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Production Duo iLL BLU Talk ‘The BLUPRiNT’, Advice For Aspiring Producers & More

Elle Evans

By Elle Evans

Elle Evans

2 Apr 2021

James Grant and Darius Ellington-Forde, the two long-time friends who are behind the well-known London-based production duo iLL BLU. Over the last decade, the pair have flown to the forefront of British music and along the way have delivered various notable bangers from “Chop My Money” featuring ZieZie, “Dumpa” alongside M24, to Bandokay and Double Lz’s “Magic” – just to name a few!

Today, iLL BLU have dropped their debut mixtape named ‘The BLUPRiNT’. Spread across 15 tracks with guest appearances from Mostack, Wretch 32, Dolapo, Bandokay, Double Lz, and more, this rave-like project is just what we need to blow our lockdown blues away! Filled from start to finish with an assortment genre-defying sounds and feel-good energy, ‘The BluPrint’ is a must spin!

We caught up with iLL BLU via Zoom for an chat about all things ‘The BLUPRiNT’, their journey as producers so far and more. Tap in below to see what they had to say!

How have you found the past 12 months as producers? Has it affected you in any way at all?

James: When you have kids, and they weren’t away at school it was difficult and hard to focus. In the first lockdown it was difficult because we were adjusting but as it’s progressed, I’ve gotten used to our “new” normal and we’ve found ways to work – whether it’s working late etc.

I’d love to take it back to the start with you both! How did your journey as producers begin?

Darius: Our journey began, not by mistake, but it was a random day when an artist we used to know wanted to make a Funky record, so we jumped in the studio together to make it. Me and James produced the beat, she put vocals on it and it became a track called “Frontline”. The reception we got from it was so good that we wanted to continue the partnership, and this was back in 2008. From then, we’ve been working as a duo and called ourselves iLL BLU.  

How did you both learn to produce? Was there anyone you looked up to?

Darius: We have two different paths, but I remember getting my cousin’s PC back in the late 90’s and using Cubase and started producing on there. There was also a game on PlayStation called Music 2000 and I also started making beats on that, my experience was very raw, no one taught me how to make them, I just learnt more as I went along.

James: I went to music school, my parents from the age of 8 always encouraged me to play an instrument so I started playing piano from then. I also learnt the drums and that’s when I began going to music school every Saturday. In the keyboard class, we had to learn how to play compositions from a book, but I never did that, I was always messing around with the drums on there. That was the beginning of me thinking “Oh, you can make beats” which eventually progressed into me getting my own keyboard at home and started learning about Cubase and different software’s. There were no YouTube tutorials and you just had to figure it out. I used to take stuff from the radio and try and remake the beat at the age of 14 and that was when Garage was prominent. That taught me how to make and arrange beats, so yeah, that was the beginning for me.

You both started your journey quite a while ago. Is there anything you miss about that time in music in comparison to now?

Darius: It’s hard you know! If I were starting in music now, I think I would have had more joy early on because back in the day it was harder to create a good piece of work; the tools that we have today, you can make a beat and having it sounding ready-to-go almost instantly.

James: I agree, it was harder! Now, you have downloadable kits and all this other stuff, you might not be accomplished in creating music, but you can find a loop, do the drums and if you have the right contact send it to an artist and cut it – that’s the reality now! Whereas, when we were making beats in the beginning the amount of equipment you had to have to make a good sounding Hip-Hop tune – it was a lot! *laughs* Garage was easier to make and a lot of the guys making Garage back then weren’t musical either, all you needed was a bass line, a synth line and some drums. The kids now have loads of examples from there back garden, from all over the country and there is money in the music industry now!

You have your mixtape ‘The BluPrint’ coming out at the start of April, tell us a bit more about your approach to this one?

James: When we make music, because of our history in Funky House, your first thought is always the clubs! We would make tunes and we would test them out in the clubs, our approach generally was high energy and feel-good records, our tape is a rave! With what we have learnt through living through Garage raving to Funky House, we’ve used that wealth and knowledge and made it fresh with whatever is happening now.

We started making Drill back in 2018 [Magic ft Bandokay & Double Lz], when we made “Magic” we saw Drill coming in and it was exciting, it had been around for a while, but it was having a breakthrough. We wanted to make Drill, but we didn’t want to jump on it and make it how it had already been made – that didn’t feel true to us! If we were going to add something to this genre, we were going to add something that wasn’t currently there and fuse different genres together.

How long did it take to create?  

Darius: To put it together, I would say a few months! We’ve had them for a while but to group them together it took about 3 months.

What I like about you guys is that you put artists who might be known for a specific sound onto something slightly different. How do you go about deciding who would sit on each beat?

James: We wanted to get the new guys on the cusp – effectively like an A&R role. You can always jump and get the bigger guys and know it’s going to do well but we wanted to see who has growth and who was going to be the next gen. The OFB guys when we got them originally, they were on the cusp and the same goes for M24. However, we also have Donae’O who also goes back to our Funky routes and Sneakbo who we’ve been working with him since 2010 – we have relationships with some of the artists that are feature on the project.

When we go into a session, we’ll say that this is the record we would like them to work on and it doesn’t always work because they’ll hear it and say, “That’s not really for me”. Because we try to do a lot of new things, sometimes we are a bit too far ahead – we made “Magic” in 2018 but it only came out last year. Some artists don’t see the vision and would prefer to stay comfortable in what they know.

Do you guys have a favourite track each?

James: I have a couple! “Burn One” and “Bang Boogie” because of the vibe – all of them! All of the samples that we’ve chosen, we didn’t pick them just because we liked them but because there is a reason behind each one. For example, on “DUMPA” we sampled the Vybz Kartel “Dumpa Truck” vocal because when we were doing Funky sets, Vybz Kartel was having a second lease of life, there were bare records we were playing.

Darius: I would say “Magic”, the sample in there brings back a lot of memories! “Burn One”, for us, is one of those hidden gems – the more we heard it, the more we fell in love with it!

What advice would you give to aspiring producers who are looking to do down a similar route?

Darius: It’s about never giving up and trying new things. There is always going to be ups and downs on your road to success, but always keep true to yourself and don’t be too precious about your material. I remember back in the day, we used to think Jay-Z would come and knock on our door! *laughs* Protect your music, but don’t hide it and expect either a Drake or Jay-Z to come and jump on it. People aren’t going to come and run to you, you have to prove your worth.

James: I think now, if you want to become a producer artist like we are with the ‘iLL BLU ft’, if that’s the plan then there are loads of websites that allow producers to post there beats and people can download them. I see a lot of producers come up with an artist and it isn’t always someone who is big, maybe it’s looking for an artist that you really believe in, has the work ethic and the talent and building with them. As they blow and grow, naturally you will too. It always starts with that combination. It’s very difficult to jump out on your own as a producer unless you are a DJ and you have created a name for yourself. You have to start small and grow.

What are your current thoughts on the UK scene as it stands?

James: Positive! Although we are very Drill dominated right now, it’s evolving! Over the last two years or so we had a lot of the piano-led and eerie Drill, even with Central Cee although his whole tape is Drill, there are variations of it and it’s very musical. Headie One has done a lot as well, and he is the spearhead of pushing the boundaries of Drill. The artists are progressing and we’re bagging top 5’s every week almost, it’s all very positive!

Darius: Yeah, we’re in a good place in comparison to where we were maybe 5-8 years ago when there wasn’t any Spotify, and we couldn’t monetize what we were doing. Back in the day when we were doing it, we had to wait for our PRS statements to come back to see if we were doing any damage. I love it man, we’re in a great space!

Is there anything else in the pipeline for this year?

James: We’ve got a couple of tunes that we have produced that we are going to be credited on. We’ve been working on our next batch of music, but yeah man, because of the pandemic naturally our work rate has slowed down a bit!

Keep up to date with all things iLL BLU via there Instagram here. You can listen to ‘The BLUPRiNT’ below.

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