Interview | Billy Dukes

2018 will forever be a landmark year in the history of Billy Dukes. The duo from southeast London comprised of Intalekt and GeeFree have gained attention and plaudits for their implementation of a soulful, jazz-inspired Hip Hop sound, culminating in the release of their debut project The Intervention in May.

Since then, they’ve performed to a sold-out audience at their headline show in July and continue to raise awareness of their contribution to a seemingly thriving UK scene at present.

Billy Dukes sat down with to talk about their formation, how their debut project came to fruition and how the soulful sound can once again flourish in the mainstream.

NMJ: First of all, I have to ask where the name Billy Dukes derives from?

Intalekt: “With ‘Billy’, we tried to come up with a very common name to signify the common man. The Dukes are just protectors of the royals and we’re all royal in our own right.”

NMJ: How did your musical relationship start and why did you decide to become Billy Dukes as oppose to being individuals that worked with each other?

GeeFree: “I first heard It Is What It Is and I thought that was something I’d never heard from the scene at all, just in terms of the musicality and production. We had a mutual friend who knew I was a big fan of Intalekt’s so we exchanged details and got talking. We got in a session and Intalekt was ready for me to come in and be me and I was just rattled! From that one session, I realised it was sick to be collaborating but we’re also brothers and we’ve shared the same path so it made everything easier. Soon, it wasn’t us linking up to have a session, I was just going to check the homie and music was a bonus. That was the beauty of Billy Dukes – everything you hear is how we are, so, how we came about was making a collection of tunes and realising that this can’t just be a collaboration anymore, it’s bigger than [just] a collaboration. It even went from Gee and Intalekt making tunes to ‘let’s become a duo’.”

Intalekt: “The way I was introduced to Gee was via [R-Kay’s] Groove Gems 2 and I feel like that verse that he dropped on ’Stones’, that really touched my life. It just came at the right time. This was pre-It Is What It Is. I was very fresh to the scene at that point and then I heard ’Stones’ and from there I was a fan of Gee’s.“

GeeFree: “I was rattled during his headline show! He’s doing thank yous – and by that time we hadn’t even spoken properly, I just knew him as this brother that had just killed the show – [and Intalekt says] “[Shout out] Gee,” and I was like, ‘What?!’. I was rattled!”

Intalekt: “Looking back at it, it was quite an interesting moment because he didn’t know how much of a part of the process he played in [It Is What It Is] and this was before we’d even collaborated. The first session was actually the beginning of ‘Sid Vicious’ and we didn’t even know it. That was actually just going to be for him, solely for him, and then we revisited that later. I think it makes it a lot easier when you admire a person’s work, so you kind of know where you want them to go as well.”

Geefree: “This is the first time he and I have met, so we’re getting into the session and he’s made [‘Sid Vicious’] and I was like, ‘He really knows my style’. So, it took me a while to settle in because I was so rattled that this guy’s made something [that’s perfect for me]. I realised I couldn’t do this on my own and I already came with the notion that Intalekt can bar because I’ve heard him bar, so it’s going to be me and him, but I got told that it’s not that.”

Intalekt: “It was in another session for ‘It’s Over’ – I’d made it for him – and I was just doing the final touches and he was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I was like, ‘My job’s done. What are you doing?’ And he was like, ‘Shut up, write, cuz!’ It just started flowing from there. After that, I guess I just found my place writing and stuff. I think what was nice was having someone whose pen I admired being honest with me with regards to my writing. It was the best way to be introduced to writing with this project.”

NMJ: Is that something we’re going to see more of?

GeeFree: “He’s got no choice.”

NMJ: You recently released your debut project The Intervention; can you give an insight as to the process behind it and the overall response to the project?

Intalekt: “Can we talk about before [the project came out]?”

NMJ: Yeah.

Intalekt: “Before, it was definitely excitement [that I was feeling]. I was, personally, excited to find out what people and my peers felt about my writing style. I was excited for people to hear the new sound I’d adopted with Gee’s influence because I’ve listened to some of those sounds and I don’t feel like I could have done them alone. Tempo-wise and whatever – I could have tackled some of those tempos – but what actually came out was definitely due to having him in there.”

NMJ: You must have had his sound in mind?

Intalekt: “You know what I’m saying? I don’t think I would have ever come up with that without Gee, so I was quite interested to see how people felt about that. Obviously just nerves in general. I just wanted it to have the best start it could and I feel like the singles did a lot for that.“

NMJ: Didn’t you have a premiere on CLASH?

Intalekt: “[Laughs] Yeah, one guy…”

NMJ: Yeah, I thought I saw that. That must have helped?

Intalekt: “[Laughs] Yeah. It was just amazing for the singles to be received the way they were. It was a wicked experience for both of us, I feel like the singles set us up nicely for the project.”

GeeFree: “Prior to the project’s release, I was just happy to make music with Inta and even when we were seven or eight tracks deep we weren’t even thinking about a project. We’d probably got about nine tracks in and we realised we actually have to make this a project. He’s got beats, so we’re going through songs and we get to about 12 songs and we started talking about it properly. It wasn’t until the music was done and we started doing the preparation for the release that I realised this music is a lot bigger than keeping it in our circle and we have to do everything in our power to get it out there. The response from other people has just been crazy and that’s what made me feel like we had to do it justice by doing it right and giving it the best push it could. It’s always been about what my people thought first, but other people come and tell me it’s a top album, one of the best Hip Hop albums to come out of the UK.”

NMJ: You’ve had a few chances through live performances and the headline show to gauge the response in person, so what have you concluded?

GeeFree: ”The listening party and the headline show – those were two things that made us understand just how important the music is, everyone respected the music that day. Then the headline show – the response after that was crazy. The response was so good that we can’t stop now.”

NMJ: I can imagine there’s a lot to discuss when working together on a full-length project; what are the easiest and most difficult aspects of creating a project as a pair?

Intalekt: “The music, the music was easy. Just creating and having someone to bounce ideas off was helpful. When I’m by myself, I second-guess everything. For example, ’Spirits’ is about seven tracks. If I was left to my own devices it would probably be about 40.”

GeeFree: “The most difficult aspects… The first part – throughout the whole album, everything was smooth, until this one time. Looking back on it, you think, ‘how did this thing become such a problem?’ It lasted for 48 hours, but I’m telling you it was the most stressful thing at that time, I couldn’t think about anything else. ‘Forgive Me’ – at the end of the album – we knew that track was supposed to be the most perfect track. Everything is supposed to be perfect, but we put special attention on that. It was the essence of what we were trying to capture.”

Intalekt: “This is the essence of why Gee and Inta met, this was the sole purpose, to create this moment.”

GeeFree: “We didn’t even know what to call it, but we knew this moment was going to be on the album. I do my verse, Dani [Sofiya] does her verse, I go yard and come back to listen to it and he’s added some strings. These strings last for like 10 seconds but I couldn’t get myself to like the strings. Usually, if I say I’m not really feeling this, he’ll say he’s not really feeling it either. When I said I didn’t really like these strings, he said he loves these strings. I’m a rapper and I’ve got an input as to how he makes the tracks but I’m not a producer, he’s the producer, so I always wanted to give him free reign, but for some reason or another I could not let it go. It was ruining it for me. He said he couldn’t see the tune without the strings.”

“So, we have a discussion about it and he said, ‘If it means so much to you, I’ll take them off.’ I said I was so sorry and that I felt bad because he’s the producer. I’ll take these words to my grave – he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get over it easier than you’ll be able to.’ Cool. So, I’m trying to regain the friendship and I’m realising he’s got over it really quickly – everything’s calm. It comes to the mixing session and I had to go home but he’d stayed there to do the mixing and mastering. I’m listening to the mix and it’s coming up to the part where the strings shouldn’t be and I hear the strings but the strings are so low and mixed so well that I can’t even say anything.

Intalekt: “[Laughs] Listen, I couldn’t sleep, I was thinking about these strings. I was like, ‘Why doesn’t he like them?! I put my heart and soul into this piece. Why doesn’t he like these strings?’”

GeeFree: “So, when I heard them, I was like, ‘The strings are there!’ Then I started listening to them and I was like, ‘These strings are beautiful, fam.’”

“Also, figuring out whether we were going to involve management or do it on our own, I think that was probably the hardest part of the whole process. It became a big thing to decide to do it on our own because it’s a big commitment to think about PR, radio, all these things.”

Intalekt: “Getting to learn about certain things and what’s available to us and what we can actually do by ourselves.”

NMJ: I don’t think it’s ever a question of independent artists being able to do things by themselves, as you say, it’s just about time and having the finances to really do what you’re trying to do.

Intalekt: “And finding people that believe in your shit.”

GeeFree: “We go into meetings and we’re listening to what they say they can offer us and we’re thinking that we can do this ourselves. I think about all these people under management and how much they’re paying for the results they’re getting and I think about what we’ve done. You grow up thinking that the only way for you to get somewhere is by putting money into these people and letting them do their work, but it’s not the case.”

Intalekt: “It depends on certain situations, but what we learnt was there’s a lot of money we don’t have to spend. I think, for example, the radio plugger thing. If the music is crack it’ll find its way.”

NMJ: I’ve seen the Billy Dukes sound described as a “soulful” brand of Hip Hop; do you think that type of sound in the UK is often overlooked, especially when compared to Grime or Trap/Drill?

Intalekt: “I think it is on a major scale, but I feel like there are a few people who are out there. The soulful sound is not just a soulful sound, it’s very much more cultural, there is a way of life to it. We live in a microwave era where it’s in and out in a matter of seconds and you want more. Soulful music is slow-cooked, it’s timeless. When people get it it’s replenishing to the soul. As far as it not being as popular as it should be, I think it needs a platform – I’m not sure the platform it’s going to need, but I feel like there’s just more that can be done in order for it to be out there in the UK, but it’s got its place. I feel like it’s coming up, there are a few artists trying to push the boundaries.”

GeeFree: “I think commercially it’s probably being overlooked due to Grime, Trap/Drill, but when you go to the shows and they’re packed out it makes you realise the numbers are there, it’s just about finding that one thing that’s going to elevate it to that level commercially.”

Intalekt: “There is a space for it. People shouldn’t compromise, man. I feel like that’s what ‘Pledge Allegiance’ is all about, especially the end of Gee’s verse. Don’t let the tastemakers control what you believe in, stay true to you. It doesn’t have to be just in regards to music, just stay true to you as a person, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Don’t just rock with something just because so-and-so has told you to listen to this and enjoy it. That’s the problem – people are telling people to listen to this and you need to enjoy it and if you don’t enjoy it then you’re not cool.”

NMJ: It’s interesting what you say about tastemakers because if you see it from the other side, their whole livelihood – brand and reputation – is based on being able to pick the people that are worth listening to. They’re obviously under a certain amount of pressure to do certain things because of what’s going on in the background that average observers don’t understand. So, I suppose there’s a bit of sympathy for them as we don’t know what pressures they’re under from other people.

Intalekt: “I hear you on that, but I feel like taking that chance is what makes a tastemaker great. For example, Trevor Nelson is a great, no one can chat to him. No one can chat to Jenny Francis. You’ve got your Gilles Petersons – they take chances and they’re revered, you know what I mean? These are greats who took a chance on a certain sound. No matter how old you are or whatever, you know these names. When it’s all said and done, certain DJs, certain tastemakers are just going to go, they’re going to fade away.”

Do you think social media has affected how effective a tastemaker can be because they’re seeing the things that are trending, rather than not having the pressure of being able to see what’s popular?

GeeFree: “People like what they like and they also have the pressures of playing what’s trending and what they want to hear. It’s about taking chances. Enough times you’ll hear people play something dope and then straight after that they’ll play something that charted in the Top 10 because they have to so their show is more relevant. It doesn’t have to be the case; your show can still be relevant if you stay within your niche. If you’re so fixed on your craft and you love what you do, people will feel that and I think that’s what people don’t get these days. They think it’s all about the numbers or it’s all about the profile and it’s destroying the music.”

Intalekt: “Going back to what you said about social media, it’s definitely made the pool a lot bigger but the process is still the same. I think it’s even worse when you’ve got social media to help you sift through things, you filter things a lot easier now, but you still find the same results as your peers. It’s mad. Everyone has a platform now; it’s just a matter of [tastemakers] going through it.”

NMJ: Back in the day with DJs, it used to be about who was playing the rarest records.

GeeFree: “For certain man, it’s still the case. If I go somewhere and my brothers don’t know [a song], but it’s dope, we’re most definitely going to all your next shows.”

NMJ: You’ve had your headline show and a few other live performances recently – how important was it for you to make sure the album translated well live?

GeeFree: “Intalekt made something very clear at the end of the process and when we started thinking about how it would be live. I was already prepared to have bare sessions to make this sound dope live, but the music was made to play live. It’s made to be played live, which is why we enjoy it so much when we play it live, especially with our band.

NMJ: What have you guys got planned for the future?

GeeFree: “I think we both agreed that there’s a lot of projects that we want to do. Billy Dukes will always be Billy Dukes and we’re working on a next thing. He’s still got an Intalekt project that he needs to run, I’ve still got a Gee project that I need to run.”

NMJ: What stages are these individual projects at and how hard is it to think about solo work and Billy Dukes stuff at the same time?

Intalekt: “For me, trying to do both Just meshed to be the same. I try and cater toward whatever the artist wants or whatever the artist is trying to convey. The Billy Dukes stuff is an extension of me, so it’s nothing too crazy in regards to that.”

GeeFree: “There will be elements of my tape that you will hear from Billy Dukes as well, but there are certain tracks on The Intervention that you wouldn’t find on my tape purely because I couldn’t see myself on them, but because we were working together Intalekt made that happen. On my own project, I can’t bring those elements because I don’t have Intalekt throughout.”

Intalekt: “I’m going to drop an instrumental tape – The Adventures of Master Splinter. Hopefully, that will come out before the end of this year.

And what about yours, Gee?

GeeFree: “Definitely next year. I’ll be looking for next year summer, probably.”

Intalekt: “There will be some Billy Dukes singles in that time, you know? We’ve got more videos coming from The Intervention.”

GeeFree: “Definitely. We’ve got a massive, massive collaboration coming up with a few of the homies, that tune is going to be mad. You’re a Grime head, innit?

NMJ: Of course.

GeeFree: “Remember back in the day…”

NMJ: 19 man on the tune? Eight bars each?

GeeFree: “That kind of tune. Watch out for that. Hopefully, that comes out this year.”

Billy Dukes debut project The Intervention is available now.


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