Words: James Keith

The decade or so James Grant and Darius Ellington have been producing under the iLL BLU name has been quite a journey for them. They’ve moved from early experiments in UK funky, pushing a high production value and forcing the wider world to take the sound more seriously, through to house music, and in later years into Afroswing and later the overlapping worlds of rap and drill. But their story doesn’t start with their first credited release in 2008. In fact, you have to go even earlier to the days of a little known crew called G*Fam. Princess Nyah was a central member, as was Darius (using the name Def1), and James (as J-Reel) was their main producer. Though precious little evidence of the crew remains online, Darius, James and Nyah would go on to create “Frontline” together, the latter’s signature hit that would end up kick-starting their life as iLL BLU.

By the end of the 2000s, they’d notched up a tidy collection of their own bangers, quickly attracting the attention of Hyperdub founder Kode9 and Numbers boss Jackmaster who would end up putting out “Bellion” and “Meltdown”, respectively. At this point, UK funky was doing a roaring trade, sweeping through clubs up and down the country and dominating the radio waves. Eventually, however, funky’s star began to fade, but the boys had already started to shift their focus on to the burgeoning deep house scene. Such shifts have become commonplace for the pair, never stopping in one place for too long, always keeping it moving. Lately, iLL BLU have been crushing the rap and drill scenes. They handled the bulk of production on MoStack’s Stacko album and this year they gave us two of the scene’s biggest hits: “Magic” with OFB, and “Dumpa” with Unknown T and M24.

Interestingly, as much as they like to change things up, there is a common thread running through it all. Even their drill offerings remain moored to their early days of garage, funky and D&B. “Magic”, for example, sampled Sticky’s 2011 garage instrumental “Triplets”, while “Dumpa” repurposed a section from Vybz Kartel’s “Dumpa Truck”. Both tunes added to a rapidly evolving scene that seems like it was purpose built for the pair. Just like UK drill in 2020, iLL BLU are the sum total of decades of soundsystem culture, taking influence from multiple generations of the Caribbean diaspora, stitching together dancehall, bashment, jungle, garage, grime, funky, deep house and rap into an ever-shifting sonic patchwork that will forever lead the vanguard of the UK underground.

Here are 20 reasons to love iLL BLU.

Posted on December 10, 2020