TheBerlinClub. talk to the duo about the journey to their major breakthrough & how things changed after getting signed. Their story is a valuable lesson for up-&-coming musical creatives.
7 minute read
Interview: Sam // Words: Ollie
“There will be highs & lows, you just have to keep a balance”
A recording studio in Acton, West London is the venue for iLL BLU, comprising of long-time friends James and Darius, to walk us through their path from producing music in a bedroom to collaborating with the likes of Stormzy, Krept & Konan, Sneakbo & more.
“A lot of people will do music for 6 months & get disheartened. We’ve taken loads of downs, but we’ve stuck with it for 10 years, you just need to manage your expectations…that’s the main thing” says Darius.
Founded in 2008, iLL BLU have cut across the scene over the last decade developing their own sound as musicians, while simultaneously producing & remixing for other more established artists. From dance to rap to funk records and more, the duo’s versatility is clear.
James takes us back to where it all began for him, studying Recording Arts at university: “I was focussed on learning studio techniques & that type of stuff. I was always producing as a hobby & wanted to make production a career, but as I didn’t know if it would work out, I thought I needed a backup so studied thinking I would become a Studio Engineer doing post production. That’s where it all started”.
It was not long before the dream of making production a career became a burgeoning reality, James continues: “Just before uni, that’s when I linked up with Darius; we started making music together & around that time we were working on a project. In one of the sessions we created the house track Frontline & that’s essentially where iLL BLU was born”.
Darius took a different route before co-founding iLL BLU: “When I left school, I joined up with a couple of mates…we made a drum & bass clique in which I was a rapper. That is how I sort of jumped in to the scene. I was producing records, spitting on them & releasing - it was all raw, organic, uncut. I didn’t go to uni to study music, I just borrowed my cousins’ PC and started knocking up beats from there”.
That process may have been unpolished, but it proved the concept - one of the releases being listed on Radio 1Xtra. Joining up with James to found iLL BLU & after releasing the group’s breakthrough tune ‘Frontline’, Darius did in the end go on to study music: “I had to try & refine my raw skill, upping my knowledge on certain approaches to mixing”.
Cutting Through. //
“So yeah, we’d both studied, but iLL BLU wasn’t a full-time thing, it was just a hobby that we both enjoyed. We wanted to make something of it, but we had to have our side hustles to survive – at the time I was doing a 9-5 runner job for a post-production house in Soho and then doing remixes when I got home” says James. He continues: “We’d done a DIY version of a Lloyd track which we posted on Myspace. At the time, the funky scene was very small, but that remix just blew up & we got loads of enquiries to do others, everything from Roll Deep to Cheryl Cole to Craig David. That’s how we became a bit more professional. Being self-managed at the time, we were just going with the flow, DJing & creating a name for ourselves”.
Darius adds, “We had that cool factor, it allowed us to play in Paris, in Denmark…that raw beginning was an important part of the journey”.
This approach had its limitations however, as the big record labels of the time were more interested in what James describes as “pop grime” artists such as Tinchy Stryder & Chipmunk. James articulates, “At this point, the music we were making was obviously underground…it was getting a lot of club play but commercially we weren’t there as the record labels wanted a smoother look. We wanted to get into that world because obviously that’s where the bright lights were, but it was like where do you go? There’s no submitting a CV so we knew we were going to have to work our way there by producing for those types of artists while doing our own iLL BLU thing separately”.
Despite the industry’s desire for a smoother look, it was around this time when iLL BLU started working with an up & coming, unsigned rapper called Sneakbo. “My younger brother was in secondary school at the time & he was like have you heard of this kid called Sneakbo…I was like Sneak what?! He showed me this YouTube video & it had 350,000 views, that was a LOT back then & I had never even heard of the guy. I just thought it was a fad, especially as the consensus was it was pointless to work with an unsigned rapper because it just lived in a bubble online”.
A twist of fate meant iLL BLU got introduced to the South London musician a couple of months later. Fast forward another few months & iLL BLU had turned a grimy, dancehall track called ‘Touch Ah Button’ into something that was palatable for radio, ‘The Wave’, a song which made it to number 48 in the UK Singles Chart – a heady achievement for an independent artist.
Despite proceeding to co-create multiple other successful tracks with Sneakbo, recognition as iLL BLU remained limited. James comments, “The music we were making at the time, funky house, only really poked its head up now & again. A few artists were getting signed but really it just stayed underground. Being a producer / songwriter, one of the things you’re looking to get is a publishing deal. After The Wave got b-listed, people were telling us we should get a deal, but we were still unmanaged at the time, so we just didn’t know where to go”.
Things were about to change however. One chance meeting with an employee from a publisher at a Notting Hill Arts Club night led to a formal meeting two weeks later. After showcasing a few songs, the two were offered a deal almost immediately.
“With the publishing deal, the key thing is we didn’t go for the big number, we took what was manageable as the whole premise was to get topliners on our records & then possibly get a big deal, it was a long-term vision” says Darius.
James adds, “It was about getting a foot in the door because we believed in our talent. We thought things would naturally materialise from there”.
Materialise they did. One track, ‘BLU Magic’, caught the attention of the big record labels & the supposed golden ticket was finally received as iLL BLU eventually signed with one of the major players.
Being Signed. //
While the pairs time with this label had positives, they tell how the reality of being signed to a large commercial organisation differed from their expectations. “The landscape has changed, you can do so much more now being independent & the audience has a lot more power than they ever have. That’s great for the scene, but it did mean the label wasn’t as powerful as we thought it would be” says James.
Darius reflects “When you grew up, you thought major record labels would take care of everything”.
As well as a potentially diminishing influence, the more formal & restrictive manner of getting records out the door was a shock to the system for iLL BLU, a pairing used to recording a dub & releasing, not waiting for others to sign it off.
“It got very tiring, we had to be calculated about every decision. We stopped doing what felt good & were being led by rules on what was hot” comments Darius.
“Obviously they’re a business so they want hits & records that work on radio. The real difficult thing was our music traditionally started in the club first & grew organically from there…it was like they wanted to microwave it. Some of our biggest songs took a year to take off whereas the major label wanted results in 3 months!” adds James.
Although there were difficulties, James is upbeat about the learnings that can be taken from the experience: “Things didn’t go how we wanted them to, so it wasn’t great in that respect, but we learned a lot about ourselves. You just have to dust yourself off, realise your mistakes & go back to what you know”.
Leaving the label did not stunt iLL BLU’s growth, going on to produce for Kyla Reid before helping rapper MoStack make the top 20 in the independent charting. “It felt very freeing to make music we’d enjoy vs making music for work. The fun had become injected back in to it” James adds buoyantly.
Next Steps. //
iLL BLU’s journey in the scene may have already been a long one, but their development as artists within their own right is still a trip in its infancy. Building their brand as iLL BLU is clearly high on the two’s agenda. “Chop My Money hitting 10 million streams really put us on the map as artists, rather than just producers you’d have to search for” states James proudly.
Explaining what’s new & to come, he continues: “We’re currently working on a mixtape which will join the dots from across all our sounds”.
The group are reflective of the lessons they have learned when talking about the future: “We’ve started thinking more about artists schedules, fees, management having differing views, labels competing. We have a greater appreciation for the landscape today, which will put us in a good place for what may come. We’ve also got children now, so it gives you a different perspective rather than just thinking music, music, music!” says Darius.
Besides striving for a unique sound by themselves & teaming up more regularly with artists such as Stormzy & MoStack (iLL BLU having produced the song ‘Shine Girl’ & an album for the latter), whatever direction they may pursue in the future, it is evident above all, simply being unconstrained will be at the core.
We leave the interview with iLL BLU keen to share their industry knowledge for up & coming artists. “This industry is about networking, not just how talented you are. Even if it feels like a chore, you need to put yourself out there because if nobody knows you, you won’t get where you want to go” says James. Promoting the idea of not running before you can walk, he adds: “You shouldn’t disregard working with people at your level. If you grow & develop together, when they make it big, so will you”.
Darius has one simple message: “Find what makes you unique & be consistent with it”.
It is said that growth comes from uncomfortable places & the pair extoll this, with their enthusiasm to consistently expand their horizons being the key to their accomplishments thus far, & surely those accomplishments still to come.
iLL BLU's new single ‘Go Time’ is out now.
For more info visit www.illblu.com