One of the most beautiful aspects of music is its unrivalled ability to tell stories through sound. An artist who truly encapsulates this is London-based Illmatika.
A brilliant storyteller and true lover of the art form, Illmatika (real name Tola) is an MC who feels just as comfortable playing with rhymes, double entendres, and metaphors as he does hosting and hyping up crowds on stage.
It’s in fact this versatility that has gone on to define his two separate careers in the drum and bass scene. Coming through in the late 90s, Illmatika is deeply intertwined with the roots of the genre, touring internationally, consistently MCing on Rinse when it was still a pirate station, and hosting for the likes of Goldie and Optical.
After feeling a disconnection with the scene, Illmatika went on to take a hiatus in 2011 from his life as an MC. However, in 2016, he was once again inspired to return as an artist in the drum and bass sphere, this time with a much bigger emphasis on representing the culture and influences that shaped jungle music when it first took the world by storm.
Heavily influenced by 90’s hip-hop, neo-soul, and the choice of sampling that defined jungle music during its meteoric rise in the UK in the infancy of the genre, he is more than aware of the shift in drum and bass that has seen it evolve from a cultural melting pot made popular through black culture to a scene that many now view as strictly a white culture.
Illmatika is an artist who is more than happy to address the elephant in the room, and during our conversation, we touched upon the subject of representation, as well his drum and bass beginnings and his more recent work with Sherona Knight, who we were lucky enough to have join us towards the end of the interview.
Cruising in the slipstream of his recent release Oshun with Sherona Knight and Maverick Soul, we called him up to discover more about how he’s re-defined himself as an artist over the course of the past three years, and the incredibly intricate and quite brilliant music he’s made during that this time.
Learning and development trainer by day, drum and bass MC by night, do your colleagues know of MCing exploits?
One of them knows. Funnily enough, they’re into Afrobeats and they’re a bedroom DJ. They were surprised to find out I was an artist and mc and I was even more surprised to find out that they were an Afrobeats DJ! It’s amazing what you can find out about people when you’re a bit more open.
It really is! How important is it for you to have that creative outlet?
It’s so important, it’s within me. In some workplaces, it can be especially hard to get that creativity in. Although I’m a learning and development trainer, I’m able to add some creativity into that role. I’m in front of people, engaging them, performing, and keeping them along with you on the journey. I have to read the crowd and understand if they’re getting the message I’m conveying. I’ve been able to use that creativity in both of my jobs which is great because I really need that.
What MCing has taught you is a very transferable skill.
Drum & bass has allowed me to transfer that confidence to stand up in front of anyone. The only difference between my two jobs is the type of language and the understanding of the crowd.
How did you get into MCing?
I was rapping for a short amount of time and then one day, my best friend came into the classroom and said, “Listen to this music!” It was jungle. He said I should rap to this and I just thought how does anyone rap to this haha. The likes of MC Det and MC Ryme Tyme had a style that I was inspired by, so I used that as inspiration until I started to develop my own sort of style. Then one day I got speaking to a barber about my MCing and he told me has a radio station, Kik FM 92.3. I gave him a demo tape and that’s how I got on my first pirate radio station!
It’s crazy how little moments like that can essentially shape a lifetime!
Isn’t it. I listen back to those tapes now and just think about how my voice hadn’t even broken haha. Then after a couple of years, the station went off the dial and I went onto Rinse.FM back when it was still pirate. I was on Rinse around the time that grime was really creeping, as well as a long stint on Kool FM.
That’s huge! How much did you kick on from there?
I carried on MCing on pirate radio stations, I was getting on bigger raves, and started travelling abroad for festivals. One of my first really big events was The Essential Festival in Hackney Marshes when I MCe’d for Goldie. It was absolutely crazy. I was in Malaysia soon after as well for a mental festival over there.
You were engrossed in the scene at such an exciting time.
It was ridiculously big in the UK! People forget, but it’s bigger than what grime is now. It was much bigger than that. In London, there were six or seven events going on at the same time and the artists were superstars. If you saw Skibadee in the place back then, it was the equivalent of seeing a really famous rapper. There was no social media, so all you knew of them was their voices from the radio.
You were obviously doing really well for yourself at the time, so why did you take a break from drum and bass?
There were things going on in my personal life and I was becoming a bit disillusioned with where the scene was going and what it was all about. I also wanted to be more of an artist and there didn’t seem to be much room for MCs to also be music artists as well back then.
There’s been such a shift in that respect. Vocalists are in so much demand within drum and bass now.
100%. It’s shifted so much and the vocal aspect in drum and bass seems to be growing at an alarming rate.
Do you think it has anything to do with streaming services? Before music was a lot more dancefloor orientated, but now so many people will listen at home as well.
That’s a good point and I think there are two sides to the coin. When you’re streaming, you’re probably chilling. So, you don’t mind hearing a message through the music and you can appreciate the lyrics a lot more. Also, producers in this generation are more susceptible to using vocal artists in their tracks.
Definitely. How did you get back into the scene then?
I took that break and it was in 2016 that I decided to come back. I looked for producers that I was rating and the labels that we were working on and ended up getting into contact with Mr Joseph. He used to run his own label nights and booked me as an MC back then, so I already knew that he rated me. He makes liquid, and for me, that’s the style of drum and bass that still has that soulful feel and allows you to really convey a message on it. He gave me a beat, I dropped the lyrics, and the tune just ended up sounding awesome.
Was this Her Name Is? I really love the personification of drum and bass in it.
Exactly that. It’s about how I fell in love with drum and bass, how it’s a street art form, and the gentrification of the genre as well. For me, the track is also about the representation of drum and bass now, which is something that I feel is an elephant in the room that we can’t get away from. Jungle started off as a really inclusive art form, but now, you look at the crowd at drum and bass raves and you hardly see any black youth in the rave anymore.
You’re right man, black and Asian representation in drum and bass generally is a serious issue.
I was speaking to a teenager recently that I was mentoring and I told him about what I do in music. He said, “you do drum and bass yeah, that’s white boy music isn’t it?”
I get why he thought that, but it’s crazy that’s his perception of the genre.
It’s a hard conversation for people to have. What I found unique about the situation is the fact that when I go to raves, at least from my point of view, everyone I meet seems nice, accepting, and inclusive. Why do you think the representation has shifted so much?
I’ll give you my opinion. At the start of the genre, there was a lot of sampling that took from what was predominantly black music. When hip-hop and reggae samples were being combined with breakbeats, that caught the ear of the black community. They fell into jungle, so you had the most inclusive culture in London at the time! When the music became noisier, less soulful, and essentially less black, a lot of the black women that got into jungle went over to the garage. It had more of a bassline, groove, and soulful feel to it. I think that now, we’ve lost a generation of black people because of the way they perceive the sound of the genre.
Do you think it’ll change?
I hope so, that would be great for everyone. For me now, I’m trying to make my music as soulful as I can by drawing on the influences that brought me into drum and bass in the first place.
After listening through to your back catalogue, I think that’s how your sound comes across. That’s great timing because Sherona is joining now and my next question is for the two of you. Hey Sherona! My first question for you is how did you and Illmatika meet?
Sherona: I met Tola in college and we knew the same producer, Jason Air (DJ Linx, aka Dfrnt-Lvls), so we made a few tracks together. Then, about two or three years ago, he randomly messaged me asking to work on a drum and bass tune together. Next thing you know we’re working on a music video for it as well.
Had you sung on much drum and bass before this?
Sherona: I had sung on jungle back around 1997 when Jason had asked me to feature on a track with Stevie Hyper D. That was my first ever jungle tune.
Illmatika: When Sherona had worked on tracks with me before, she always sang her part exactly as I wanted it to be sung and put her own sprinkle on it to make it even better as well.
You two obviously have a lot of chemistry together when it comes to your music as well. You can get that just from listening.
Illmatika: Definitely, I was always going to get Sherona involved. She’s got it. For me as well, I also saw an angle. I didn’t think there were many black female singers on the drum and bass circuit. I was hoping after one track, there would be more work in the genre for her and that’s exactly what happened.
Sherona: I was more in an R&B and neo-soul world before Illmatika had brought me back in. When I started doing my drum and bass homework, I started to really like what I was hearing on V Recordings. As Illmatika had put it, it’s like neo-soul on speed haha. It was faster but it’s still soulful with elements of hip-hop as well. I could really vibe with it.
You two are working together now through a live drum and bass band as well! I’d love to hear more about that.
Sherona: Tola came to me with the idea of a drum and bass soul train where artists and musicians come onboard. I helped him develop the idea and now our first event, where we test out the drum and bass element live for the first time, is at Lost Horizon Arts Centre for the Planet V Live show.
Illmatika: The band will represent our flavour as musicians, with a focus on delivering music with vibes and a real focus on the message that we’re delivering as artists. As well as that, I can’t forget about our new track Oshun, produced by Maverick Soul, which is out now on Liquid V…
Upcoming Illmatika Shows:
27th November 2021 – Dance Concept – Bristol
28th November 2021 – Jungle Fever
2nd December 2021 – Paul T/Edward Oberon Album Launch
3rd December 2021 – Hybrid Beats – Brighton
10th December 2021 – Planet V Live – Lost Horizons – Bristol
18th December 2021 – Bass Factory – Huntingdon
19th December 2021 – Jungle Splash, The Cause