Ill Blu are without doubt the year's finest producers - not just in uk funky, but period. Their anthems in 2009 - "Pull It", "Heartbreaker", "Blu Magic", "Time To Get Nasty", "Bring It Back" - read not just like a great night out, but an index of what is possible in the genre; this despite having an instantly recognizable "signature sound" that renders their deep voice cyborg "Ill... Blu..." samples redundant. I want to talk about some of them now.
I've started several homemade compilations with "Time To Get Nasty", on account of its brilliantly eerie intro: a solitary Danny Weed style persian clarinet riff is slowly enveloped by a surround-sound, bassy sheen like a THX "the audience is listening" advertisement, then one of those levitating five beats per bar patterns that Ill Blu always do so well, always reminding me of stones skipping across the surface of a lake at high speed, then more and more tense counter-percussion and shrill string riffs, before it all falls away as a warped commander announces "Time to get nasty!" And like a guillotine falling, an onslaught of high-drama synth vamps at once punitive and faintly gothic duck and weave around the stabbing beat. I know nothing about drums, but "Time To Get Nasty" doesn't offer a steady kickdrum, just its dancehall beat impacting solidly in the mid-range; this gives the tune the effect of aiming at your head as much or more than your mid-range, like a nervous boxer so light on its feet they barely touch the ground.
The reference points are easy: Danny Weed's "Shank Riddim", Davinche's "Mr. DJ", that rendezvous between steely futurism and cheesy goth melodrama that puts me in mind of The Matrix visually and therefore of course Missy's Da Real World musically. What Ill Blu share with Da Real World and Danny Weed is a certain meticulousness even at their ruffest and tuffest, an almost prissy insistence on having everything in its right place.
The menace of high-tech precision: in 2009 this should be the most tiresome of all possible aesthetics for populist dance music, but any aesthetic defined so broadly can always be as good as producers are prepared to make it (as a side note, when someone claims "x is back", they invariably mean "x was always there but the cultural products it's inspiring right now seem good or important enough to make an issue of") - it would make sense for this particular niche to be creatively exhausted, endlessly spinning its shiny car wheels, but in Ill Blu's hands it's the gift that keeps on giving, perhaps due to the ruthless kineticism of their grooves. This is the slight edge that Ill Blu's best work has over, say, Joker & Ginz's "Purple City" (an enormous, brilliant track to be sure, and probably the only "wonky" track I'd call a truly deserving popular anthem), the music's grounding in house offering it a truly ravey, propulsive drive that makes everything seem just a little bit more high stakes on the dancefloor.
This remix of Kris Baya's "Heartbreaker" demonstrates Ill Blu's talent as pop song arrangers: I often hear the instrumental of "Heartbreaker" but I prefer the slightly cheesy vocal version, with all of the duo's high-drama tricks and twists entwined around Baya's smooth 'n' sweet R&B loverman vocals. Sure, it's a great riddim, but the point of the spectrality and fragility of this groove, mixed so inextricably with its half-hearted brutality, only becomes clear in the context of Kris's admittedly by-numbers tale of a praying mantis female eating him up and casting him aside. Ill Blu choose and deploy their weapons with brutal efficiency: supple, rippling tribal percussion, shimmering faux-pizzicato string-synths, those faux-hardman grunts and exhalations punctuating the groove, ghostly keyboards, and of course doom-laden tragi-comic synth-horns straight from a 1983 Depeche Mode record, encapsulating and perfecting the Hammer Horror vibe that is Ill Blu's standard pop maneuver. An audible smirk hangs over proceedings, and not in a bad way - the producers know they're not fooling anyone with their psuedo-darkness but they're banking on the listener loving cheesy drama as much as they do. Baya's anonymously smooth vocals are perfect for this - anyone more idiosyncratic would interfere with the clockwork perfection of the production, drawing attention to itself when the whole appeal is that of a maximilaist riot in which every element understands its place.
This of course means that on "Heartbreaker" Ill Blu aren't great pop qua pop arrangers, only great pop qua dance music arrangers - unlike an Artful Dodger or a Sunship or indeed a Crazy Cousinz, they're unwiling or unable to reduce and refine their armoury to the point where the song itself can take over, so even their most pop moments sound busy, overwhelming, musically egotistical in a way that undermines the potential for crossover. This is a problem if you're consumed with setting up universal "pop" barometers of judgment, but the question "does this work as a pop song" is always a loaded and misleading one - great pop songs are not instances of "perfect" pop so much as love letters between pop and something else. What's so appealing about Ill Blu is that they increasingly seem to approach their "pop" moments not by toning down their excesses (though earlier tunes like Princess's "Frontline" and their own "Rider" are more straightforward) but by ramping them up - the only way they're prepared to "cross over" is by being ever more ridiculously themselves.
The remix of 321's "Bring It Back" meanwhile is so overblown and so obviously Ill Blu to its toenails that it verges on parody, both of the duo specifically and of a certain kind of pop music - loving it makes me feel like a cliche in the same way that being gay and loving Kylie Minogue does. Again so much here is about the build: the robotic "Ill...Blu...", the frankly astonishing beat, all stabbing military drums and not a 4X4 kick in sight, more robots announcing "It's a funky ting right now, it's a funky ting" over corporeal strings and synths, then 321 announcing "I come to party party, we come to party party..." followed by a massive foghorn blast, and then suddenly everything together in a rush as the central groove takes off, reminding me of the many climaxes in Hyper-On Experience's "Lords of the Null-Lines". "BRING BACK THE GORGON DANCE!" 321 demand, one of many dance demands made that results in "Bring It Back" sounding half like a nostalgic "this is your dancehall life" tribute and half like a hostage letter. Around this are inserted shrill diva cries, post-"Gabryelle" descending string riffs, sludgy bass and, of course, more foghorns, which in this context performs the same sonic and cultural function as the piano vamps in Kylie's "Better The Devil You Know". The tune is thrillingly physical, but it feels like a showpiece, as much designed to rock you on your heels a little with its size and hauteur as get you to dance (though I warrant it does the latter pretty damn effectively).
Perhaps what I like most about "Bring It Back" is how, taken in context with their other productions, it demonstrates their equal sense of devotion to what I might reductively call "style" and "substance". The duo have their share of more straightforward or even anti-populist tracks, of course. Their big club anthem of the moment is "Blu Magic", a deceptively simple charger of whooping bleeps and deliciously programmed papery snares, like a funky take on "Geht Nocht". "Dragon Pop" meanwhile is furrow-browed tribal clankery along the lines of Scratcha DVA's Soule Power work, all booming junglist bass, sampled hand percussion and not a melody in sight (in the youtube clip at the very top of this post, the duo play a new track which winningly splits the difference between "Dragon Pop" and "Time To Get Nasty", part tribal music part apocalypse). Against such demonstrations of pure functionalism or self-conscious progression, the "Bring It Back" remix is more like pure glamour, a giant balloon of thrilling signifiers and hot air. I love that Ill Blu - and it's not them specifically so much as an impulse of funky generally - recognise that glamour is important too, that it's how surface sparkle and core groove science come together and vibe off each other that allows funky to stretch itself and outperform its own expectations.
The duo's biggest 2009 track, and maybe the one that nicely summarises all of the above, is their remix of Shystie's "Pull It", which also functions handily as a signature track for the funky + female mc equation that is so popular at the moment (see Ms Dynamite & Geneeus's "Get Low" produced by Geeneus, Lady Stush's version of Hard House Banton's "Sirens", Sticky's work with Lady Chann ("Eye Too Fast") and Natalie Storm ("Look 'Pon Me") just to start with...). This time riding a firm 4X4 kick, "Pull It" actually has a faltering, halfstep feel to it by virtue of those resonant almost gated snares on every third beat. Moreover Ill Blu's sadsack synth chords have never sounded more computer game spectral than they do here, while baritone choirs sigh wordlessly in the background. Against this Shystie's remorselessly cheerful rap ("Put ya hands up high if ya feel it! DJ! Pull it! Wheel it!") offers the kind of odd warp and weft common in dancehall where energy, sadness, fun and darkness are all natural dance partners.
The production here is just impossibly nuanced: there's a bit where Shystie chants "flash ya lighters high if ya feel it" over galloping snares, and the snares seem to... stagger momentarily, like they're racing to keep up with Shystie's rapping and had to stretch themselves to avoid from falling behind, or maybe to avoid a pothole in the road. The vibe this creates is subtle but lovable - instead of you dancing to the beat, the beat is dancing with you, there's a kind of "we're all in this together" feel where everything is egging everything else on to greater heights of explosive physicality. And then, just because they can, Ill Blu switch to an amazing xylophone interlude, twinkling chords bouncing round a rigid dancehall beat in a fitting tribute to 2-step's amazing xylophone workouts. Both "Bring It Back" and "Pull It", simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic, offer such historical tidbits as if to say "look how far we've come, look at how much we can do now."
An Ill Blu Discography:
Princess - Frontline Lloyd - Girls Around The World (Ill Blu Remix) Princess - Frontline (Remix) Coldsteps - I Will Be There Ill Blu - Time To Get Nasty Ill Blu ft. Hoodzee - Rider Kris Baya - Heartbreaker (Ill Blu Remix) Shystie - Pull It (Ill Blu Remix) Princess - Big Boys Young Nate - I Wonder (Ill Blu Remix) Aaliyah - Rock The Boat (Ill Blu Remix) Ill Blu ft. Shanique - Say Yes Shontelle - Battle Cry (Ill Blu Remix) Ill Blu - Blu Magic 321 - Bring It Back (Ill Blu Remix) H20 ft. Zoe - Pink Love (Ill Blu Remix) Ill Blu - Dragon Pop Ill Blu - Touch It Donae'o - Watching Her Move (Ill Blu Remix)