It's been a year since our last chat with Illaman and now he's back with a poignant new EP in hand. Ugly Days is his second project fully produced by Group BraCil's Norm Oddity, following their landmark effort Give Us A Smile. We caught up with the PENGSHUi frontman for a conversation as honest as the EP itself.
"Musicians and creatives, their mind is a minefield"
We discuss the message at the heart of Ugly Days, an EP reflecting Illa's progression both as an artist and with his mental health. He explains how important his relationships with the likes of DRS, PAV4N and Dabbla have been, and why love and music can help you through unpretty times.
Our last interview was outside a PENGSHUi gig. Remember gigs?
"I've been pining over gigs bruv. Essentially, having gigged solidly for 17-18 years, then to suddenly not do it for two years bro, you almost have to mourn it. I've mourned it all last year. I had so many things planned: I was supposed to go fucking Japan for the first time, back to India, New Zealand, Australia. I was gunna do loads of cool shit. PENGSHUi had loads of shows booked in. So I miss them, I pine over them, I think about them all the time. I think about how exciting it's gunna be when they come back bruv. Often. And that's something that's keeping the fire going: that anticipation of when everyone does get back in a room, it's going to be insane man. Like nothing we've ever experienced in our entire lives. I think it's gunna feel like playing shows again for the first time. "
People often ask ‘Where did the project come from?’, but I’m guessing this one came from the heart?
"Everything I've done with Norm Oddity, and everything I will continue to do, does come from the heart. He makes me write from perspectives that I can't really seem to get from anywhere else. He always makes me get introspective and his beats always make me think more about myself and personal experience than any other beats I ever get sent. I've done a couple of other reflective, depressive - I almost want to say poetry - tunes, but with him, it's something else. He makes me pour my heart out. Give Us A Smile was great, there were some moments on that, and this one I feel like is a level up. Then the next thing we've got planned is where we've really fallen into our centre. It's magic man. But yeah, it's very, very from the heart and everything that I'm talking about on it is true."
There are a lot of parallels between Ugly Days and your last joint EP Give Us A Smile. Where do you see developments and differences?
"There's Norm's production. I've managed to write to some more of his soundscape music rather than beats. I think Give Us A Smile was more beat-driven and more hip hop-driven. But this one, there's a lot of instrumental moments, longer intros, and there's a bit more feeling and emotion in the beats. Just lyrically as well man. You learn to flow a bit better, you constantly evolve, grow and become a better MC. I've added that extra fucking growth into it. It's a growth for me as a person too, having learnt a lot about myself the last five years. How to handle anxiety, depression. How to realise it, how to understand it. How to know when it's coming, how to channel it. Yeah, so for me it's big growth. Big, big growth and a lot of honesty."
What are Ugly days?
"The days when you can't bring yourself to do anything you love, or love the people you love the way that you want to love them and should love them. The days when you just want to bury yourself in bed. The days when you're up til 7-8 in the morning after a three-day bender and the birds are tweeting outside and you know you're gunna pay for it. I don't do that shit anymore but ya know. The days your addiction gets the better of you. The days when you don't love yourself man. And them days when your passion and your drive is just nowhere to be found. Ugly days are the fucking ugly days we all have. You know what I mean?"
What music do you like to play most on ugly days?
"A lot of Radiohead stuff. Kid A album. Can always tell if I'm really low if I listen to a lot of Radiohead, which is funny because a lot of people call them depressing, but they managed to bring me out of depression. Their musicianship and the creativity. Jazz! I've been listening to loads of jazz but that might be an age-ting though. Partly cos man's an old man now but I've been listening to loads of Chet Baker, a lot of Herbie [Hancock] and a lot of instrumental jazz. I find it calms my anxiety and my mind if I'm feeling particularly chaotic in the head. To give a bit of context, I speak to a lot of my fellow musicians who suffer and struggle with depression and are tryna handle their mind that's constantly got shit going on in it. Not to sound cheesy or state the obvious, but musicians and creatives, their mind is a minefield man. It's a chaotic place and especially going through all this stuff now, it's tripled, quadrupled it. It's made it so much more difficult.
"So yeah, music that levels you and allows for a bit of time for thoughts to process, for clarity, breathing and to just give yourself a break - jazz has been really good. But then, just chuck on Moon Sugar sometimes or Lamb of God. It's like, when I'm coming out of this slump and the grey cloud is shifting, what do I need to listen to? And drum and bass man. Nothing in particular, jump up, fuck it, whatever. Some Alix Perez shit, some 1985 [Records] rollers. It depends man, it depends on the severity of the ugly day. I'll go ahead and say that jazz has been the one."
On ‘Universe’ you say: “So many questions that we’ll never get the answers for”. What do you really wish you knew?
"The one thing that I always struggled with when I was younger was the 'What if?'. Whether it be a breakup, something in a friend situation or a life situation, it was always the 'What if that had or hadn't happened?'. I struggled with that for such a long time and I still do a bit because I'm an overthinker. But there are so many questions in my life that we'll never get the answers for. So many twists and turns man. I've had bredrins die that, if they were still here, life would be 100% different. There's relationship stuff, or tunes that I didn't end up jumping on years ago because I was going through a bad patch in life so ended up missing opportunities. There are so many things that I ask myself sometimes, you know, what if it had gone that way?"
What led to the clip of PAV4N being included in the video?
"Well shouts out to Krupa and the Newport famdem, he shot and edited the video. Me, and Norm Oddity spent quite a bit of time at Krupa's house creating, shooting and doing stuff. In them situations we Facetime each other a lot. Whether it be me calling Dabbla, Pav will ring me from Dubai, or Prav will ring me, or Fatty. We're always constantly chatting and communicating. That particular evening we were having a really good night talking about stuff we've done and achieved. I was playing Krupa and Norm some new 140 dubstep shit I've done with Cimm, (shouts out to him from the Wheel & Deal lot). It's a dirty 140 roller. Pav rang so I Whatsapped him the tune for him to play and tell me what he thinks. He was gassed bruv. And obviously Krupa filmed it and decided to leave it in there because it's just a really lovely moment. I think those small moments when your friends celebrate you or you celebrate your friends are incredibly precious, especially when they're the things that make relationships so strong. It was a very connective moment.
"Them moments have got me through depression. Dabbla has rang me in the past when I've been feeling like shit and he's spoken me up, literally. He lifted me with compliments I guess, just reassurance, and we all need that. It isn't a beggy thing, it's just like, 'Shit, I am actually alright. I am a decent MC. I'm not bad.' Some people would say, 'Nah I never question myself anyway,' but I do. I question everything I do. Sometimes you doubt yourself and that was a moment when I was lifted up by Pav. And it's Pav from fuckin’ Foreign Beggars man! He's my brother but he's also Pav from Foreign Beggars, and they've achieved, done and experienced so much. To see him gassing me... I used to message Pav back in the Myspace days. I hollored them man like, 'Yo, listen to my tunes', and they got back to me. Pav was one of the first people that offered me advice in UK hip hop. He was like, 'Go to this open mic night' and 'Yo, I'm gunna hook you up with Skrein.' Then he sent Farma G, Ramson Badbonez, Dubbledge and Skinnyman all to the studio to link with me. Because of Pav so many things happened. I wanted to champion him and give him a nod in the video.”
What’s the backstory to DRS being the choice feature on both projects?
"Me and Del are very open with love and honesty. Every conversation ends with, 'I love you a lot, be safe.' I feel like you should tell people when you love them. We're very close in that sense so when I write really reflective music that digs a bit deeper, I always send it to him anyway. We always send each other new tings we've just made. With this tune in particular, same thing. I let him know I was working on some new shit with Norm Oddity, sent him it, and he said he had an idea for a hook. I said 'Do your ting bruv,' then within 20 minutes he'd sent his hook and verse back. I wanna do an album with Norm at some point so I was gunna ask him to feature on that, but he took this by the reins and jumped on it. I love working with him and he's a legend. His energy is incredible and when I hear him rapping on a tune it lifts me up. It gives me confidence, good energy and that's what I need."
What does the future hold for Illaman?
"The way me and Norm Oddity have always worked is remotely, we've never sat together in a room for a week and built from the ground up. That's something I've been wanting to do with him for 10 years man. We just never got round to doing it, you know how life is. Rappers and producers in the UK can be very long. I'm not normally that long, I'm pretty active with doing shit, but we've never managed to do it. I think it's a good thing because maybe if we'd done it 10 years ago it definitely wouldn't be as strong as would be if we do it next year. So, I'm kinda glad we've done it this way. But yeah, I wanna do an album with him. I want to find a cabin in a valley, (maybe in Wales), in the middle of nowhere with some woods, a bit of water nearby, a little river, and just sit with him for two weeks. Eat, cook food, smoke weed and just write together, process, talk about life and create. So that's definitely gunna happen at some point.
"Me, Dabz and Sumgii have got an album almost finished which is... fucking yeah. Me and Dabz are on the top of our game at the minute. We're both rapping well and collaborating well so that album is like 90% there. Then we've got the new PENGSHUi album which we literally just got the masters back two days ago and it's leveled up so much. Basically, in this lockdown I've made about 40 tunes at home because I've taught myself to record at home properly. I've been banging out shit with a sick producer called Andre D who's making straight New-York-boom-bap-sample-heavy-Mobb-Deep-Alchemist-type-fucking-barsy-tunes. I've done about 13 joints with him, got an EP with Footsie ready, got another half an EP with Norm done. Just a lot of music basically. And hopefully gigging at some point again this year, going to Japan to have some sushi."
final message for the masses?
"Make sure you tell people you love that you love them. Every day. Make it uncomfortable bruv. Your best mates, whoever. If someone makes you happy, if someone gives you good energy, if someone uplifts you, let them know. Tell them, give them that energy back. Not enough men tell each other they love each other. Nuff of my pals don't. I force them like, 'Love you bruv...', I'll be on the phone to them and they won't say it back. I know they do, but 'I'm a bit of a man.' Fuck that. So yeah, just tell people you love them man. Let them know how important they are to you because life is incredibly precious and short. One day (touch wood) you might regret not saying it more. And 'What ifs' are a cunt. So, don't do 'What ifs'."