Half way en-route to meet Kieron Ifill I’m hit with a rather worrying realisation – I’ve never actually seen a photo of what he looks like. Unlike a lot of artists these days, this isn’t down to him being caught up in trying to create some kind of feeble air of enigma – rather there just simply aren’t many pictures of him knocking about. A call is placed to a mutual friend of ours and thankfully by the time I arrive at Dalston’s rather empty Efes pool hall I’m able to spot him quickly. We’re meeting to talk about ‘Insecurities’, his forthcoming EP for Kyle Hall’s Wild Oats label that should take Ifill from being a talented producer who still spends his days teaching English at a North London pupil referal unit and into the kind of vaunted acclaim that his talents have long deserved.
That’s not to say that international recognition has ever been his aim. For the impossibly humble and good natured Ifill, enjoying music for its own sake has been the name of the game since he was a kid. A life long resident of Tottenham in North London, he tells me that with a Reggae musician father and a record collecting mum, “it was just normal to have the radio on, music was just part of our life.” Growing up he progressed from some early experiments assembling “pots on the kitchen table and just banging away on them like they were drums” into brief dalliances with saxophone and piano at school that were curtailed when he switched to a mixed sex college and, “discovered clubs”. Despite this he remained an avid listener and collector of music, often saving his lunch money to buy Jungle and Drum & Bass records from now defunct local shop Unity – with LTJ Bukem and DJ SS some of his early favourites. As soulful, Jazz-informed House now forms his most visible recorded output, I’m intrigued to know what lasting influence Jungle had on the young Ifill. “It was the drum programming that really intrigued me and how you could get really aggressive feelings from something quite soft”, something which also crosses over into his enduring love for Grime.
His early record buying coincided with an interest in DJ’ing – an interest he initially had to develop with very limited resources. “No one had decks, I had like a set up with cassette, radio and turntable. The highlight of my year would be on my brother’s birthday when his friends would come over and I’d get to move the system in to the front room and they’d be chilling there and I’d get to play my records one after the other.” Eventually him and his mother saved enough together to buy a pair of decks and Ifill began recording mixes whenever he had the chance, before finally coming of age as a selector via a monthly residency at Camden’s Jazz Café for his friend Paul Aaron’s UK Soul Jam night. Here, often asked to play for hours on end to warm up the venue, he learnt valuable lessons about structuring and assembling a set that have stayed with him to this day. “Even if you don’t care about the crowd, playing for that length of time means you have to assemble music skillfully so you can keep yourself and other people entertained for that length of time. I heard an interview with Frankie Knuckles by Benji B and he said that when you’re a resident DJ, you’re a DJ in a place every night DJ’ing. He said he used to have to play for four hours a night sometimes five times a week and he’d have to play records sometimes that he didn’t even like. He said the guys who play for an hour, hour and a half now have got it easy and I think there is something in having to go through these long hauls, it does make you slightly more rounded. You wanna do your part and make sure the vibe is strong.”
As well as inspiring his versatility and endurance as a DJ, his stint at Jazz Café also refined his tastes as a selector and a producer – with stalwarts of British Neo-Soul such as Omar and Marsha Ambrosius passing through to play. Having begun to produce DnB at school on Reason, he eventually settled into aiming for the heights of American beat luminaries such as “Dilla, Madlib and Hi-Tek”, all while trying to, “work in elements of what I considered Soul into my music.” It took a while for Ifill to gain confidence in his abilities, admitting that his first experiments, “were wack cos I wasn’t sampling because I didn’t really know what I was doing”. He pushed on past this and reeled out a number of Beats oriented projects – mainly for his own personal consumption, with 2009’s ‘A New Path’ released in conjunction with Kiwi vocalist LP, finding his spaced out Slum Village style beats marking his first official release. Remixes and appearances on compilations followed, but it wasn’t until 2012 that he first got a piece of wax to himself. Released on WotNot after Ifill began talking to Jed Joseph (aka. JJ Mumbles) from the label on Twitter about the 2011 riots that were ripping apart the local area in which they both lived. The ‘Theme For A Pariah’ EP was a smoothly flowing collection of melodic and polyrhythmic Hip-Hop and House styles that really got the ball rolling for Ifill’s career.
An EP for Dutch label INI followed in 2013, before this year saw him really build momentum with ‘Bordeaux’ out again on WotNot. The latter came with a vibe heavy remix of the title track from Broken Beat maestro Kaidi Tatham, an artist who’s a shared favourite of Ifill and Kyle Hall’s. Rather unbelievably around a decade or so Hall’s senior, the fresh faced Ifill still speaks about the young Wild Oats boss with the utmost respect: “He’s a true believer of music and in quality, he’s very considered when it comes to putting out music”. Hall first approached him online after hearing the ‘Umbra’ EP for INI, although the level-headed Ifill was a little skeptical at first. “I had to check – is this the real Kyle Hall? It was, we swapped emails and just chatted. At that point I wasn’t even thinking about making a record for him, I was just like cool, someone who I respect digs what I do – that matters.” Their online friendship eventually led to a limited 12″ being put out with two tracks Ifill had been sitting on for a while, ‘Insecurities’ and ‘GWRH’. Hall would send video clips to Ifill of crowds around the world losing it when he played these tracks, with the positive response prompting him to make the remaining tunes that form the EP. Despite the record being only a matter of days away, Ifill still can’t quite believe that its all come together, “it’s a super blessed opportunity – if you think of how many people make music every day and of how many demos he gets sent every day and it was just off me and him having conversations about music. I’m really lucky.”
Opening with ‘The Story of HER Life’, its clear to anyone who’s been following Ifill over the last few years that the EP represents a step up. Like all the best Soul vocals, the acapella Ifill plucked “from a 20 pence basement bargain” is both vulnerable and powerful at once, with added emotion layered on by insistent House sub bass, ascendant rhodes and piano licks. A fist pumper with feeling, Ifill describes how the track’s lyrics hold actual meaning for him. “I’ve had conversations with women who’ve expressed the same sentiment. Its not the story of my life, I’m not looking for a man but its the story of their lives and for the vocalist its the story of her life”. Elsewhere on the record he borrows the chords from Crystal Waters’ club classic ‘Gypsy Woman’ for ‘GWRH’ – a sunkissed hip shaker with a sample which I warn might attract his first bit of internet criticism. “They’re entitled to that kind of opinion”, he replies rather nonplussed – adding that the track was actually made around five years ago. The likes of ‘Insecurities’, ‘Gratitude’ and ‘Yellow’ meanwhile find Ifill adopting various classic US sounds – from parping Master At Work-esque horns, to buoyant Boo Williams’ style rubbery basslines, with all three tracks already receiving heavy rotation from a number of his peers. Its easily the most club centric body of work we’ve heard from him, although Ifill still sees his appreciation of Jazz as being a big influence on the record. “To me there’s a lot of similarities between House music and Jazz music – the duration of the tracks, the fact there’s almost like a standard length. The litmus test is always if I can bring it in and it sounds like it fits, whether in terms of tempo or the quality of the music or just the groove of it.”
Although there are few guarantees in the music industry, it seems a very safe assumption that ‘Insecurities’ is going to be the record that tips Ifill’s career as a producer over the threshold. For someone’s who’s previously been succesfully juggling a demanding day job with producing it does bring up some concerns.”I think having a job allows you to not have to worry about what the music does outside of make you happy. If I’ve got a job that allows me to pay my council tax and keep me stocked in Pringles and orange juice and muesli, I haven’t got to worry about a record selling this amount or getting this amount of bookings.” Despite his reservations, he’s starting to come around to the idea of taking music full time. “There’s a level of practicality, but the older I get I realise I shouldn’t worry about money too much. If the time came where there was an opportunity for me to tour and constantly make music and meet awesome people and go travelling, then that experience would trump my job at the moment.”
‘Insecurities’ is out soon on Wild Oats. You can pre-order your copy here. K15 meanwhile, plays comm•une at Dance Tunnel in London this Friday alongside Max Graef and Shanti Celeste, tickets for that one here.
Interview: Christian Murphy
Photography: Alexander McBride Wilson