For the past few years Illaman has been making waves in UK hip hop and beyond, largely thanks to his hype fuelled live shows and his involvement with Problem Child, alongside Dubbledge, Dabbla and Sumgii. I got the chance to speak with him at the UK Beatbox Championships last month and we chatted about his journey from metal to rap, his most memorable moments and the plans for his solo album, among many other things.
G: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, man. How’s everything been going? Busy summer I’m guessing?
I: Very good, brother. Yeah I’ve been super busy. Summer’s been a bit mad. Unexpectedly busy, but good busy.
G: Lots of festivals?
I: Yeah lots of festivals, all the festivals. Festivals in the face, mate! So yeah it’s been good.
G: I don’t know if I’ve got this right, but did you used to be in a metal band?
I: Yeah I was in a metal band for nine years.
G: How did the transition from metal to rap come about?
I: The band used to be a mix of like hip hop, metal, drum & bass and garage, so I was always doing hip hop and 140 stuff as well. So yeah it wasn’t just metal, it wasn’t all just shouting all the time.
G: And when did you decide to make the full leap and leave that scene behind?
I: Well basically we lost our guitarist, he passed away after nine years of us being in the band together and things kinda changed there. It wasn’t really working after that; it was hard for us to get over it cos we’d been mates for like 25 years.
G: It happens a lot when things like that occur, it’s hard to go back.
I: Yeah it kinda destroyed it. But you know in a way sometimes something is destroyed, but then it gets rebuilt in a more beautiful way. So yeah the band thing kinda fell apart, a lot of people were like ‘shit are you still going to do music?’ and I wasn’t really sure, then after a few months I remember we toured with a band whose name I can’t remember right now… but basically, long story short, we did like three shows with them and the last one was at the Underworld in Camden. Well the bassist was the bass player from Cypress Hill’s live band and he loved our shit, so anyway him and my manager spoke and she ended up getting sent a bunch of beat CDs for me. Then in that time Jim our guitarist passed away, so I was kinda like ‘shit’ and then for six months or whatever I was just getting fucked up and trying to find some reasoning for what had just happened, cos it was the biggest fucking life-flip I’d ever had to deal with. So then obviously I was still writing and I remember my manager saying “look I’ve got these beats CDs from Cypress Hill’s people”; like I had a beat CD from Muggs, which to me was fucking insane. So I recorded like 15 songs, sent them back to him and we didn’t end up putting an album together, but that got me back into writing to hip hop beats cos obviously up until that point it was just live shit. So then I started reaching out to people for beats and now I’m here, talking to you with a rum and coke.
G: It’s fair to say your rise on the UK scene has been quite rapid compared to some people. How’s that felt from your point of view?
I: I dunno, I don’t feel like it has been rapid. It’s mad cos my missus always tells me to stop, cos obviously with everything you do there are frustrations and your morale suffers cos you’re constantly trying to stay productive, passionate, you know all the fucking p’s, man. But my missus is always telling me to just stop and look at everything that’s happened, cos it’s hard to take in sometimes. Not like an egotistical thing, but when you’re actually doing stuff and you’re in the moment, it’s kinda to hard to really see what’s happening. So yeah I guess in some ways it is a rise, but I don’t look at it like that. Do you know what I mean? Cos like I don’t realise what I’m actually doing at the time, then I’ll have these mad moments like eight months and three weeks into the year where I’m like, shit I have actually achieved a lot this year. That happened a few weeks ago when I met Pharoahe Monch backstage at BoomTown, you know it’s Phraoahe Monch for fucks sake. I went up and was chatting with him and Boogie Blind, they were saying “Yo the show was ill, you rap motherfucking fly!” and I’m like whaaaat. That’s some goosebumps shit right there, man, when people like that say to you they’re impressed with your performance. So yeah at that moment I was like “Fuck, I’ve actually achieved a lot this year!” cos these are all people I grew up listening to. So it is a rise, but it doesn’t register like that, so it’s hard for me to think about it in those terms.
G: How did you come to end up joining Problem Child? Because they had already formed as a trio and then you were added to the mix a bit later, right?
I: Edge, Dabs and Sumgii had already put out Colour Blind, WTF and Fully Fledged I think and then they reached out for me to feature on a track cos I’d jumped on that 8 Bar Grind ting years ago. So I went round there thinking “Right I’ve gotta go in!”, cos Dabs and Edge, them man are like flowdan lyricists so I can’t come soft. And I’d been writing a lot of hip hop stuff, so I was proper out of my comfort zone again. I had old 140 bars, old 140 flows, but I was like no I can’t do some old flow. Plus it was a 32, not like a 16 where I just go and fling that down, it was a fucking 32 so I was like sick, I can kill it. Bang! Wrote the bar, happy with it, went round to Sumgii’s put it down and then he sent it back to me later and I was like yeah, this is bad. I liked how we all sounded together, so I just blatantly rung up Sumgii and was like “I want in, bruv” [laughs], “I wanna be in Problem Child, come on.” and he was like “Yeah sick but let me phone the guys to make sure.”. So Sumgii phoned Dabs, or maybe the other way round, but I remember one of them was out shopping with their missus and they were like “Yo Illa wants to join!”. So that was that and then I was like, right what’s next? So they sent me Sheep and them man had already put their verses down and first time I heard it, I remember I was on the train to Manchester for a show with Zed Bias and I heard the track and I was thinking “Are you taking the piss?! What kind of fucking beat is this, bruv?” cos at that point I’d only really heard tacks like WTF and Colour Blind which were kinda of hip hop and then man sent me this one Mario Kart sounding grease bag. I was sitting on the train and no lie, bruv. [points] There was one person there, one person there, I put in my headphones, open the email and those people must have thought “What the fuck is that guy doing?” cos I remember my face was just hype. And then that was it really, it just grew from there.
G: I’m guessing there have been quite a lot of high points in your career so far, like you touched on the Pharoahe Monch encounter earlier. Is there one that sticks out for you more than the rest?
I: Yeah I think Goldie for me is probably the biggest. Whenever I meet people I used to listen to, or I’m even around them, its a fucking trip for me, man. Cos I remember sitting there in my bedroom, 13 years old, with the JVC cassette player and playing the old rave tapes with people like Goldie and Navigator. So when I got to MC for him in Iceland with Pav (Orifice Vulgatron), back to back? I mean come on. And it wasn’t even supposed to happen! I got off the plane, got to the festival site, heard drum & bass and then I heard Pav’s voice. So went to see what was up. He saw me and was like “Oi Illa, come here!”, so I got straight on stage, didn’t even clock who was playing…! And then I see it’s Goldie and he turns round to me, gives me a hug, then Pav gives me the mic and we did the ting. And you know that feeling when it feels like your soul has levelled up a bit? That’s how I felt, like my soul had levelled up. So that’s definitely one of the high points. And another is playing with Beggars at a festival in Spain I think. We were playing at 5 in morning so we all thought it’s not going to be anything special and then there were like 50,000 people there, bruv. Those big numbers are the one. Like I couldn’t see the end of the crowd, it was just dense. I’ve got a sick photo of it on my Instagram and I still look at it and think wow that many people have heard me talk shit. It’s mad cos one of my ambitions was always to play to 25,000 people – I don’t know why it was such a specific number – but yeah I always used to say that. So playing to double that, with one of the groups I respect the most and I was doing all my own bars, showcasing myself, that was another big moment. So yeah those two are the ones that stick out.
G: Now over the years you’ve spat over loads of different styles and genres with loads of different people. If you could work with anyone, from any genre, who would it be?
I: Ahh come on, bruv. That’s impossible! There are just too many. [laughs]
G: Okay, let’s narrow it down – if you could work with anyone who’s around now, who would it be?
I: I fucking love Ghetts as an MC. Cos for me doing the metal thing on stage, the energy levels were mad. I was like a one man mosh pit, I used to go mad to that shit. And that energy I then put into hip hop and grime. Ghetts is one of the only ones I’ve seen perform whose energy levels are through the roof for the whole set. Like no matter where you’re watching him from he’s in it and lyrically of course I think he’s fucking sick. Actually I’ve always wanted to do a tune with Roots Manuva too. Just because I’ve got so many great memories of his music, like all his old shit and I love his style and his tone. He has a really distinct voice and that’s sick cos it’s so identifiable which is rare in music. So yeah I’ve always wanted to do a tune with him.
G: Any reason that can’t happen?
I: Well I’ve tried, I’ve tried a couple of times. But I’m one of these people where I won’t do my head in or I won’t let my heart get too caught up in stuff I want to do. If I truly believe I’m going to do something, 9 times out 10 it happens cos I just project energy in the right direction. So I still think it might happen.
G: You’ve been involved with both the hip hop and grime scenes over here. Why do you think UK mainstream radio favours grime over hip hop?
I: In all honesty I don’t think they do favour anything.
G: But people like Giggs and Ghetts, they’re getting airtime where as hip hop artists aren’t, for the most part.
I: But that’s cos they’re doing the roadman rap thing and for the youth that’s become the one, you know what I mean? And don’t get me wrong, some of it does bang, but for some reason that is what has managed to get the attention of the majority. But then they do get Ocean (Wisdom) on, they do get Akala, they get people like Lowkey.
G: Yeah but that tends to be from people campaigning online for them to be given a shot at it. It’s kinda like this weird club you have to be allowed to join.
I: Honestly I couldn’t tell you. It’s a question that gets raised a lot and it’s a questions that people ask artists a lot, but I think the people who you should be asking are the radio people. It might be a growth thing for the DJ, like he wants to take his career in a certain direction so he’s going to just play what is popular. I honestly don’t know though cos UK hip hop has some of the most incredible producers and lyricists. But it’s like I have this argument with myself where I’ll be like “okay it’s the subject matter” cos certain UK hip hop tunes, could you imagine hearing them on the radio? I mean we can, cos we love them and we know what’s a banger, but to the nation the subject matter, the structure of the song, what’s good for radio, it all plays a part. You know I’d love to hear some High Focus shit on the radio, I’d love to hear some Dabbla, I’d love hear some Problem Child but why we’re not hearing it, I have no idea. That question needs to be put the people making the decisions. And I get it, it’s frustrating. Cos if you’re achieving that much underground, it’s standard you want more exposure. But then I get it from the DJ’s point of view too: they gotta make a living, they’ve got families to support and they’re working within a structure that generates money. And I would love to hear some of the UK hip hop man with some of the grime man, but then are their mentalities too different? You don’t know until you get them in a room together recording. And that’s why, for me, the Fully Fledged VIP thing was groundbreaking. You’ve got the maddest mix of MCs on that beat! So you had like Marga with people like Lunar C and Buggsy with Onoe.
G: But why can’t that be the norm?
I: Exactly! I mean why can’t you see Dike with Chipmunk? England’s got sick shit, man. Why can’t everyone just do a big link-up? That’s what I think anyway. [laughs]
G: How about a solo project from you, have you got any plans for that?
I: Yeah I’ve been working on it actually, probably for the last eight months in total but I’m not working on it in the conventional way. Like I’m not going to the studio every day. It’s a bit more musical, so not like the Problem Child stuff; it’s a bit older and a bit wiser too cos I’m still going through shit. I’m glad I didn’t rush it cos I had the opportunity to, but I’m glad I didn’t cos this year has been progressive for me as an artist and even as a person. It gets tough cos I have my down times, like everyone does, but this year has been good and its inspired me in different ways. So it’s definitely coming, but I’m just taking my time with it. I’ve got a few releases coming out over the next three or four months, with some sick features and a sick video we shot out in China. So yeah it is definitely coming. And I don’t mean like one of those lazy guys who’s always like “Yeah yeah it’s coming”, I’m a grafter so I don’t like taking time with shit. It’s been hard not to rush it, but I feel if I do that I’ll be pissed off with myself and no one wants that.
G: That’s good to hear, man. Well I’ll let you get back to it, but have you any final words or shout outs?
I: Yeah big yourself up, bruv. Hold tight the Gingerslim. Shouts out to my missus, shouts out to my grandmother cos granny’s the one. Shouts out to Big Dabbla aka Paddy Mashdown aka The Fucking Hummus Lord. Shouts out to Edgy Turnbuckle. Shouts out to Sumgrizzle aka Sumgii. BIG UP!