Blue Lab Beats largest and most complete project to date 'Motherland Journey' is out now and the fact that it's delivered via the legendary Blue Note label underscores its importance even more. We've had a chance to catch up with the two over Zoom shortly before the release and they've shared a few stories from the making of the album with us.
The immensely talented London-based Blue Lab Beats are one of the fastest-rising production duos in the world right now. Made up of Namali 'NK-OK' Kwaten and David 'Mr DM' Mrakpor, they are a multi-instrumentalist pair of producers, constantly experimenting, pushing their sound forward, raising the bar, while challenging the boundaries of established genres in the most nonchalant and joyful way. Inspired by the likes of Madlib, Thelonious Monk, MF Doom, Patrice Rushen, J Dilla, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, or Roy Ayers (who they've also previously opened for). Combining intricate hip hop beats and grooves with horns, soulful jazzy tunes, catchy hooks and rhythms is what they do best. Expanding their sound inspired by the pioneers of hip-hop and African diaspora, while staying true to their London roots, incorporating West African elements pretty much since 'Pineapple', probably their most played tune to date.
Originally meeting at Weekend Arts College, later at Tomorrow's Warriors, the two friends have been creating together since they were teenagers, almost 10 years ago. About 5 years of that under the name of Blue Lab Beats. Besides, there's been many side projects they've been part of together or individually, starting out as bedroom producers, working with The Age of L.U.N.A., remixing tracks from A-listers such as Dua Lipa and Rag’N’Bone Man, and more. They've been keeping real busy, but most of all, though, these two are good vibes all around and contagiously so.
Upon meeting Namali and David at Universal Playground, their first gig in Slovakia back in 2018, I was straight up blown away with their talent, musicality and how much heart they put into their music. It's been such a pleasure to witness their growth and sonic evolution over these 4 years and see them blossom into their wonderful selves that they are today. We got a chance to catch up over Zoom the morning after their pre-launch gig at Orii Community in London, only a few days before the official release of their album. Tuning in from their 'Blue Lab' studio, they've shared a few stories from the making of the album that's been in the works for over the past 2 years and is now finally getting to see the light of day. Brace yourselves, your ears and your spirit. Motherland Journey is now here, let's gooooo!
'Motherland Journey' really hits your soul right off the bat. It impersonates the feels of an ultimate record to lift your spirits with, heal with, get lifted with... It's their first release on the epic label Blue Note Records, home of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane to name a few. Blue Lab Beats have signed a deal with Blue Note on 21st September which in itself is a beautifully symbolic date and according to their own words, the journey so far has been incredible, beginning with their 'We Will Rise' EP. The label has really helped them in their creations of music, being super involved in the best meaning of the word possible and putting some real effort into the outcome. It's a special thing to see that the label continues to be as supportive to this day. Aside from their own project, the label has put them together with the West African singer Angelique Kidjo to work on her album that's now Grammy nominated, so the journey with Blue Note has truly been a wonderful ride so far.
The moment you hear the stunning 'Sky Reflections (Intro)', cinematically moving 'Reflection (Outro)' of the album, or 'Labels' with Tiana Major9 and Kofi Stone, you'd automatically assume there must've been a big orchestra at play. Obviously, strings have a way of capturing emotions like no other and these tracks move you to the deepest of your core. According to Namali, it was in fact only four people fulfilling all of that majestic sound. Originally, the plan was to record it live indeed, but due to the covid situation in the UK at the time and deadlines approaching, this had to be done remotely with the help of none other than the esteemed arranger Steve Hussey / Urban Soul Orchestra (Soul II Soul, 'Back to Life') with whom the duo has collaborated with on one of their tracks in the early days.
"It was actually David's idea. He said we need strings. He had a very big vision of where to take these tracks. So we wrote the parts and got a string arranger, shoutout to Steve Hussey, to then redesign the stuff so it’s more realistic for strings. He sent it off to four different string players, remote instrumentalists who also play other string instruments, like violin, viola and chello. All of that was done by four people. It was a lot of days of preppin' and then execution. And we actually achieved that sound. It was mad crazy." - NK-OK
The album tells a story of many different flavors, and is put together in such a cohesive way that you just don't see so often these days. It's really a journey to be enjoyed in its entirety, top to bottom, beautifully curated, seamlessly floating between cinematic, soulful jazztronica, upbeat Afrobeat back and forth. The record is packed with collabo's from UK's top talent such as Emmavie, Kojey Radical, Pip Millet, Jerome Thomas, Tiana Major9, Kofi Stone, Ego Ella May and topped with international names like Ghetto Boy, Killbeatz and the legend himself, the late great Fela Kuti. What started as over 70 demo's, allegedly, has been simmered down to 17 final tracks. I wondered about the process that goes behind curating such a flavorful journey.
"I actually found recently that in the past 2 years, there’s been about 360 folders in my Logic that are just demo’s and I’m still looking through them. Just from the past 2 years. Blue Lab demo’s was about 70. Maybe a bit more, but yeah. It was carnage. And then we just picked our favorites. Obviously there’s Afrobeat inspired stuff in there as well, the tracks before are all like jazztronica / soultronica stuff so we asked ourselves how are we gonna make that work and make sense with Afrobeats? Cool: Interlude. Then another interlude to break it apart again. And then it comes back, you know?"- NK-OK
'Inhale & Exhale (Interlude)' with bass solo by David and 'Ultramarine (Interlude)' are the perfect breaking points and also the only two tracks on the album that are mixed by Namali. Sharing mixing duties with multiple Grammy Award winner Rob Shirelli (produced e.g. 'Men In Black', worked with Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Stevie Wonder...), based in L.A., who took care of the rest of the album.
"Trying to be even remotely close to his standard was very hard, because the interludes were added on so very last minute. And obviously with the bass track interlude as well, there were birds in the background, that were also on 'Blow You Away'. So it just felt like you were introduced to a whole different area of the album basically." -NK-OK
The boys were in Ghana for a week in April 2021. And what a loaded week it's been. The main purpose was to film music videos for ‘Blow You Away (Delilah)’ and ‘Sensual Loving’ together with Afrobeats prince Ghetto Boy across Accra, and to visit family. Alongside that, they got a chance to experience much more. It was David's first time there, Namali's second, but for both of them it was the first time getting the proper Ghana clubbing experience. As they said themselves, this trip has been a complete career highlight and a highly spiritual experience.
"I got to visit family out there, cause I’m Ashanti tribe. Everyones in Agogo, which is near Kamasi. My dad wanted to do his childhood roots in a car there, which then took 7 hours. Kamasi has an airport now, but he insisted on going by car. It was a beautiful journey though, 'cause you saw the whole contrast of different wildlife in the same country which is so nice to witness. You know, from dry land to rainforest, then more grass and rainforest again. So it was a very beautiful journey. It was so great to see the extended family." -NK-OK
The title track of the album is 'Motherland Journey' that features vocals of none other than that of the late Fela Kuti, with the estate of the Afrobeat pioneer giving BLB their blessing to release the song.
"Fela’s family are very strict with remixes. They never really have people ever remix his stuff like ever ever. So Fela’s publishers from Europe and Nigeria reached out to us like “Look, we’re loving your guys’ music, we’ve been hearing your Afrobeat stuff that you’ve been dropping as well, would you guys wanna do a remix for Fela Kuti? They gave us a list of tracks for us to sample and I was like this is absolutely crazy. And obviously because of that, contacting Fela’s family and they were so quick with it, they really loved the song... At that point, I thought even if this song doesn’t come out, the fact that Fela's family liked what we did is incredible enough. But the song did come out!" -NK-OK
They ended up working on the track together with producer KillBeatz, who's of Nigerian descent, just like David (and so was Fela). The story of the night when they spontaneously came together was quite adventurous:
"So we finished the video shoot and we were coming back from somewhere. It was like 2 to 3 hour drive away from where we were staying and when we finally got to where we were staying, we were like really tired. The management was like “Yo, KillBeatz wants to work with you guys, his studio is just up the road” we were like “Okay, forget sleep, we gotta go!" He set this up like at 11:30PM or something. So we go outside, get in the car, and this driver had no idea about where he was going. He said “Yea yea, I know the place” and then literally he was asking everyone on the road for directions. The journey that was supposed to be 20 minutes, was an hour and a half. And then the maddest part was when we were close to where KillBeatz house is, literally 3 minutes away. We got to the wrong location, there’s two security guards they’re like “Aye, what are you here for?” The manager steps out of the car says “We’re here to see KillBeatz” and then one person from the shadows steps out and literally just death stares. And this guy says “NO” and me and David were like “That’s it, we’re leaving.” We got back in that car, finally found KillBeatz place, then made Motherland Journey!"
Another single comes in the form of ‘Dat It’, with additional keys coming courtesy of renowned Stones Throw affiliate Kiefer. Some more prominent features are by Ego Ella May on ‘Slow Down’, Jackson Mathod and Kaidi Akinnibi providing horns on ‘Warp’, ‘Home’ is punctuated by Pip Millet’s soulful vocals, whilst UK Soul talent Jerome Thomas features on ‘Real Good’, a track that came together in just four hours. Then there's ‘Gotta Go Fast’, the result of a handful of park jam sessions, featuring the soaring trumpet of Poppy Daniels, ‘I’ll Be Here For You’, featuring the soulful energy of Teni Tinks, and ‘Don’t Let It Go Away’ with Emmavie, who Blue Lab Beats have known from the “glory years” of Soundcloud.
“Motherland Journey' is an extremely special album to us,” Blue Lab Beats enthuse. “This album took us two-and-a-half years to finish, our longest process to make an album, but it was so worth it. On this album you’ll hear many fusions of genres and inspirations that we gathered throughout that time frame and especially to work on so many of the songs during the first lockdown it was a test in itself. We had to figure out so many different ways to achieve what we exactly wanted sonically and having Blue Note to help us achieve that was an absolute blessing. Many of the vocal features and instrumentalists on this album are great friends of ours and it’s just so amazing to have family on this album.”
With over 32 million streams and having played Glastonbury, they also performed a sold-out hometown show at Hootananny Brixton in November 2021, sounding off what was another career-defining year in style. The Blue Lab Beats tour is currently still in the works and according to them, the plan is to bring a saxophonist and trumpet player along to feature through their live set. Blue Lab Beats have performed in the Netherlands before while supporting Tank and the Bangas, but they've yet to do a proper headline show here.
Blue Lab Beats are definitely a great example of an act you need to be on the lookout for this year (and beyond).
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