“Do you really need to ask?” they reply, when I wonder if they think jazz – and their self-described jazztronica – has a colour.

Even the Afro sported by producer NK-OK, the chattier half of the talented London-based pair, is dyed a bright cerulean, as it was when they dropped their first release, 2016’s groundbreaking EP “Blue Skies”.

“That EP started our journey,” says NK-OK (Namali Kwaten), as multi-instrumentalist Mr DM (David Mrakpor) nods his agreement. “But we’re still looking to the sky. On the new record, we’re welcoming old friends as well as new ones and embracing some of the themes we’ve used throughout our career. At the same time, we’re experimenting with textures and time signatures, and meeting in the middle to create something new.”

Having met at community music college as teenagers and shared influences – Coltrane, Monk, Hancock (Mr DM); MF Doom, J Dilla, A Tribe Called Quest (NK-OK) – they became bedroom producers, crafting a blend of boom-bap beats and jazz-funk hooks played on keys, guitars, horns or whatever else took Mr DM’s fancy. They remixed tracks for Dua Lipa and Rag’n’Bone Man and provided backing sessions to some of London’s freshest young acts, welcoming the likes of rapper Kojey Radical and saxophonist Nubya Garcia into a bedroom fitted with state-of-the-art equipment and painted, well, blue.

But wasn’t until Blue Lab Beats put their sultry mish-mash of American references and London attitude, their brand of edutaining Black joy, into the world under their own name that the buzz properly started. Today, it is louder than ever. Besides releasing a handful of great albums, crowned by “Blue Eclipse” (“The fullest celebration of their distinctive sound,” declared The Guardian), Blue Lab Beats won a 2022 Grammy for their production work on Angelique Kidjo’s “Mother Nature”. They appeared in and contributed a key track to the feted 2023 British film “Rye Lane”. They’ve amassed tens of millions of album streams, and toured the UK, Europe, Japan and elsewhere to wild, all-stops-out acclaim.

“Seeing people react positively to our music, whether it’s at Glastonbury festival or a club in Berlin has really helped shape our creative direction,” says Mr DM, whose preternatural musical skills have seen him hailed as one of the finest instrumentalists of his generation.

Two tracks on “Blue Eclipse”, the fizzing, hard-hitting ‘Nights in Tokyo’ (featuring a long-time collaborator, the saxophonist Kaidi Akinnibi) and the glitchy but pretty “Cherry Blossom” (featuring guitarist Ben Jones and jazz flautist Parthenope) are inspired by time spent in Japan, hanging out in late night sake bars, getting into anime. Another track, “Sunset in LA”, all “Rockit”-era electro-funk, is a work of kaleidoscopic splendour and free-flowing imagination. “We haven’t actually been to Los Angeles.” NK-OK flashes a grin. “It was just where we felt we were being taken to.”

They tell me their touchstone for “Blue Eclipse” was Stevie Wonder’s iconic, 1977 album “Songs in the Key of Life”. “The way Stevie changes genres so completely across that album while still sounding totally like himself really connected with us,” says NK-OK. “He gave us the courage to change lanes but keep a common thread.”

Blue Lab Beats. Photo: Joseph Abbey-Mensah / Blue Note Records.

A sense of freedom, of asserting the right to fail, were crucial to the boundary-leaping. When a crashed computer meant they lost the files for an in-the-zone jam they would title “Never Doubt”, they had no choice but to rebuild it from scratch. It came together stronger, even more precise than before. “If we followed the doubt then it wouldn’t have happened,” says Mr DM, who with NK-OK lends drifting vocalese to the languid interlude “Sky Paradise”. “We set out to challenge ourselves and ended up feeling triumphant.”

Their fecund team of collaborators helped, dropping by the Blue Lab home studio to jam, share, create. Among them, rapper/producers Jay Prince and IDK and keyboard wizard Nico Harris on the slam-dunking single, “Say Wow”. Horn players Akinnibi, Poppy Daniels, Camilla George and Richie Seivwright lend fire to “Guava”, a track whose highlife guitar lines might be reimagining “Pineapple”, the statement track from their 2018 debut album “XOver”. Longtime fraterniser Kojey Radical is there on “Take Time”, spitting lyrics alongside singer Daley; Poppy Daniels’ trumpet slaloms smoothly through the kinetic electro-jazz of the title track.

“We wanted to have a balance of names that people might recognise but also to use a bunch of great new artists,” says NK-OK. “We were new artists once! They all helped us go where we wanted to go.”

The sky is still the limit.

Read on… Jacob Collier – Jazz Messiah?

Jane Cornwell is an Australian-born, London-based writer on arts, travel and music for publications and platforms in the UK and Australia, including Songlines and Jazzwise. She’s the former jazz critic of the London Evening Standard.

Header Image: Dalong Ye-Lee / Blue Note Records.