Blue Lab Beats Review \\ Freedom EP is nothing new, but it’s astonishingly assured
Young bedroom production duo Blue Lab Beats, from Belsize Park in North London, are on a wave. In the last few months alone they’ve sold out Ronnie Scott’s, supported Ethio-jazz great Mulatu Astatke, racked up BBC Radio 1 plays and appeared at Jazz Standard’s Alternative Escape in Brighton.
Freedom picks up where their debut, September’s Blue Skies, left off. It’s the same winning formula of soulful hip hop beats, with NK-OK (the one with the copper sulphate blue flat-top) laying down some boom-bap drums and Mr DM adding funky electric bass wriggles and loops of synth and guitar — musical xanax. Then, rather than using samples, the pair invite guest vocalists and instrumentalists to groove over the top.
Intro mixes mellow lines from trumpeter Yelfris Valdés and guitarist Sheldon Agwu in amongst the dreamy keyboard beds and percussion-spiked beats, and the bassier Keep Moving sees much-hyped tenorist Nubya Garcia sit in.
The title track is undiluted Dilla (one of the duo’s biggest influences) and features a handful of strong verses from up-and-coming North London rapper Louis VI. While Journey (a highlight) is a joyful exercise in studio tinkering, a variety pack of retro synth sounds — trilling sirens, sci-fi zaps and whistles — with a minimoog bassline that could make Theresa May twerk.
There’s an old-new feel to Blue Lab’s music: an on-trend nostalgia that’s explicitly referenced by poet-MC Kojey Radical on Sam Cooke & Marvin Gaye (“the music that made our parents stay together”). It’s another standout track, with soulful contributions from vocalist Tiana Major9 on the choruses.
To be clear, Blue Lab Beats aren’t breaking new ground with this release. Hip hop fusion is running the jazz game now. It’s no longer a disruptive force, it’s the status quo. But it’s hard to think of anyone else in London doing it quite like this. Freedom is astonishingly assured. Don’t underestimate how much time and skill it takes to make beats this satisfying and simple. They sound like a dream to jam over and they’re hip-swayingly-head-noddingly infectious. “I wonder will the stage bounce when my song appears?” muses Louis VI in one of his verses. No doubt.
JS | Thomas Rees