to play that in a party once we’re out of lockdown.” 

So what for you makes the difference between a mixtape and an album? What in your mind makes that distinction? 

Darius: “For me, a mixtape is a look into what an iLL Blu set would be. You go into the club, we do our live show and people are jumping up, giving that energy. I feel for an album, we lock ourselves away for a period of time, and really hone into a message. More thought should go into an album. It’ll be more of a tactical approach than a mixtape. That’s how we would approach the two.” 

What are your plans beyond this tape? Anything else in the pipeline? 

Darius: “Expect quite a few more collaborations, definitely shows, and yeah we’re just gonna be getting our producer hat on, working for other artists as well. The show doesn’t stop, we’re gonna get right back into the field and just keep doing what we been doing. And then hopefully we’re working on an album to come out at some point in the future.” 

Be sure to check out our last instalment of The Architects with the brains behind the UK’s first drill number one Gotcha, right here.