In the summers of 2008 and 2009, UK funky was the sound. At Numbers parties in Glasgow, I could barely finish a drink without hearing Jackmaster drop the in-your-face silliness of Piddy Py - 'Giggle Riddim', the infectious low swing of Apple - 'De Siegalizer' or the delicate anthem du jour Kyla - 'Do You Mind' (Crazy Cousins Remix) - and the dancefloor never seemed to tire of it.
At a time when dubstep was becoming the difficult younger brother - its crushing bassweight stripping the light-heartedness out of the club, and growing up too fast - the UK grasped on the funky sound as a playful release. Occasionally silly yet always sincere in its execution, there seemed just enough variety in the sound to keep our shoulders bopping, and interest piqued. Cooly G's 'Narst' was the curious slow-burner, Lil Silva, Fuzzy Logik and Roska's horn lines ear-wormed in and burst out as twenty-deep chants, and tracks like Geeneus' 'Yellowtail' made it feel all sexy and grown up.
With that variety, we seemed to have good reason to invest in it too. A range of African and West Indian percussive rhythms, soulful R&B vocals, mutating house melodies with a thick slab of 2-step underpinning it all; it pulled seemingly disparate elements together in such a way that it felt poised to become a viable, UK pop sound. Then, it didn't. Club hits were either released months after we stopped caring (or were never released at all), the motifs became parodied, and producers fuelled their own demise by using UK funky as a springboard to bigger, more commercially viable sounds, like the burgeoning grime-pop crossover.
One act that saw it all play out from the front bench is Ill Blu. Although having released three EP's since 2010, it was their underground jams like 'Frontline' feat Princess Nyah and their insistent remix work for the likes of Shystie that made them heroes of the day. Much like the sound itself, Ill Blu's position within UK funky spotlight, like so many around them, was short-lived. In the years since, their releases for Hyperdub and Numbers felt more like learned reworkings rather than slavish allegiances to the sound, and their forthcoming Blu Magic Project EP on Island sees them at their most polished and chart-poised.
In light of their re-emergence, we caught up with the duo about their new work, what UK funky did for them - and why they think the sound never blew up. You can also stream '419' feat. Seye, from the EP, below.
THUMP: So, Ill Blu, you were one of the most well known acts in the UK funky sound, but you've dipped back from it all in recent years. What have you been up to since 2008/09?
Ill Blu: Well, we've been producing behind the scenes for others in other genres - like Jacob Banks, who did the last Chase and Status record - but we put that on hold to concentrate on our own material for about a year or so. We've been experimenting, just trying to grow as musicians. We really felt ready to get back into Ill Blu material as songs, rather than instrumentals.
What's different about Ill Blu now?
Ill Blu: There's definitely more attention to song structure. When we made 'Frontline', it was more of a vibe. We didn't set out to make a song. Now, we've got more of a sense of understanding and structuring a song better. With funky house records back then, they were made strictly for the clubs. Now we're structuring songs with a direct view to radio and how radio works - but with its roots in the club. 'Frontline' was a club edit. They were all club edits.
Well, funky was so underground and insular that it couldn't have really looked to the radio. It never grew out of infancy. How do you feel you work with the radio in mind now?
Ill Blu: It's a fairly simple formula, to be honest: shorter intro's, less drops, around two to three minutes in length – it's about shortening the structure, but not taking away from the energy of the club.
I feel that the only semblance of UK funky that broke through is in someone like Katy B. What's your take on it all? What about funky did or didn't work for pop at the time?
Ill Blu: Honestly? The songs just weren't good enough. There were a few good songs that people really remember, but all round the sound wasn't strong. Most people who started working with the funky sound came into the game by bandwagon, and the top artists who were in the scene wanted to get a quick ride into another genre that would make them bigger, or make them money.
The producers didn't carry the scene on their back. They used it and ditched it when they got the tiniest bit of a name for themselves. There weren't enough good producers who were willing to really lead and nurture the sound. A lot of the MCs on funky tracks came from grime, but either weren't good enough or into it enough to get ahead in grime, so they came over to funky.
Also, the sound was very new, and grew so quickly, that I don't think it ever got a chance to have a proper fan base. People were fans of songs and it worked in the clubs, but people weren't releasing those records and they release now. They weren't structured for release. Even with us for 'Frontline', it wasn't made available until months down the line. There wasn't an attitude or understanding of how to promote those records, shoot videos - it was always in the moment, for the fun of the sound and how it was received in the club.
I almost view UK funky as a club tool or a series of motifs, rather than a genre or style in itself. Sort of like what Night Slugs now do with Club Constructions - that's why Lil Silva managed to grow with their camp.
Ill Blu: Yeah, but it also got really cheesy really quickly too. There were a few that were really on the sound and started to get pop, then had MC's coming in. Those were the skank records that got big and overshadowed the really good material that was coming out. UK funky became a gimmick. That was the downfall of the sound, really.
Looking back, who do you think was actually a good representation of the sound?
Ill Blu: I still really rate people like Roska, Hard House Banton, Fuzzy Logik…
And MA1, Champion, Geeneus…
Ill Blu: Yeah, all of them. They were all sick.
I always thought that MA1 – 'Give It Up To Me' could have been a pop hit if it was in the right environment .
Ill Blu: Totally. Geeneus had a few records out then that, when I listen back to, I feel were hinting more to house. It wasn't strictly UK funky.
Funky now seems more of a strand of percussion within house. It's odd to think now that it was considered a genre that died. It was really more of a moment. What's happened to funky in the years since?
Ill Blu: I think the DJs and producers have gone to more bass-focused sounds; very aggressive, with hard percussions. Not the artists so much though. Some have jumped onto house, kept it very 4x4.
I thought UK funky could have been a new, fresh, black pop sound for the UK.
Ill Blu: Yeah, I can see that. I'd never thought of it like that, Funky could have been an alternative to that for more commercial clubs. You do see it in Katy B though. 'Lights On' is a straight up UK funky record with R&B vocals, like many were doing, but it had a proper song structure, was released and promoted properly, targeted at the right audience. It just shows that there is an audience for it aside from the underground, and it could world – but that came just a little too late to push funky as a thing within house at that 2008-2009 bubbling point. In all honesty, there were only a handful of acts who were making funky, so it really was a DJ-led sound.
So, why did Ill Blu pull back from it all?
Ill Blu: At the time we'd done a lot of remixes, and we'd have conversations with people who would just call us "remixers", which didn't sit well with us. There was more to us than that, so we started focusing on expanding our production. We were still making tracks back then, but they weren't being released. If we played a show we'd play them out, but other than that we kept it low-key.
Did you feel you didn't have enough solid ground to stand on with funky?
Ill Blu: Yeah, definitely.
So what's the vibe with the new project?
Ill Blu: It's a bit more of a blurring of the funky, house and pop lines. We've always had the big dirty bass and that raw kind of sound, but now it's about being able to fuse that with some more "musical" elements. Our approach now is totally different too. We've been experiment with different vocal tones and try out things we haven't heard in bass-led house music before. Basically, it's all about a big, musical rise, and a big, rewarding bass drop.
What do you make of the recent house takeover of the UK pop charts in people like Duke Dumont, Katy B et al?
Ill Blu: I think it's brilliant. It's made for the radio, so people can hear a challenge to what pop is. It's fresh, and I also don't think it takes away from underground house. It's just a nice flavour for pop.
What do you think makes it the right time for it now?
Ill Blu: Well, there's things like the expansion of Rinse going FM, and then radio is much more focused on black music as pop music now. BBC Radio One and 1Xtra, Capital Xtra, Represent, Bang Radio – all these stations are becoming more structured towards it, and taking underground-sounding records mainstream. That's definitely affected pop. What gets played on national stations is picked by the new blood coming into the system, the kids who grew up on garage and house and drum 'n' bass. We needed a new sound, and now's the time.
Do you think the new Ill Blu will fit into this world?
Ill Blu: Definitely.
Ill Blu - The Blu Magic Project EP is out on Island Records on June 30th.
You can follow Lauren Martin on Twitter here: @codeinedrums