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UD Low Down: Blue Lab Beats Masterclass 002 @ Talent House

On Wednesday 11th January, Talent House was a hive of activity with Grammy Award-winning duo, Blue Lab Beats, delivering an intimate Masterclass for UD members and crew. Kat Friar reports…

Tickets are on sale for Masterclass 003 with The Silhouettes Project. £5 or free to members! Visit UDTickets.com

Grammy Award-winning Jazztronica duo, Blue Lab Beats, have been making music together for 10 years, after meeting each other at a youth centre that taught music. Fast forward and they’re now signed to the legendary Blue Note Records, and have production credits on records with artists like Angelique Kidjo, Kojey Radical and Sampa The Great, to name a few. The duo consists of NK-OK and MR DM.

NK-OK takes care of the production programming, using his finger drumming skills to create these wonderful soundscapes, influenced by jazz and Afrobeats. Meanwhile, multi-instrumentalist MR DM bestows keys, guitar, bass and sometimes even trumpet (more so on their first album Xover). Having supported Patrice Rushen last year at KOKO, performing at the Royal Albert Hall with the Multi-Story Orchestra and even doing a four show stint at Blue Note Place in Japan, they’ve already managed to accomplish a lifetime of achievements over a decade.

BLUE LAB BEATS BY KAT FRIAR

We watched in awe as they construed a beat from scratch. Preparing for his finger drumming with a metronome, NK-OK starts to lay down the drums. He manually quantises his loop and then adds kick drum hits as he nods his head in time with the beat. He texturises the beat with a variety of sounds as we start to see MR DM figure out some chords on the guitar – and he doesn’t even need to practice before he starts recording. The guitar itself sounds light and sweet, juxtaposing the drum-heavy programmed production. He then adds a riff over what’s been contributed, giving the beat more dimension. He listens to it while he figures out the keys, then he’s immediately ready to go. It’s fascinating to see them create music at such speed. They are able to produce this beat in near silence, purely by ‘communicating musically’. 

Opening the floor for questions, “How did you get to this point?” was definitely on everyone’s mind. They’d be in studio sessions three to four times a week, and NK-OK spoke about how he’d been banned from jam sessions for bringing a drum machine. They spoke about genre fusion and how it takes them outside of their comfort zone. Nayana asked “Do you always start with the drums or do you ever start with the keys and guitar?” to which they answered that it’s mostly drums unless the song is stripped back and then they’ll sometimes start with keys. MR DM advised that it’s always good to start with different instruments because it can also help your creative mind. 

Then they prepared to add strings to the beat in progress. NK-OK pressed play so MR DM could get the gist of the chords he was about to play, MR DM dropped them in through the keyboard. Then they prepared for a guitar solo to run in pockets of the beat to keep it interesting. MR DM’s solo complimented the ever-growing foundation perfectly. He added texture by inputting these twinkling sounds in the same chords as the solo. 

More questions followed, Nayana asked about producing different genres and if there were different textures that fit certain genres better than others, and how they merge them when they are blending genres. NK-OK responded with the importance of researching the genres and how he enjoys looking at old studio footage where you can see people at the mixing desk and how they’ll tweak the beat. In terms of genre fusion, it’s important to figure out which elements will work together and which ones won’t, and it’s a lot of trial and error. They then showed us a plug-in called Torque, which allows you to dial the pitch. MR DM added in another, more intricate guitar solo. 

They spoke about their journeys to achieve the level of skill they’re at today, after being asked how much training they’ve had; MR DM started playing the piano between the ages of 4 and 5. NK-OK started playing the djembe between the ages of 6 and 7, then moved on to drums between 11 and 12. Then came production – he wasn’t a fan of how his teacher taught him so he taught himself instead.

They were asked their top three musical influences to which they answered Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones and Patrice Rushen, all of which they’ve been able to meet in their career. Patrice even told them “Thank you for representing”. In terms of beatmakers, J Dilla, Knxwledge and Dr Dre took the top spots. When he said Knxwledge, the audience was audibly in agreement.

When asked about their time in Japan, they mentioned how Blue Lab Beats has been on Japan’s Jazz charts since 2016. They’d been asked to play four nights at the newly opened Blue Note Place. The organisers wanted the shows to be grand and thus each show had special guests. Most notably there was a Japanese-Jamaican rapper who would alternate between Japanese and English. The pair would get stopped in the street for photos from fans full of excitement. They would use a translator on their phone and one of the translations was “I can’t hold my excitement!”

They finished off the beat with a keys solo from MR DM, then they played it so we could hear it all come together. The beat felt like listening to Jazz outside, something about the sounds had a feeling of being outside and in nature to them. They were asked about their favourite studio sessions with artists and mentioned Sampa The Great and how she wrote her verse in 20 minutes and freestyled her chorus rather than using the one she’d already wrote. 

Overall, watching Blue Lab Beats make something from scratch was incredibly insightful. Hopefully, the masterclass has been able to inspire the attendees to start experimenting with production. I know I’m definitely more inclined to give it a go now that I’ve seen experts do it in front of me.

Follow Blue Lab Beats on Instagram and support on Bandcamp.

Words: Kat Friar Kat is a freelance journalist, DJ and photographer with a passion for music. She likes to cover all bases regarding music so whether it’s a new album, a rising artist or a gig, she’ll be writing about it.

Tickets are on sale for Masterclass 003 with The Silhouettes Project. £5 or free to members! Visit UDTickets.com

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