Maria Hanlon chatted to the Grammy Award winning jazztronica duo, Blue Lab Beats, about their latest album, Motherland Journey, which artists are on their radar and what their advice for up and coming musicians would be…
UD: You guys have been making music together for around 10 years, how did you first meet?
NK-OK: We met at a place called Weekends Arts College. I was doing Music Production and MR DM was doing live music there. It was basically a youth centre/ charity for people who couldn’t afford the standard music lessons, or acting or dance lessons. One lesson was £2.50 for a whole hour and it was a really amazing organisation. I was playing my beats in the lunch hall when I was 12 or 13 and David (MR DM) walked past and said he was rehearsing and I heard this guy play literally every instrument in the room and that was it from there.
UD: So when you started making music back then, did it sound similar to now, or has it evolved a lot?
NK-OK: No, not at all (laughs). For me, my drums have definitely gotten better. I had no idea how to finger drum solo, now I do.
UD: How do you guys differ as individual producers and what similarities do you share?
NK-OK: On my part, as music producer, I’m very much hearing what David’s takes are saying and then being like ‘alright cool let’s arrange the track like this’. Then soundscape wise – I’m like ‘OK what kind of environment should the track be in?’ For example in ‘Blow You Away’ you hear birds and crickets, so I’m actually wanting the listener to feel like they’re in my village. Mine and David’s village basically. In Kiefer’s track you hear more inner city sounds, cars going past, traffic. That’s my job – to create the vibe around the track.
UD: And what about you David (MR DM), how do you think you differ from NK-OK?
MR DM: In fact, the way we work, NK will lay down all the drum programming and then I’ll try and respond to how the drums are sequenced and compose a progression that’s based on that drum pattern. In regards to 10 years ago, from then up until now, I’ve been hitting a lot of jam sessions in London. That experience helped get us to where we are now and you definitely hear the maturity in ‘Motherland Journey’.
UD: Your album ‘Motherland Journey’ came out on 25th Feb and was inspired by your trip to Ghana, tell me about that trip?
NK-OK: Wow, so it was just good to be back home, in the motherland. I’m part Ghanaian so it was just beautiful to be back in my extended home. I had the chance to visit some of my family whilst we were on our trip there as well. When you’re in Ghana you’re inspired straight away, obviously filming was absolutely amazing and the last minute session with KillBeatz was how we got the track ‘Motherland Journey’ together. Visiting my family in Agogo, which is a six hour drive from Accra, was a beautiful drive.
UD: How long were you out there for?
MR DM: We were there for only a week.
UD: Wow, you managed to fit a lot in!
NK-OK: It was literally back to back everyday, just madness. When you’re filming out there the camera people do not mess around. Everything’s so back to back. The video for ‘Sensual Loving’, was a two day shoot. The first day ended at midnight and they had us up at 5am the next day. It was a 10 hour shoot!
UD: It must have been your passion for your music that powered you through?
NK-OK: Oh 100%, also Ghanaian people are just amazing. The spirits are very high & people are just hilarious there. Me and David experienced some of our funniest moments in life there.
UD: That sounds like such a special trip. So speaking of the album, can you tell me about the artwork? I watched a video on your Instagram to see how it was made, could you share the story behind that?
NK-OK: Matthew GJ Lawrence designed all the artwork for all of our recent press shots. He’s just an absolute genius, honestly. His company Drawing Cabaret, it’s a studio space but also they’re whole thing is like let’s not just use one background, we have a set designer there as well as you paying for the studio. Everyone was like who was the designer for the suits? And I’m like no, we got those suits in an ASOS deal. They were just white suits and then he painted over them.
UD: Love that, I didn’t realise that it was all hand painted, it makes it even more special!
NK-OK: Why it looks so surreal is because it was shot on film. The entire shoot was shot on film. We had a digital practice camera and then all the shots you see are on film.
UD: One of my favourite tracks from the album is ‘Gotta Go Fast’ with Poppy Daniels, what was the process of making that track?
MR DM: I think one of the biggest misconceptions of the two of us, Blue Lab Beats, is that we just make music at 90BPM, (laughs) but actually we’ve proved we can do different tempos as well. Hence the title of the song. After we made the beat, we got Poppy Daniels in, one of the best trumpet players, and she smashed it in one or two takes. She brought in the amazing harmonies and it was a wicked vibe. It’s always great to have her on stage and in the studio with us, it’s just good vibes.
UD: How long did the track take to make?
NK-OK: That was a loop originally. Normally we do our arrangements in loops first then we start to arrange it afterwards. It was about an hour, the main structure, and then we got Poppy in and it was probably about two or three hours and then finishing it was another two, so it’s normally about five to six hours for a full song.
UD: I’ve seen your billboards all around London. How did that feel, seeing yourselves on a gigantic billboard?
NK-OK: It was mind-blowing. Obviously we got one for ‘Labels’ and then we see another for this album and we were like this is crazy.
MR DM: I get multiple messages on Instagram, and because I was out last night, I got like 20 musicians coming up to me saying they saw our faces on the billboards, it’s a bit crazy.
UD: That’s a proper made it moment! I’m curious to know, how would you describe the energy in the room when you guys are performing?
NK-OK: I think especially after all the madness with coronavirus and not being able to perform properly for so long, it’s just so beautiful just to be back on stage. You know, me and David, we’re in Barcelona this weekend as well, so we’re going to be performing there. So really exciting stuff, really, really exciting stuff. It’s always such beautiful energy but I think especially after the pandemic, it’s just so amazing just to be back on stage.
MR DM: The audience definitely appreciate it more, it took a whole pandemic for them to realise there’s certain things you can’t take for granted.
UD: That must have been the best feeling. So speaking of performing, I know Roy Ayers watched you play. How was that!?
NK-OK: Wow, Roy Ayers. It was amazing, one to support him, but also normally when you’re supporting you don’t really expect the headliner to actually watch your set, especially when the headliner is that legendary. We just saw him in the DJ booth staring at us, I’m just like, this is wild, all right (laughs). Then he said to us, ‘Wait, these tracks, these are your originals?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah’. He’s like ‘This is amazing. Oh my god. So, so good.’ I was like, oh my days, that’s crazy. We’ve also had Cory Henry watch our set, years ago.
UD: So who else would you love to have in the audience if you had to choose? Pick one person each.
NK-OK: Robert Glasper. That could be cool.
MR DM: Marcus Miller. That would be great.
UD: Which undiscovered artists are on your radar at the moment?
NK-OK: I’d definitely say check out DoomCannon, he’s just released a new track with Lex Amor that’s sounding absolutely killing. As a collective, definitely check out Women In Jazz, that’s just absolutely amazing. Girls I Rate too, that’s really dope. Kojey Radical’s album, we’re on that album as well. ‘Silk’ featuring Masego was produced by us. Also Ego Ella May, we’ve got a track ‘Beautiful Days’ on her new EP. Shout out Emmavie too, she’s killing it.
UD: So the final question for each of you is what advice would you give to people starting out in the music industry? Or what advice do you wish someone told you?
NK-OK: I think to not worry about comparing yourself, especially in a negative way, like, ‘Oh, I need to do better because this person’s like this’. There’s other ways of thinking of it, like, this person inspires me.
UD: What about you, David (MR DM)?
MR DM: Literally pretty much the same. Don’t let the whole comparison thing suck you up because it’s dangerous.
UD: I totally agree, one of my favourite quotes is ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’…
NK-OK: Oh, a hundred percent. Comparison is just an absolute no. Just really trust in your own journey, that’s such a key point. I mean it’s taken me and David 10 years to be on Blue Note Records, it’s taken me and David 10 years to get on billboards, it’s taken me and David 10 years to be on a top 11 album with Kojey Radical. It’s just actually about how much you enjoy it and then eventually you might get somewhere, somewhere up there. But even comparing yourselves to up there, it’s like, what’s the point?
Blue Lab Beats’s album ‘Motherland Journey’ is out now on all streaming services, listen here.
Photo by Iliana Kanellopoulou
Words by Maria Hanlon @mariahanlon
Listen to Maria Meets on the 2nd and 4th Friday of the month 3-5pm on voicesradio.co.uk