Swing Time: Blue Lab Rhythms

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Photo credit: Iliana Kanellopoulou

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“For me, it’s the law to play behind”, notes David “Mr DM” Mrakpor, multi-instrumentalist of the London duo Blue Lab Beats. “It’s just better.”

He reflects on the laid-back groove of “Labels”, a highlight of Journey to homeland, their first LP for the revered Blue Note Records. To the untrained ear, the song’s rhythm section may sound out of whack. Mrakpor’s bass jumps and weaves on producer Namali Kwaten’s (NK-OK) kick/snare/hi-hat – a booming, slippery pocket born in the line of A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, J Dilla and Flying Lotus.

“Me and David, since starting music, have had the same playlist,” Kwaten adds. “Of course the drums swing, but a really key thing is that David understands how to deliberately put the bass behind the drums. If the bass always landed on every hit in time, it wouldn’t be the same.

It’s a perfect imperfection – just off the beat and more soulful because of it. And the couple seems to arrive naturally at this symbiosis. They began to create rhythms in the chambers, gradually rising to high levels[1]profile remixes, production work (Angélique Kidjo) and openings by icons both vintage (jazz-fusion great Roy Ayers) and modern (virtuoso bassist Thundercat). Along the way, they’ve also collected many tracks, amassing millions of streams for an expressive sound that blends the harmonic language of jazz with the sleek software aesthetic of electro.

Journey to homeland takes them deeper into the cinematic, weaving a cast of guest vocalists and rappers into dense tracks that blur the line between acted and programmed. The end product is vast: the stuttering synth-funk of “A Vibe”, the cosmic bass harmonics of “Inhale & Exhale”, the after[1]midnight R&B of “Slow Down”, the smooth glitchy jazz of “Warp”. But for all its variety, these 17 songs started mostly the same, with Kwaten building beats from live percussion and programmed beats, setting a framework for Mrakpor’s chops on guitar, bass and keyboards.

“Sometimes we’ll do a section together, like a middle[1]eight or bridge, just to give it some substance and variation,” says Mrakpor. “The whole body of the track is pretty much there. Sometimes we decide if a rapper, singer, or maybe even a horn player will go first. It depends on how the song sounds.

“If I hear a chorus in my head right away or something, then it’ll be like, ‘Cool, there’s definitely a singer,'” Kwaten adds. “If the chords move a lot, then I’m like, ‘Someone instrumentalist should definitely continue on that. David will compose everything from a harmony point of view, and I will make the final decisions of, ‘It’s definitely this instrument or this [singer] or this rapper I was in contact with.

The key to this album, created over about two and a half years, was to “experiment” more with vocal arrangements – using rappers, singers or a combination of both.

“I was in a hip-hop group called The Age of LUNA, with two rappers and a lead singer, so I knew the vocal arrangement and layering since it was three different people,” Kwaten explains. “But I also took my drum machine for jam sessions – I did that both to participate in the jam and to understand how these different musicians spoke to each other instrumentally. Especially in hip-hop production, a lot of producers don’t quite understand the actual communication of musicians.

For Blue Lab Beats, this communication is now more crucial than ever. Several tracks use an expanded ensemble: a full string section, saxophonist, and trumpet player highlight “I’ll Be Here for You,” which recalls the sleek sound of ’90s R&B-pop; then there’s the horn-anchored title track, which emerged from a[1]nightly songwriting session in Ghana with producer KillBeatz and boasts a vocal sample from the late Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti.

“Going to Ghana inspired us so much,” says Kwaten. “The mixtape culture is still there, it’s thriving. They use their own separate app so there is a huge gallery of music that no one knows about. Me and David have heard and seen all of this, and we were like, ‘This is crazy’ – the number of collaborations. It was just wonderful to see that. Fela Kuti editors contacted us. They said, “We want you to use any Fela Kuti a cappella, and they gave us a huge list.”

This level of elite confidence is justified. As Journey to homeland proves it, Blue Lab Beats understands that groove isn’t a science, it’s something you feel. “It really is [an art form]says Kwaten of their style behind the beat. “It’s just years and years of practice – understanding the fundamentals of the pocket.”

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