About two years ago now Clash was invited to put on a gig at North London venue the Finsbury. Leafing through our latest news items and track postings, we put together a shortlist, with one name at the top: Blue Lab Beats.
Hip-hop meets electronics meets breaking developments in jazz, it was just our tipple. There was just one problem, though: the London duo had never played a live show before, and weren’t actually certain how to do one. NK-OK – teenage producer Namali Kwaten – laughs when we bring this up. “That was our first ever gig!” he exclaims. “And we – well, mainly me – were nervous as hell. Obviously, I did gigs before, but never with Blue Lab.”
“Our label booked that gig kind of without us knowing. Even though we’d never done it, they knew we needed to do it. So it was like: oh yeah, you’ve got a gig with Clash. We were like: okay…! And that was it, our first ever gig.”
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It’s been a long road ever since. Working alongside Mr DM – David Mrakpor – the duo have settled on a sound they dub ‘jazztronica’, a kind of ad hoc genre or aural meeting place that links their diverse, future-forward influences.
“It’s the mixture of both worlds,” he explains. “Of electronics, from my side – with the hip-hop and neo-soul programmed drum beats. Then you have Mr DM with harmonies, and structure. You add those two together and it’s pretty much what jazztronica is about. It doesn’t have to be just hip-hop and jazz, it can be whatever type of electronic music, but with a jazz influence.”
Debut album ‘Xover’ is practically a manifesto for this sound, for this approach. Daring and hopelessly broad, the stellar guest cast contains the cream of London’s emerging jazz underground, vital UK hip-hop MCs and more, bound by a common purpose.
Out now, it’s one of this year’s most colourful, exhilarating debuts, without doubt one of the most original to come our way in quite some time. “I think there’s always been a scene for this sort of music but it’s mainly what the people need now,” he continues. “Because people need real music. Instead of just this constant same-sounding stuff over and over again in the charts. Not all stuff that goes into charts sounds the same – I’m not saying that – but there’s a very repetitive thing going. People just need a breather from real music, and it’s growing and growing. It will get to big places, for real. People need it now.”
It’s jazz influenced, certainly, but it’s also much broader; from musicians such as Shabaka Hutchings and venues like Total Refreshment Centre, it’s a very London sound, a potent brew of near-infinite voices, infinite influences.
“With the London sound it’s influenced by grime, and all the other electronic genres we’ve bigged up here, influences that sound different, and then you get that energy,” he insists. “So for example, Sons Of Kemet – they’re all acoustic, natural instruments, yet they have that same energy as grime with their crowds. It’s their own thing, really.”
“That’s what I love with the scene and how well people are doing at the moment in this country. It’s just a great thing to see. Really inspiring.”
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‘Xover’ is inspiring itself, an incredibly diverse listen. Album standout ‘Pineapple’ for example is almost an afrobeat tune, with that high life influenced guitar line set against propulsive, unrelenting drumming from Moses Boyd and a horn section led by Nubya Garcia.
“How I treated Moses’ drums was I wanted it to be very sample-like and place my drums on top,” NK-OK explains. “Him being more the atmospheric centre-point but it still has the groove. So it’s in the background but you still feel it. You get the real element, especially how he’s playing the hi-hats and the occasional tom fill here and there. Just to give it more life.”
Produced partly at their own studio, ‘Xover’ was also constructed during sessions at Peter Gabriel’s state of the art Real World complex. Blue Lab Beats took the same approach to both: make the musicians feel comfortable, get the vibe right, and then hit the tapes. “It’s always the thing of getting them warmed up, getting them to hear the track a bunch of times, and then finish it within two takes”.
“Instead of it being a forced thing or a soulless vibe we want it to be as joyous to the musician as it would be to anyone else,” he continues. “And that’s what we got at Real World and you can hear it on the record. There’s a track called ‘Timeless’ on the album and that was all one take. That day we were just having fun for two hours before recording that, then did that… we got the chord progression, I got my drum beat up, hit record and that was the take.”
Kojey Radical dropped past for ‘Sam Cooke & Marvin Gaye’ a heady salute to two fated soul legends. The MC had a surprise in store for the production duo, though – new vocalist Tiana Major9 was introduced to the session literally five minutes before the tapes started rolling.
“The work process was crazy,” NK-OK explains. “We were doing old school hip-hop beats and he was doing trap, but we both knew that for some reason we would click in the studio. We didn’t know it but someone would happen, and me and Mr DM we made the beat for ‘Sam Cooke & Marvin Gaye’ in front of him within an hour and a half. It was this really natural, flowing thing, he just let us do what we do best. Kojey wrote his verse in like 45 minutes or an hour – something crazy – and didn’t even show us what he was going to put down.”
“Kojey didn’t even tell me who he was bringing down, he was like: I’m bringing a singer down, by the way. It was five minutes before he even got to the session! And then I hear this amazing voice from Tiana, and I thought: this is awesome! She fully killed it. That was a fun session.”
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A superbly broad mosaic of influences, ‘Xover’ is designed to echo the ambition of Stevie Wonder, say, or Herbie Hancock. “It was just my thing of thinking, man, these guys changed genres so often in their albums! It won’t be one straight album. For example ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ - an amazing album, Stevie is just changing genre nearly every song. And it was just the thing of like, y’know what? Instead of sticking to one thing let’s work with a bunch of people, and not be afraid of going out of our comfort zone.”
With their debut album out of the way Blue Lab Beats are already focussed on their next release, their next project. First, though, they’re working on a new base, a space that they can call their own.
“I’m building my new studio at the moment,” he says excitedly. “Literally, it’s just a shed. Just outside my house. Strangely already soundproofed – I really don’t know how – there’s no sound coming out of it, so I’ve saved so much money! Just building that at the moment, and when that’s done we’ll be back working. Just working on some remixes at the moment – can’t fully say yet but they’ll be coming out soon. That’s the vibe!”
Afrobeat meets jazz meets electronics meets boom-bap hip-hop within grime’s architecture; Blue Lab Beats are indeed a vibe.
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Alongside this feature Clash is able to share a short documentary on Blue Lab Beats, featuring live and behind-the-scenes footage.
Tune in below...
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