With the release of the new Pengshui album, we caught up with one third of the group and one of the country’s finest MCs, Illaman to talk about the album and all things Pengshui, including how they got together, their UK tours and working with grime legend Footsie. As well as that, we got to chat about what’s going on with his solo career, the return of Problem Child, emceeing for Goldie and tales from his storied career as an MC. Big up Illaman each and every and check out the big new Pengshui record.
Pengshui’s self titled debut album is out now. How was the experience of making the album?
It was all done remotely man so it was cool in places but difficult in others. It was sometimes hard to capture a vibe for the tunes when we weren’t all in a room together. There were times when it was a bit annoying but exciting obviously because we were making our first album. It was a bit of a mixed bag really, obviously great and exciting but I’m looking forward to doing the next one when we’re all going to be in the room together.
Would you still say the album’s got a live feel though?
Yeah, I mean it does have the live element to it, but because we didn’t record it all in the same room together, for me, I can hear that, you know what I mean but it definitely sounds like a band because I think what we wanted to enforce when we started it was to make sure that people knew that this was a live thing and it wasn’t relying heavily on programming or production.
You’ve already released the Footsie collaboration Wiseman. What was the experience of working with him and did he come into the studio or was that done remotely?
Fatty knows him because he’s done some session work and works with a whole host of people, so he knew Footsie already and played him couple of bits and he was into it. I was gassed, obviously, because it’s Footsie! I’ve been around that same circuit as him for years you know, we’ve been in transports and stuff together at Outlook festival. I saw him in New Zealand once backstage and it was cool chatting to him in that capacity but knowing that we were going to be on a tune together was a different level of excitement! I have respect for him and his stature in the grime scene. The fact that he referenced me on the tune too, it’s quite a nod when someone puts your name in a bar and the fact he stuck my name in the end of this bar was really cool.
Did you reach out to him or was that through Fatty?
We had this one riddim and I was writing to it, which was obviously the Wiseman tune but I was having one of those moments where I was writing to a beat but in your eyes, it wasn’t good enough. You go for this little battle internally and Fatty was like I think Footsie would be well into this, I’m going to send it to him and that was it. He was like, cool man, let me send it to Footsie and see if we can get a feature on it and smash something out, It might inspire you to do something and I guess Footsie inspired me to write the bar in that tune really. He came into the studio and we recorded it all together. I recorded my verse and he came through and stuck his verse down and then the hook. We were all in the room together and it was great.
What’s the reaction to the music Pengshui have released been like so far?
It’s been sick man, it’s been great because you never really know how your shits gonna go down and its always really nerve-racking whenever you’re going to put something new out or a new project, just because you obviously want people to respond to it well because that can kill a project, to put something out and no one really checks it. It’s been sick though, as soon as we put that first snippet out, a whole load of people got behind it and we all know a bunch of people in the industry because we’ve been doing it for so long. It was cool because a lot of the people that follow us on social media are people that are respected in music so when we put things out and we’ve got these replies from JME, Mistajam, Romesh Ranganathan and Example. Jammer retweeted something, Blax loved one of the tunes . You know, there were all these people that were like, this is sick. We were trying to build a fanbase because we only had people that are following us individually on social media knowing we are starting this new project but then new people started getting wind of it and people were really into it. We got a couple comparisons to Rage Against The Machine and then people like Astroid Boys and Enter Shikari, all these established bands that have been doing bits and who we respected, because we were aware that there’s people from the UK that have done this whole bars with the heavier thing so when their their fan base come in and have a listen, it was great.
The live thing especially because that’s where it’s important. playing live. I’ll speak for myself here but that’s where I really wanted it to translate. I wanted to go down well is live. The live shows have been mental man. I don’t think people realize how heavy it is live until you see it and then it’s like, Oh, shit! This is nuts and it is proper screaming like a metal band. By the end of it I was drenched and there’s been a proper mosh pit, not some stupid little mosh pit! The great thing about metal mosh pits is people pick each other up, which is cool. If someone goes down, you pick each other up. It’s not aggy. If a moshpit like that was to kick off at a grime rave or a drum & bass rave, there’d be fights but the metal crowds,they know. So that that was cool, man, we did our first couple of shows and everyone was gassed and then posted some clips up and then more people were like we need to see this live. It’s basically been great, the response and the feedback.
How did you start as a group? was it always your intention to do something a bit heavier with live instruments?
Yeah, I mean I can speak on this stuff quite extensively, would you prefer the long answer or short answer?
Whatever’s best for you man!
I was in a band for eight/nine years which was heavy, it was more nu metal mixed with garage and grime and drum & bass so there was elements of everything and hip hop too. I’ve come from that and over the years it’s been great dipping in and out of UK hip hop, grime, drum & bass and dubstep and working with all these people but, I’ve really missed going nuts, not holding back and having that punk/metal energy onstage so I’ve wanted to do it for a long time. I’ve tried a few little things with musicians and stuff and it’s never really stopped but the time wasn’t right, which is fine. Fatty comes from that background and used to be in a band with some boys in Leeds who were in a really sick band called White Boys For Gay Jesus! They were like Dillinger Escape Plan, really technical, all over the shop, he comes from that and I know he’s really missed being in a band and then the same thing with Prav who was in death metal bands when he was back home in Dubai. Him and his brother Pav from Foreign Beggars, they’ve been really hard metal fans from young so Prav loves that shit too. I mean, it could be 9 or 10 in the morning on a date on the tour or some shit and he’s playing some fucking Meshuggah or something! We’ve all wanted to do this again for years and obviously in all of our different capacities and journeys, we’ve crossed paths loads. We know all of the same people but it was Fatty that basically got the ball rolling and he had a couple of demos on his computer that he had written and had decided was punk/grime, 140 BPM with very heavy basslines and wanted to mix that with something really heavy.I think it might have been Ruckspin who did all the mixes and arrangement with Fatty on the album. Fatty told him about it and he said you need to talk to Illaman about it because he’s from that background and he’s pretty nuts live. Fatty messaged me on Facebook about it and sent me some beats and I didn’t vibe off them too much at first but I liked the idea of what he had so we met up and had a chat about some ideas. On the way to that meeting I’d spoke to Prav about something because I was doing some stuff with Beggars and obviously he is brothers with Pavan and works at a management company that manages Beggars, so I was dealing with some stuff, and I was just like fuck, man let’s just get Prav to come and jump on the drums, that would be perfect and me and Prav has been talking about doing something so when I got to Fatty, I said look man, I reckon we should get live drums. It was going to be programmed beats initially. Fatty had worked with Prav before so it was cool straight away and it just grew from there. We went into a rehearsal room, that was the first thing, we just thought let’s just get in a room together and see what happens. We wrote three tunes at that first rehearsal. We hadn’t even fucking jammed together before! Don’t Like Me, Nobody Cares, maybe Control, those three were born out of that first rehearsal, it was bonkers and I was hungover to fuck as well!
How did your first UK tour go and what were some of the highlights?
All of it man. Every show. Everything about it was a highlight. That was the first time we got to travel together and get to know each other. We’d never spent that amount of time with each other before. It was with Astroid Boys and yeah, man, it was sick. It was just a great experience to build and, say, Wow, we’ve gone from being a year old to being on tour, we’re playing and we’ve got fans. There were people that came to see us already and they’d travelled from two hours away and that was amazing. We were playing smaller places too and having to load everything in ourselves losing ourselves and do the groundwork again. It was a real test because that’s the hard work, are you built for this because this is what it’s like as a band again for the next couple of years. You’ve got to put in a lot of legwork man and that was a big highlight, coming off that tour like yeah, we’ve still got it!
You’ve got another headline tour in March you looking forward to those dates?
Yeah, very much man, it’s always great to be out performing and I’m intrigued to see how many people know the words to the tunes now because the last time we played in India and there were people shouting the words back at us and that shit blew my mind! So with this next set of shows I’m obviously gassed because I know that people will have had the album by then. We’re doing the album on vinyl which is incredible and they’re all going to come and want to buy the vinyl and speak to us and just to hang out with Prav and Fatty, their energy will be so sick man. After having toured and travelled with a lot of people over the years, you learn how easy tours are going to be with someone very quickly and to spend one day with them traveling normally is blessed. I’ve never not got on with people and have been complimented loads, I travel well and I just get on with it! I’m really looking forward to it.
Are you looking forward to the festival season as well. Are you playing a few festivals this summer?
Yeah, they’re all starting to come in now which is good. Festivals have always been amazing and now you know there are certain festivals we have quite a repertoire with now. When you go back to a festival and you know everyone, you know you’re not going to have any trouble getting backstage and your rider is going to be safe, you know the stage is going to be well looked after and there’s good people. Then obviously getting to play some of the new festivals, like some of the metal ones has been nuts!
"We won the Kerrang! Fresh Blood radio competition. We were voted first out of a hundred bands"
Didn’t you play at Download Festival last year?
Yeah man, we won the Kerrang! fresh blood radio competition. We were voted first out of a hundred bands to open the Avalanche stage at Download which is nuts, 3000 people, proper diehard metal fans. These people are here to hear some heavy shit so getting to play those kinds of festivals and having the reaction and response is brilliant. No ones thrown any piss at me yet which is fucking great! I’ve heard some horror stories about metal crowds, it’s crazy! At any festival shit could go wrong but so far its been sick. I’m excited!
Are you doing sort of any festivals on your own or will it just be with Pengshui?
What will happen, which is what happened last year is I’ll go with Pengshui and someone who I know will rope me into it! Festival bookings always come in for me man, which is bloody great so I reckon there’ll be a few this year. I love doing that stuff. I was working with Flux Pavilion for the best part of the last two years which has been great, I’ve been touring with him. So I reckon there’ll be a bunch of other European ones with Flux which will be cool but it’s mostly about the Pengshui thing this year.
With you concentrating on Pengshui, will you be doing a follow up to the Give Is A Smile EP any time soon?
It’s already done bruv! The sending ones down and the third one is halfway done!
Will they be out this year?
Yeah I want to try and get it out for the end of Summer, it’s got quite an Autumnal and Wintery feel to it. The concept for the videos I’ve got for this one is is perfect for that so yeah, I want to just concentrate on the Pengshui album. Then the next Pengshui album, we’ve already set a date for recording. I want to do an album with Norm Oddity, he’s like my soulmate in music, it’s crazy and we haven’t even spent any time together in the studio. This is the maddest thing. In my eyes he’s an absolute genius, he sends me so many beats it’s ridiculous!
Will you ever do anything with Problem Child again?
Yeah man we’re working on it! Me and Dabbla are doing an album with Sumgii which we’ve started but we’re going to badger the fuck out of Dubbledge because, to me, he’s top top five in this country. There’s no one like Dubbledge man, he’s unbelievable! We’ve actually changed the name, it’s now Still A Problem, were changing the brand but it’s still Problem Child and that stuff made me level up as an MC. I think even before Problem Child, as a rapper. I wasn’t very good. That’s my own critique, when I started getting on tunes with Dubbledge and Dabbla, you have to level up, you can’t come with any shit bars! Me and Dabbla are just working on some very mental shit and it’s all produced by Sumgii so it’s going to be bonkers man.
How did you get your start in music, I know you worked with Tomb Crew early on?
With emceeing, before Tomb Crew I was just Illaman and I was doing a lot of stuff with a guy called Klose One. When I was doing my hip hop shows, he was with me. Going even further back than that. I used to go pirate radio station with my cousin in Ladbroke Grove and in Tottenham. Infrastructure was in Grove and there was another one and that was how I got into emceeing. I was doing pirate radio and little radio bits and bobs here and there, but it really started when I was doing the hip hop stuff with Klose One and that’s when I started doing shows, he was DJing for me. Klose starting doing shows with a guy called Rattus Rattus who used to roll with Urban Nerds, they were the residents for them basically. Urban Nerds put on the sickest raves, I’ve done some mad shit with them and I was basically the main host. Me and Flirta D always used to do stuff and that’s when I started getting into the rave thing. I think Tomb Crew played an Urban Nerds night with Mala on New Years Eve which was fucking sick man. I would love go back and watch that set as a fly on the wall. I was emceeing for Klose One and Mala said to James from Urban Nerds to see if I would stay on the mic for his set! Nick from Tomb Crew was at that party and they were doing the Tomb Crew thing and they’d been smashing it up in Nottingham at Stealth and Rescue Rooms.
Yeah, I was living in in Nottingham at the time and used to see them all the time. Great days!
There was five of them at that point and five became two and Nick messaged me on Myspace, that’s how long ago it was! He asked me if I wanted to do something as part of Tomb Crew and I was like fuck yeah! They started to work with Trouble & Bass and starting to write their own music and had some pretty sick festival bookings already. I think we did the Big Chill where we played before The Bug, that was pretty nuts and that was one of the first things I remember doing with them. Then we started putting tunes as Tomb Crew, tunes with Riko Dan and Jooksie D. We remixed a Drop The Lime tune and I put a bar in it and it was released on Trouble & Bass which AC Slater and all them were playing so that blew us up a bit and we were getting loads of European bookings. That’s how I got into Tomb Crew but then they disbanded, they’re doing their own thing now.
You’ve worked with Goldie in the past. How did that come about and how was it working with him?
Pav from Foreign Beggars, it’s all his fault! I got booked to play at Secret Solstice in Iceland with Problem Child, it’s a festival that never gets dark, it’s just daylight for four days, it’s just bonkers! We got there, me, Dabbla, Dubbledge, Sumgii and go straight to the festival. We all rolled in through the gates and literally one of the first things we heard was banging drum & bass and Pavs fucking voice belting through the system so we said let’s go that way, we’re walking through the crowd and Pav spotted us and I just heard “Yo Illa come here man”, Pav beckoning me to come to the stage. We’d all managed to get backstage because I am good mates with the guy that runs that festival and I’m standing at the side of the stage with my beer and Pav says to jump on stage and I’m like, this is Goldie, I’m not just going to jump up and just do a madness, Goldie doesn’t stand for that shit! I’ve heard stories of him taking mics off people so I said, look man I’m blessed, I’m just happy to be stood here watching Pav from Foreign Beggars and Goldie do a set! Pav said something to Goldie, who looks at me and said yeah, yeah come. Long story, short, I shelled it with Pav and Goldie. There’s a mad video on Instagram, a small clip of it, this dude captured this the most magic moment of the set, he’s doing this whole film professionally and he just caught, for me, the most special moment of the set where I’m spraying and Goldie, he’s doing gunfingers at me! When I watch it back because obviously I can’t see what’s going on behind me and I’m just gassed and when I watch that back I’m like fucking hell this is Goldie doing gunfingers! I had such a good time doing that set and obviously Goldie enjoyed it so much. I bumped into him again at another festival backstage, I was with Strategy and we were fucking hammered. Goldie’s there and I just got chatting to him again. It was great and I think I ended up jumping on a mic for him again and then we swapped numbers because I made him send a video message to my nan. My nan loves him! Anyway, he called me one evening, and I just I said to myself, you know what, I’m just gonna fucking ask him, life’s too short and I asked if he wanted to do any more sets, He was like yeah, yeah that’d be sick and his agent set it up, he said I want Illaman on all my sets! So that’s it, it’s all Pavs fault man!
I’m a music journalist based in the U.K. with a love for bass music in many forms from drum & bass and dubstep to hip hop and grime. Always looking to check out new music as well as digging back for the classics and attending as many events as possible.